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The Role of Deaf Interpreters in the Interpreting Process

Updated on July 4, 2016
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Deaf people who are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) provide valuable services by interpreting the gestures and made-up signs of clients with no or limited knowledge of sign into formal ASL. They usually work with hearing sign language interpreters. These specially trained people are called “deaf interpreters.”

Some people confuse the terms “deaf Interpreter” and “sign language interpreter” as meaning the same thing, but they are very different. Sign language interpreters are hearing people who are fluent in sign language and English.

Deaf Interpreters are deaf people who are not only fluent in sign and English, but are expert in deaf communication and culture as well. Deaf interpreters are also better able to understand the "home signs" of deaf clients. Home signs are a sign system that deaf people without a formal language create themselves in order to communicate with their families.

Over the years, professionals in the deaf community have recognized the benefits of using deaf interpreters to convert the gestures of non-signers or those who have limited sign language skills into ASL. If the consumer's signing or gestures are very difficult to understand, the hearing and deaf interpreters work together to try to understand what the consumer is attempting to say.

As experts in visual communication, deaf interpreters understand how to interpret the home signs, gestures, mime, drawings and other types of communication methods used by their deaf consumers and must have extensive knowledge about hearing loss, deaf culture, and the deaf community. To become a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI), deaf interpreters in the U.S. must undergo special training and pass a comprehensive performance and written exam.

Some hearing interpreters are concerned that if they ask for a deaf interpreter, people would perceive the hearing interpreter as not being competent. Many, however, do recognize that a deaf interpreter whose first language is sign may pick up on nuances. body language, and other subtle clues in a deaf person that a hearing interpreter may not. For many hearing sign language interpreters, ASL is a second language.

Code of Professional Conduct

The deaf interpreter abides by the same code of professional conduct and ethics as hearing sign language interpreters such as:

  • Only accept assignments for which they are qualified
    Faithfully conveying the message as accurately as possible
  • Maintaining confidentiality about all aspects of the assignment
  • Remaining impartial
  • Respecting clients and colleagues
  • Conducting themselves in a professional manner
  • Committing to ongoing training and development of their interpreting skills

Deaf consumers generally feel more comfortable when a deaf interpreter is present who understands their unique needs.

Deaf Interpreters may be used in a number of settings such as medical appointments, legal proceedings, parent-teacher conferences, or general meetings.

Types of deaf consumers

  • Deaf young people
  • Deaf people with intellectual disabilities
  • Someone who does not know a formal sign language and communicates through gestures, drawings, home signs, or mime
  • A traumatized deaf victim of a crime
  • A deaf person who does not know ASL but knows a foreign sign language system

Why some deaf people lack formal sign language

Many deaf people choose not to sign. There are also a number of deaf people who do not learn a formal sign language system. I have worked in a life skills program for deaf people and in the deaf community for several years and have found several reasons why deaf people do not learn to sign.

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According to the World Health Organization, many deaf children do not have access to an education in many parts of the world. There are not enough schools for the deaf to meet the demand, and the existing schools often charge fees that are not affordable to poor families.

Sometimes families of deaf people immigrate to other countries as refugees or to seek a better life. The deaf people may know their native sign language system, but are not familiar with ASL. Some people are late-deafened, that is, became deaf after an illness, or exposure to loud noises such as bomb blasts, and do not sign.

Some cultures view deafness as a curse or a sign of the displeasure of their gods. Ashamed, the families of children with profound hearing loss hide them at home. Unfortunately, in some countries, deaf children are also exploited in various ways. Young boys may be kept on the family farm as laborers, while girls are babysitters or housekeepers.

Without communication skills, these deaf children are vulnerable to every kind of abuse and exploitation. In the last few years, there have been numerous media reports of gangs who treated deaf people as slaves in places such as China, Russia, and even in New York City. Deaf people have been forced to sell trinkets, beg on the street, and be pickpockets among other things.

In other cases, some parents and family members are extremely overprotective of their deaf children. They keep their deaf kids at home or accompany them wherever they go. Many of these children are never exposed to sign language or the deaf community. As they grow into adulthood, they struggle to communicate with their families using home signs. Some also lack the life skills they need to live as independent adults because their families insist on doing most things for them.

Spoken Information
Signed Information
Hearing Client ↓
Deaf client ↓
Hearing ASL Interpreter ↓
Deaf interpreter ↓
Deaf Interpreter ↓
Hearing ASL Interpreter ↓
Deaf Client
Hearing Client

The Interpreting Process

  • The deaf interpreter is seated where she can be seen by the non-signing deaf client and the hearing American Sign Language interpreter
  • The hearing client is seated next to the sign language interpreter so that he can make eye contact with the deaf client
  • The deaf client gestures to the deaf interpreter
  • The deaf interpreter converts the gestures or home signs into formal ASL for the hearing interpreter
  • The hearing sign language interpreter interprets the ASL from the deaf interpreter into voiced English for the hearing client

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Public education on deaf interpreters is needed

Over the last few years, people who work with deaf people have recognized the benefits of using deaf interpreters and have provided specialized training in this growing field.

Some deaf advocates are calling on the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf, the regulatory agency for sign language interpreters, to update their current policies on deaf interpreters. They are also pushing for more use of deaf interpreters in general.

Much of the public, however, remain unaware of this service. Occasionally, there are cases where deaf people are left to languish in prison or are released from police custody because law enforcement and the courts don t know how to communicate with deaf people with limited or no ASL.

More public education is needed for medical practitioners, school administrators and teachers, parents of deaf children, the legal system and the general public on the services available through deaf interpreters.

© 2013 Carola Finch

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