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How to Work with Sign Language Interpreters

Updated on December 16, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola has worked and volunteered for several agencies serving the deaf and hard of hearing community

When the right handshape goes up and down against the left handshape, the sign for "interpret" is formed.
When the right handshape goes up and down against the left handshape, the sign for "interpret" is formed. | Source

The process which sign language interpreters use to help hearing people and the deaf communicate is a fascinating and unique process.

So you are meeting with a deaf person for the first time. His primary language is American Sign Language (ASL),and you have booked an interpreter.

A hundred questions may be going through your mind. Do I need to talk slowly? Do I talk to the interpreter or the deaf person? Will the interpreter keep the information shared in the meeting confidential?

Fortunately, accredited sign language interpreters are highly trained and skilled professionals that adhere to the strict code of ethics of the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf (RID). Most have graduated from interpreter training programs at a college or university level. Some are the children of deaf adults (CODA) or have had a deaf person in their family. Interpreters are committed to faithfully interpret all that they hear, facilitate communication between hearing and deaf people, and keep everything said confidential.

Determining if a sign language interpreter is needed

Deaf people are a diverse group with a variety of communication styles. The communication style is affected by factors such as when they became deaf and whether they were educated in an oral or signing school. Some deaf people read lips, while others who are late-deafened (became deaf after acquiring language) benefit from real time captioners – specially trained typists who transcribe everything that is said. Only about 10 percent of deaf people sign.

Some hearing people think that writing notes back and forth with deaf people is an adequate method of communication. This process tends to be long and laborious. For some deaf people, English is a second language.

Many deaf people are able to lipread and may speak English well. While lipreading may be OK for general conversation, it requires intense concentration and can be tiring. Lipreading is difficult. Even the most skilled lipreaders can only get 25% - 30% of what is said and look at the context of the conversation to fill in the blanks.

So, which communication method is best? It depends on the deaf individual. Deaf people will usually specify whether they need a sign language interpreter.

An example of a hearing person meeting interpreters and a deaf person for the first time - St. Petersburg College

Volunteer vs. professional interpreting

In an ideal world, only interpreters that are properly trained and certified by RID would be used when needed. In reality, there is an extreme shortage of qualified people. Interpreters must be booked weeks – sometimes months – head of time. As a general rule of thumb, certified interpreters or interpreters working towards certification should be used whenever possible. Certified interpreters are essential is some areas, such as the courts and legal system, or when dealing with medical professionals.

I am fairly fluent in sign and have had some interpreter training, but am not skilled enough to act as an interpreter in most situations. People often ask me to interpret as a volunteer, but most of the time I say no and tell them how to book a professional interpreter.

I am not qualified to explain to a deaf person that they have cancer or share a lawyer's legal advice. I could be held legally responsible for that kind of interpreting and may even be forced to appear in court. If a deaf person feels comfortable with me as an interpreter and asks me to do something simple, like interpreting a phone call or a casual conversation, I might say yes. I am not skilled enough to do much beyond that.

People who are fluent in sign language should carefully consider the legal implications of volunteering to be an interpreter, even if the request comes from a deaf person who trusts them to interpret accurately.

A humerous look at a fictional interpreting situation

Using an interpreter for the first time

If you are a hearing person using a sign language interpreter for the first time, here are some tips and suggestions on making the process easier. The deaf person ultimately knows what they will need, and the interpreter may make suggestions on the best setup for the assignment.

Be sure to provide any documentation such as scripts or notes to the interpreter before the meeting or event. The more information the interpreter receives about what is going on, the better prepared the interpreter will be.

The Venue

Most times, the venue for the interpreting assignment is set. If the hearing person has a choice of room, however, there are a few things that can help facilitate the interpreting process. The background behind the interpreter should be a solid color, or relatively free of distracting patterns or pictures. If possible, the area should be free of distractions such as ringing phones and people walking back and forth.


The venue should be a well lit room. If the lights are turned down for a visual presentation, the presentation should be captioned. If not, the interpreter may need a standing, focused light next her so that she can be seen.

The flexible head of a lamp can be bent down to focus on the interpreter's hands and face. The focused beam should not interfere with visual presentations or bother other people present.

Seating Arrangements

Ideally, a deaf person should be seated directly across from both the interpreter hearing person. The deaf person be able to see the hearing person speak and view their body language. If the setting is a classroom or a stage in an auditorium, the deaf person should be seated in the front row. The interpreter can sit opposite the deaf person or stand next to the speaker. If the speaker is on a stage, the speaker should be within the deaf person’s range of vision.

Respect the Interpreter’s Role

An interpreter is at an assignment to facilitate communication with the deaf person, not to chat during the assignment, be a fountain of information about deafness, or to be a CPR dummy.

Communication Tips

Speak at a normal pace and volume. The interpreter will ask for clarification or tell you to slow down if needed. An interpreted conversation will take little longer than a verbal conversation. Speak directly to the deaf person in the first person. Though the deaf person will be looking at the interpreter most of the time, they may glance at you to assess your body language and mood. Research has found that deaf people have more highly developed peripheral vision than hearing people.


Keep in mind that interpreters are required to faithfully share the spoken word and any sounds, including noises and things like your cell phone ringing and your side conversation with your spouse about what to have for dinner that night. I once was doing some volunteer interpreting during a serious lecture when a balloon popped.

The loud bang was so startling that many people laughed. The deaf group were puzzled by this – what was so funny? I explained what happened as the crowd settled down. In meetings, allow only one person to speak at a time to avoid confusion.


A sign language interpreter is bound by the code of ethics to keep everything about the deaf person and the assignment confidential. Keep in mind that she won’t answer your personal questions about the deaf person or discuss what happened during the assignment.

Time Constraints

If the assignment is longer than two hours, a second interpreter may be needed. Sign language interpreting is cognitively demanding so breaks are needed at regular intervals.

Another humerous look at common myths about sign and interpreting

Camera on top of a screen for VRI
Camera on top of a screen for VRI

Video Remote Services (VRI)

Sometimes interpreters can be accessed from another location. A video camera is mounted on top of the screen at the interpreter's location and also at the deaf person's location. Both can see each other and the hearing person on the screen, enabling the interpreting process to take place.

Advantages and disadvantages of remote video interpreting

Video Relay Services

Video relay services (VRS) offer access to sign language interpreters for phone calls via the Internet or a videophone.

For More Information

An interpreting agency, state agency for the deaf and hard of hearing, or deaf organization can provide more information on the interpreting.

© 2013 Carola Finch


Submit a Comment

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    You are right. Sorry about the omission. I actually did an article on VRI months ago and have a picture of a camera used, so I should have mentioned it Here in Canada, we don't have VRS, so I think I confused the two terms. I have corrected it. Thanks so much for your input!

  • profile image

    Jessica 5 years ago

    Great piece! Just a quick correction, though, when a live interpreter is unavailable, VRI may be used (Video Remote Interpreting), not VRS. VRS (Video Relay Service) is only used for phone calls between hearing and deaf people in different places. :)