An Interpreter’s Perspective: The Real-World Impact of not Using Qualified Certified Sign Language Interpreters

As all natural disasters are, the approach of Hurricane IRMA (2017) was terrifying and emotional.  Due to the severity of the circumstances, the community responded with several urgent press conferences, and provided qualified certified sign language interpreters to ensure the message was properly distributed.  Unfortunately, Manatee County decided to provide an interpreter who was neither certified nor qualified.

If you have access to Facebook, you can view the videos for yourselves, or simply take a look at the screen shots we provide in this blog.  Even just a few minutes provide you a glimpse into the outrage of the Deaf community, interpreters, family, and friends over IRMA’s “hotdog stand interpreter.”  How were the Deaf residents supposed to get access to the crucial information being presented in the press conference?

View the press conference

Seek Reputable Companies to Ensure Qualified Certified Sign Language Interpreters

This situation is disheartening because there was access to qualified certified sign language interpreters in the area; however, none were contacted.  Perhaps it was due to cost or time, but having someone gesture is not the same thing as interpreting.  Would you rely on someone who didn’t know English to provide an English translation?  Some people felt that the backlash regarding this interpreter was unappreciative; after all, something is better than nothing.  Consider another situation…if you require medical attention, is a bad doctor better than no doctor? (Read about the Shortage of Qualified Sign Language Interpreters in St. Louis)

Certified verses Qualified

It’s also important to note that someone can be certified, but may not be qualified.  The words “certified” and “qualified” cannot be used interchangeably when referring to sign language interpreters.  In the instance of the Manatee County interpreter, Marshall Greene, he was neither certified nor qualified.  However, a recent graduate attorney who passes the Bar exam is certified, but not always qualified, as they are not suddenly an expert in all areas of law.

Certification is only one consideration when selecting a sign language interpreter.  In some states however, certification is also the law, as it is in the state of Missouri.  Certification and qualification should go hand in hand to ensure accurate services are provided.

Missouri Sign Language Interpreters- Certifications and QualificationsQualified Certified Sign Language Interpreters

Our offices are located in Clayton, Missouri, which is a suburb of St. Louis.  Following Missouri law regarding sign language interpreter certification, interpreters must complete the annually required Continuing Education Units (CEUs) in addition to the annual fee in order to keep their certification.  This is also true for Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), the national sign language interpreter association.

However, neither Missouri law nor RID require an individual to practice in order to keep their sign language interpreter certification.  This means an interpreter can be certified for 10 years, not employ their skills even once, and still continue to be certified.  Or they can go on assignment for only two (2) hours a week and still keep certification.  Experience, practice, and skill are ALL crucial to maintaining sign language interpreter fluency.

Unqualified or Uncertified Sign Language Interpreters, Who is at Fault?

In the event of Hurricane IRMA, what if Deaf residents reported to an incorrect or unsafe location due to the information provided via the unqualified interpreter?  The entire point of paying for an interpreter is to ensure “equal access to communication”, either to promote your business standards or to adhere to the ADA….so why pay for someone who isn’t certified or qualified?  What would happen in your business or organization if communication and information was inaccurate?

Consider if the hospital hired an unlicensed electrician to do electrical work.  If there was a fire due to the faulty electrical work, it is likely the hospital would be liable if someone was injured.  Who is at fault if Deaf people are put in danger due to uncertified unqualified sign language interpreting services, simply because of the county’s negligence?  If this hadn’t occurred on national TV, would anyone have known?  Have local sign language interpreting services for this community also been chosen in this manner?

Stopping the Cycle

In the case of Hurricane IRMA, some could argue that the county didn’t know better. Unfortunately the same thing happened a few years ago at the funeral for Nelson Mandela.  Not only did this make national news, but Saturday Night Live (SNL) made it into a skit.  Then came a YouTube video suggesting the interpreter was simply making the gestures to mimic making balloon animals.


Funeral of Nelson Mandela- “Balloon Animal Interpreter”

Saturday Night Live’s Skit of the Balloon Animal Interpreter- Note: Sadly, these gestures make more sense than the Balloon Animal Interpreter’s rendition.

NBC: Saturday Night Live Skit

Seek Experts

Everyone has a budget and saving costs is natural.  Many people shop around. However, I have found that there is not a substitute to having someone do it right the first time.  I do not shop around when I find reliability, and know that my expert will get it right the first time.  When you need sign language interpreting services, I suggest seeking out a reputable firm to manage and evaluate the certification and qualifications under current federal and state laws.





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