DISCOVER: How American Sign Language Interpreters Help Deaf People

NOTE FROM MARY: This is the third post of a four-part series related to the WCAG 2.1 Guideline Success Criterion 1.2.6 Sign Language (Prerecorded) (Level AAA). Though not currently required, adopting Level AAA guidelines now and going forward can provide a better user experience for persons with disabilities.

by Emma Mankin
Guest Blogger

If you have ever been to live events or watched them on television, there’s a good chance that you have probably seen sign language interpreters before.

American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters can also freelance and/or work for schools, universities, hospitals, agencies, social welfare, the government, courts, private businesses, and communities to make sure that Deaf and hard of hearing people have the same access to information and communication as hearing people. Thus, they play an important role in developing healthy and trustworthy deaf-hearing relationships by interpreting spoken language into signed language for deaf and hard of hearing audience members.

How long does it take people to become Nationally Certified ASL Interpreters?

No matter if aspiring interpreters are deaf, native ASL users or hearing people who have taken ASL classes, they must receive formal training in ASL, Deaf culture, and, most importantly, interpreting competencies to provide well-produced interpretations. The National Deaf Center states that it takes people who hold Bachelor of Arts or of Science degrees about 19 to 24 months after graduation to become nationally certified ASL interpreters. While Associate of Arts or of Science graduates can become certified in about 25 to 36 months. Here is a list of U.S. colleges that offer ASL Interpretation Certification programs.

Can people who are hearing, deaf, and/or fluent in ASL become interpreters?

Yes, but the answer can vary.

Interpreting requires a high level of fluency in at least two languages (in this case, English and ASL) and a strong ability to focus on what speakers around them are saying.

Hearing people who are fluent in ASL are not always qualified to be ASL interpreters. But it is important that they are qualified and skilled in formulating accurate translations.

Deaf people may also become Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs) by working to ensure that the spoken language is translated and comprehended in cultural ways (i.e., a wide range of visual language, vocabulary complexities, and communication forms) that Deaf recipients may not pick up on from hearing interpreters’ communication. They engage in the same tasks as hearing interpreters and often work as part of a deaf/hearing interpreter team. CDIs often work in legal and healthcare settings. They also work well in situations when hearing interpreters cannot adequately meet individuals’ communication needs; for example, when a deaf person uses a different signed or has little or no language proficiency.

Why are sign language interpreters often hired to work in teams?

ASL interpreters are often hired in teams to guarantee effective communication that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires. This also reduces the interpreters’ risks of miscommunication factors, such as overuse injuries, mental and physical fatigue, and interpreting errors. Here are two important factors to consider if team interpretation is necessary:

  • Class length and complexity: Class content and structure must be considered. Generally, classes that are over one hour long should have a team of interpreters, especially if the material covers complex content with technical terminology. However, a three-hour-long light lecture class that contains independent work may require only a single interpreter. Overall, it all depends on how long the class time runs and how complex the lessons are.
  • Deaf and/or hard of hearing individuals’ unique needs and preferred communication modes: Regardless of time length and topics, tactile interpreting is labor intensive and often requires a team. One example is interpreting for individuals with weak language proficiency. In such cases, a team of interpreters can take turns and work together to accommodate their special communication needs.

Hiring a team of qualified interpreters will help people prove that they have made the best efforts to provide deaf and hard of hearing individuals with the most effective communication that they need. Yes, this may cost more than hiring just one interpreter, but it is a much better investment than having to pay unwanted costs that could be caused by medical misdiagnosis, court mistrials, educational failure, and other unfortunate outcomes.


BIO: Emma Mankin is a freelance blog and technical writer located in St. Augustine, Florida who specializes in explaining technical topics so that they are easy to understand. She holds a B.A. in English with a minor in American Sign Language from George Mason University. Email Emma.

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