Sign Language Interpreters Experience Abuse

Sign language interpreters are in a role of power as the neutral facilitators of communication between Deaf and hearing people.  This puts them in a unique and vulnerable position.  The Effects of Power Positions play a large role in an interpreter’s day to day experiences as well.  Often sign language interpreters experience abuse from both Deaf and hearing personnel as a result of others’ perceptions of the interpreter’s role.  Deaf people are often treated badly and experience oppression on a daily bases.  We know this stigma and negative history of oppression of those who are Deaf and carry it along with us to our jobs. Over time, a Deaf person may become nervous and defensive.  This happens to interpreters as well.  We must collaborate so these walls can come down.

Preconceived Notions

Each person comes into an interpreted setting with preconceived ideas of how the situation will happen.  For example, a hearing professor at a university may never have worked with an interpreter before.  Once they learn they will have one in their class for an entire semester, they start to formulate ideas of how the interpreter will be distracting to the students.  Upon arrival, the interpreter informs the professor of their role in the classroom.  The professor insists the interpreter must sit with the rest of the class but may sign quietly with the Deaf student so as to avoid distracting the other students.  The professor may be trying to do what is best for the other students, but they fail to listen to the interpreter’s expertise in communication.  The interpreter must explain they are their to provide equal access to the Deaf student and will not be a bother to the other students.  Throughout the semester, everyone gets used to having an interpreter in the room.

Typically, preconceived notions about sign language interpreters are not intentionally negative.  Interpreters, however, often find themselves persistently explaining their role to hearing and Deaf alike.  They feel the effects of misunderstandings and misinformation.  Sometimes, sign language interpreters experience abuse by being put into a box and not being allowed to perform their professional role.  This makes it difficult to focus on their primary role: sign language interpreting.

Sign Language Interpreter Role

In some situations, an interpreter may also be asked to perform duties outside of their role.  This can cause an ethical dilemma.  The interpreter is there to provide sign language interpreting, not to tutor a student or walk with them to the bathroom.  Often times, people forget that interpreters are human and need breaks as well.  They cannot be expected to work an eight (8) shift without one.  As a business, a reputable sign language interpreting company can direct you whether you need a team or not.

Previous Interpreter Stereotyping

Not all sign language interpreters follow appropriate ethical guidelines as laid out by the Code of Professional Conduct (CPC).  Because of this, a Deaf client may have a negative experience with an interpreter.  They then take this past experience and apply it to all future interpreted experiences.  Sign language interpreters experience abuse when they are compared to other interpreters with poor ethical practices even if they themselves do their best to follow the CPC and perform their job well.  Despite one negative experience, not all interpreters have their own agenda.  Be willing to give each interpreter a chance to show their skills and expertise.  There are appropriate ways to submit a complaint about an interpreter as well. Refer to the Missouri Division of Professional Registration for more information.Sign Language Interpreters Experience Abuse


It is hard to balance the satisfaction of Deaf clients and hearing persons, but it is possible.  Sign language interpreters are the ones who understand the language, so cultural mediation and collaboration needs to be facilitated from them.  As Deaf clients and professionals, is your role to collaborate because they are the median between the Deaf client and the hearing professional.  This power should be monitored and should not go one way or the other.


Additional Resources:

Interpreter Fatigue and Team Interpreting

Myths about Sign Language Interpretations


Photo Credit:

MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review