Sign Language Interpreter Role | Historic and Current Practice

Sign language interpreters are required under the ADA (Americans with Disability Act) to provide equal access to communication.  What does that mean?  Like a wheel chair ramp is required for a wheel chair users to enter facilities, Deaf people require equal access to spoken/verbal information.  This may be either through a sign language interpreter or another preferred method of equal access unique to each Deaf consumer.  A sign language interpreter role is vital to ensure culturally accurate services.

Sign Language Interpreter Role | Historic Practice

Sign language interpreting is a fairly new field.  It is roughly 25+ years old.  Originally “interpreters” were friends or family members of a Deaf consumer.  Using family members permitted some flexibility assisting Deaf consumers in their daily lives, but it did not guarantee the Deaf consumer privacy or equal access to information.  Friends and family of Deaf consumers are emotionally involved and often filter information about their loved one or the information provided to them.

Can you imagine things happening for you or to you without having a say in it?  Think of the stress that you have when you don’t know what is going on.  For example, you have cancer and are provided several treatment options.  Now, consider that instead of being provided the information directly from the doctor, you are provided it via summary from your mom?  What if your mom made the decision for you and simply told you chemo was the best option?  How would you feel if you were not given the options yourself?  You do not have the opportunity to evaluate all of the options yourself to make a final decision.

Sign Language Interpreter Role | Current Practicesign language interpreter role

Over time, Deaf and Deaf Advocates have fought for equal rights and equal access to communication.  Now the ADA requires a qualified sign language interpreter to be used, and in some states certification and licenses are required.  Sign language interpreters must interpret everything said and heard regardless of their opinion.  If interpreters feel they will be biased in a specific situation, then they must refuse to take the assignment.

Sign Language Interpreter Role | Considerations

Different than a wheel chair ramp, sign language interpreters are not static.  They are humans.  This means human decisions and human errors come into play.

Often, sign language interpreters are asked to “step out of their interpreter role” to provide additional services to a Deaf client.  Those who decline to step out of their role may personally want to help, but they are aware of the boundaries required of sign language interpreters (Code of Professional Conduct).  For example, on the job training should be provided by the expert trainer for a business.  However, often it is assumed that the interpreter can do it all.  Unfortunately, sign language interpreters do not have the experience that a trainer has, and many times Deaf employee are not trained properly.  If the interpreter is focused on the training and not on interpreting, then the Deaf consumer is not receiving equal access to communication.  They are not building a relationship with their new coworkers and/or boss.  In these situations it is not uncommon that issues come up later, and the Deaf employee is blamed.

Besides earning a fair and livable wage, sign language interpreters should never be self-serving.  Reputable sign language interpreters know that stepping out of their role in this manner is inappropriate.  They should educate any consumer who does not understand common practice and the code of professional conduct on what the interpreter may do in each unique setting.

Sign Language Interpreter Role & Equal Access to Communication

In closing, communication can happen at any moment.  Sign language interpreters must be on alert and available to interpret everything being said or heard in order to properly provide equal access to communication.  Interpreters should not assist Deaf clients with other matters or have alternate duties that interfere with equal access to communication.  Interpreters who are busy with other tasks are distracted, become exhausted, and are not available for the Deaf person.  This not only leads to an oppression life-cycle, but it is also not equal access under the ADA.


Additional Resources:
History of Sign Language Interpreting

Interpreting American Sign Language

Photo Credit:

MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review