Tips for Effectively Using an American Sign Language Interpreter

November 15th, 2018

By Gwen Walton

Over the years, I’ve seen all kinds of different reactions from people when I walk up to them for the first time and say, “Hello, I’m your sign language interpreter today.” Most people are excited and eager to exchange information in a new way. American Sign Language is a beautiful and remarkable language, after all. Yet there have been a few times when a person, confronted with something unknown to them, has reacted less than amicably. I’ve seen people annoyed and confused at the disruption to their routine and clouded by their misconceptions about Deaf people. First times can be awkward. Sometimes just fitting an extra person in a small room entails some dancing around and literally stepping on toes. And while it may be easy for me become frustrated as well and think, “Get with the program!” this is equally unfair. Armed with basic knowledge about the interpreting process, any professional working with Deaf people will find his or her interactions not only successful, but natural as well. Here are some tips and things to keep in mind when working with interpreters:

  • Speak directly to the Deaf person. Look at them when you speak and avoid saying “Tell her…” or  “Ask him if…” etc. Remember the interpreter is assuming your voice and directing the interpreter to interpret is unnecessary and has the unwanted side effect of diminishing the connection between you and your Deaf client. If you do say “Tell him…” the interpreter will likely say “Tell him…” in Sign Language. 
  • Expect everything you say within earshot of the interpreter and Deaf person to be interpreted. This includes side comments and conversations (in most cases except when doing so would violate HIPAA regulations) as well as environmental noises. Asking an interpreter not to interpret something would breach the interpreter’s ethical commitment to provide full access to communication to the Deaf person(s). 
  • While in the midst of communicating with your Deaf client, avoid addressing the interpreter directly. This can become confusing in regards to who is speaking and the interpreter must sign his or her response to you. 
  • Expect some information to take a bit longer to interpret. While much of spoken English can be transmitted at the same pace in Sign Language, you may notice some lag time or the interpreter taking extra time to explain certain concepts. The same can be true from Sign Language to English. It is also common for an interpreter to ask for clarification from you or the Deaf client (spelling of certain proper nouns or explanation of specialized words, for instance). The interpreter may ask you to repeat yourself. This is all done to ensure accurate and faithful interpretations. 
  • Be mindful of positioning and lighting. The most optimal arrangement is when the Deaf person can see both you and the interpreter at the same time. Good lighting is also necessary for a Deaf person to see information. If the situation requires low lighting, such as an eye doctor appointment or xray, explain beforehand what the Deaf person can expect or agree on a code (i.e. tapping the patient on the shoulder when you want him to hold his breath).
  • Use specifics whenever possible. While English uses generalizations often, American Sign Language relies heavily of details and examples. For instance, instead of saying, “Take this medication twice a day,” say instead, “You can take this medication in the morning and at dinner time.” 
  • Provide preparation materials to the interpreter whenever possible. If you are doing a presentation, print a copy of the PowerPoint for the interpreter. Provide the interpreter with agendas and other printed materials that you may utilize. For events that include presentations and songs, provide scripts and lyrics to the interpreter. This information can be provided at the time that the interpreter is scheduled and an agency will be happy to coordinate that with you. These materials are effective and sometimes essential tools for accurate communication. 
  • Be yourself! Speak at a natural pace and volume to the Deaf person and the interpreter will take the responsibility of interrupting you if he or she needs to catch up or clarify. 

My final recommendation is to remain flexible! It can take a few tries to get everything right. But Deaf people can recognize when someone is willing and open minded, qualities that go a long way in establishing connections. And the remember, the interpreter is not only there for the Deaf person, she is there working for you too. Using her effectively can create positive experiences for everyone involved.

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