Certified Qualified Sign Language Interpreters in Medical Settings: It’s the Law! So why do I still have to fight for it?

~Authored by Shelly Tisius

Foreign language consumers struggle to get equal access to communication similar to Deaf consumers to get certified qualified sign language interpreters in medical settings.  Is it ignorance of policies, procedures, and laws or is it solely a constant eye on the bottom line?  Check out this article shared by one of our partners Language Solutions, a foreign language provider:

Certified Qualified Sign Language Interpreters in Medical Settings

It’s Illegal for Hospitals to Not Provide Translation Services. So Why is Proper Translation Still Scarce?

Focus on Money?

Since I began interpreting in 2002, companies and individuals have always debated the cost of interpreting services.  The truth is most interpreters barely earn a middle class salary.  The cost of a company providing services is the cost of the coordination, insurance, and management.  Sign language interpreting firms and foreign language translation firms are not wealthy fields and all the rates are competitive and typically low.  In fact, I pay a massage therapist more than I earn and more than our hourly rate for services are.  And this is a luxury item.  Interpreting services are, on the other hand, a necessary service.

As stated in the above article, the risk of not providing interpreting services is much higher than the cost.  Last year I was speaking with a disability attorney regarding this topic: “The cost of providing sign language interpreters.”  He told me as an attorney his rate was $400+ an hour.  So if a hospital had a challenge with the interpreting rate originally, then they would have a bigger challenge with an attorney’s rate if there was a lawsuit for not providing access services.

The cheapest interpreting services can also cause issues. When companies hire their staff, do they find the cheapest person or the most qualified professional?  Interpreters should be considered in the same manner.  When shopping for a trashcan, you look for something that will hold in the smell of garbage and not fall apart.  This may mean you spend more money for a quality trashcan.  But if you buy the cheapest one, your house may not be safe from the fumes and you’d end up buying another one much sooner than if you’d just bought the best one in the first place.  In the end, the “cheaper” option would be to go for the quality trashcan.  Interpreters are specialists and experts in language.  Reputable sign language interpreting firms will provide certified qualified sign language interpreters in medical settings.

Most hospitals budget when adding an additional wing, remodeling outdated facilities, or purchasing more advanced equipment.  Providing equal access to communication, however, is considered “too expensive.”  When looking at equipment for a medical facility, a $10,000 machine that is top-of-the-line is likely worth the cost because it will allow for better operations with patients.  Consider reputation as well as the best possible care for patients.

Or Ignorance and Lack of Training?

This article suggests that the lack of interpreters is due to a direct impact on the bottom line.  I agree, but ignorance and lack of training is also an issue.  Hospital management may have resources to provide interpreters; however, the staff may not be trained or have exposure to interpreters.  For example, an interpreter is required.  Instead of the medical staff finding services, they immediately deny access or suggest a family member interpret.  This is likely because they do not know where to find services or are simply too busy.

Definition of ‘Qualified’

“Hospitals would never dream of letting a patient’s friend operate just because she can hold a scalpel.”

If this statement from the Slate article doesn’t get your attention, then I am not sure what will.  It is common for people to ask a family member of a Deaf consumer to interpret for them.  Or they are asked to lip-read or write back and forth. At other times, a staff member may have taken a sign language class, so they are asked to interpret for the Deaf patient.

I have been a working interpreter since 2002, and prior to that I spent several years socializing in the Deaf community.  I am certified at the highest level in the state and nationally as well.  I hold four degrees and several certifications.  With all of this background, I admit that I am still learning everyday and consider myself a “new interpreter.”  A person who took a sign language class or knows some signs does not understand the complexity of the language, just as a surgeon who knows the names of his/her tools does not equate to them knowing how to use them.


I am not sure what solutions would make a greater impact.  Perhaps it is continuous education of staff on language needs and procedures as well as dividing the budget.  For example, when attending a disability summit I listened to a speaker from Microsoft.  I did not have a negative view of Microsoft prior to hearing the speaker, but I definitely have a more positive view after.  They provide interpreters and equal access for any employee with disabilities on a completely different budget.  Managers provide whatever the employee needs and they never see the actual cost of the service(s) being provided. The speaker mentioned that this was one of the main successes of their procedures because the attending manager wasn’t the one deciding whether or not the cost was too high based on their department budget.  Perhaps hospitals and larger organizations should consider this approach.

Whatever the solution(s) may be, it is not surprising that we are in a more litigious environment when services are being refused and patients are getting sick, being paralyzed, or dying due to lack of access to communication.  Interpreting services should be a cost of doing business, and effort should be spent on making patients comfortable rather than denying them access.  Hospitals are known by their services either cheap or exceptional.


Additional Resources:

What Does a Hospital Interpreter Do?

Advocate Collaboration in Medical Sign Language Interpreting


Photo Credit:


MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review