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Why Hearing Children Should Not Be Used As Sign Language Interpreters

Updated on June 18, 2017

As a disability advocate and writer who monitors news about the deaf, I have observed that police, school personnel, hospital staff, and other medical care professionals tend to rely on the hearing children of deaf family members to act as sign language interpreters.

In some cases, deaf parents may rely on their hearing children to be their interpreters at the bank, in the store, at a doctor's offices, and other situations. According to Divine, an online community for and by people with a disability, this practice can be embarrassing and harmful for hearing children.

Some members of the signing deaf community find this practice unacceptable and demand access to certified sign language interpreters. Some have launched lawsuits, claiming that the lack of access to qualified sign language interpreters violated their rights to effective communication under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

There is little information about how hearing children are impacted by having to act as sign language interpreters. However, there have been a number of studies done on how children are effected by acting as a foreign language interpreter role with family members and professionals such as research published in the International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare.

Based on various studies and the stories of hearing children with deaf family members, here are some reasons why hearing children should not be sign language interpreters.

Children are not impartial

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) code of professional conduct mandates that sign interpreters do not take sides. A young girl who witnessed her mother being beaten by her father, for example, will be stressed, upset and angry with her father. She would not be able to be an impartial sign language interpreter for her mother and a police officer taking a report.

When children are expected to interpret bad news, they might try to protect the parents by not sharing or changing information. Hearing children may also have a personal stake in the situation that will influence their interpreting, such as a desire to keep her family from looking bad in the eyes of others. In a domestic violence case, a child may be afraid that her father will go to jail and the family will break up. Children may use their interpreting role to control what information being shared with their parents, potentially creating a power imbalance in the family.

Relevant RID Code of Conduct sections (paraphrased)

Interpreters must be able to:

Be impartial and interpret everything that is said faithfully

Maintain confidentiality about the assignment

Have the skills and knowledge needed for an interpreting situation

Conduct themselves in professional manner

Children are not trained in interpreting techniques or ethical practices

Sign language interpreters are highly trained professionals who have learned special techniques to convey messages faithfully and accurately. Interpreters are also bound by the RID Code of Professional Conduct to keep everything that is said and happens during their assignments confidential. Children are usually unaware of these requirements. They may share sensitive information with family, relatives or friends.

The interpreting experience can have a negative impact on children

Negative emotions such a fear or worry may be stirred up by the interpreting process. Children may feel guilty about knowing inside information and are afraid that something bad will happen to them and/or their families. Children may also feel overwhelmed when they are asked to interpret upsetting news or feel embarrassed when professionals expect them to ask sensitive questions.


Children lack knowledge of appropriate vocabulary or technical terms

Children often do not have the high level of English skills needed for many interpreting situations. For example, The JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, says that children under the age of 12 do not have the vocabulary or understanding of medical terminology needed to translate medical information accurately.

Relying on children as interpreters can have a negative impact on the deaf person

When police, school officials or medical professionals depend a child as an interpreter, the process can have serious repercussions on a deaf person needing interpreter services. For example, a deaf person may not understand his doctor’s diagnosis and miss important information such as treatment options and medication. A child interpreting a policeman's questions may cause an inaccurate police record to go on file. A child may edit or omit information so that they can share their version of what is being said, causing serious consequences for the deaf person.

What To Do When a Deaf Person Requests an Interpreter

There is a shortage of professional sign language interpreters, and interpreters often need to be booked weeks or months in advance. Some state agencies that serve deaf or hard of hearing people have emergency interpreting services or information about services available in the community. Local interpreting agencies and deaf associations may also have this information.

When a live interpreter is not available, video relay services (VRS) can be utilized. Various VRS companies connect hearing and deaf parties via the Internet or a videophone. The interpreter views the deaf consumer on a screen and voices what the deaf person is saying. The deaf person views and responds to the image of the interpreter signing what the hearing person says on the screen, Many service providers in the U.S. such as hospitals have 24/7 access to VRS.

Finding Out More: Cultural Sensitivity Training

Deaf associations, government agencies, and other groups are currently offering training to educate proffesionals such as police, the legal profession, and medical personnel about the need to provide sign language interpreters on request.

For example, a deaf sensitivity training video for police officers encourages officers to call for a certified sign language interpreter when deaf people request this service. Police departments can prepare officers deal with deaf and hard of hearing people through training and providing them with information explaining how to contact an interpreting service provider and/or access video relay services.

The video contains a section on using children as interpreters. It is presented by a signing deaf person with a voiceover.

© 2013 Carola Finch


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  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for sharing.

  • profile image

    BennyRay41 4 years ago

    In the words of Earl Pitts "Wake Up America"! These are fundamental rights for Americans. WAY ahead of immigration reform, gun laws, gay rights, etc.

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for sharing.

  • profile image

    James Petrosky 4 years ago

    I agree by the law that forbidden is not allowance for under minor for their sign language communication with deaf parents , should under minor is off burden to sign language communication with deaf parents for anything alike example food stamp office ,social security office , doctor ,hospital ,police, ambulance , fire department any kind that cannot communication with under minor for sign language ...........required by the law please ask for get the interpter instead under minor ........

    Thank u

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for sharing.

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    leslie garnica 4 years ago

    oh boy i have same plms in arizona where i live in phx arizona i have pull over cop few time one cop is bad i never forgot that one i ask cop take ur tacbboco out ur mouths he say no i say fine my daughter keep recording long time ago i went to judge show the tape and blah blah finally cop got trouble by the law bec i told him i am deaf he laugh so i say never want see him again i file procteion from him ha