Why is the Interpreter Waiting Outside the Room?

November 14th, 2018

One of the most common questions I am asked on the job is, “Why are you [the interpreter] not sitting inside the room with the Deaf person?” Actually, our professional policy that dictates that the interpreter not be in a private room alone with Deaf clients can be big source of confusion for hearing and Deaf people alike, and often I find myself doing a little bit of explaining. I’m going to try and explain the policy again here, and hopefully with more eloquence than I have done in the past when put on the spot (Trying to be thorough and detailed while simultaneously trying to respect a busy person’s  time is hard!

Partnership Deaf Service has their own explicit policy stating, “Interpreters shall not sit inside a private room with a Deaf consumer(s) unless communication is occurring between medical staff and patients.” But it’s also worth mentioning that there is consensus on the national level that policies similar to this demonstrate best practices for the interpreting profession. In other words, the Big-Wigs in the Deaf and Interpreting communities all over the US agree that interpreters should not wait alone with the Deaf client. And despite this consensus, many areas are still transitioning and working to adopt this policy, Chattanooga included. That’s why you may remember a not so distant past when the interpreter would stay in a hospital room all night with a patient, and yet is now asking for a chair in the hall.

The justification for this practice comes down to two things: Understanding the role of the interpreter, and avoiding mental fatigue. 

Understanding the Role of the Interpreter

As a Sign Language Interpreter my number one priority is to provide equal access to Deaf consumers. Within that giant task of providing equal access is the idea that not only are we providing access to communication, but also working to provide an equivalent experience to the Deaf consumer. It is true that people without hearing loss don’t have an extra person in the room when they go to a doctor’s appointment or job interview, and we cannot eliminate our presence and provide a service at the same time, but we CAN work to minimize our impact on the situation as much as possible. That’s why an interpreter won’t have a side conversation with the doctor while the Deaf person waits  her turn, nor omit or change what a speaker has to say. Interpreter’s also won’t give Deaf people advice, won’t provide our opinions, and basically take on the attitude of, “Aside from this whole communication/interpreting bit, just pretend I’m not here!” 

The point is, an interpreter’s role is to bridge a communication barrier. If you are not in the room trying to communicate with your Deaf client, there is no professional need for the interpreter to be there. To provide an equivalent experience for the Deaf person is to not be in his or her private room. Keeping professional boundaries is advantageous for everyone. 

Afterall, interpreters are experts in language and linguistics and cultural mediation. They are NOT experts in comforting patients, and since they are not qualified to provide their opinions or judgements, interpreters cannot watch or monitor a patient or privately discuss personal situations. These functions should be performed by the doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and other experts. 

There is, as always, a legal justification as well. Professional liability insurance covers interpreter only if they are performing their professional duties, and as we’ve already established, hanging out with Deaf clients alone is outside an interpreter’s scope of practice. Additionally, an interpreter may be held accountable for and accident that occurs with no other professionals around, or liable for litigation should a Deaf person make a conduct accusation against an interpreter when there were no witnesses. As your lawyer, I advise you to have the interpreter wait outside the room. Just kidding, but you get the idea. 

Avoiding Mental Fatigue

I know that we interpreters look relaxed up there, effortlessly signing away, maybe smiling, at attention, executing what looks like a perfectly choreographed dance. Perhaps you’ve found yourself getting lost in the unicorn magic of the signing interpreter or deaf person instead of paying attention to the lecture…Busted!...don’t worry, you’re not alone. But, take it from me, it may look easy, but there is a lot happening behind the scenes. Our brains are throwing down to get the work done! Interpreting, especially simultaneous interpreting, is cognitively demanding. 

Imagine listening to a speaker and in your head at the same time, repeating every sentence in your own words back to yourself… for one hour straight. Does that sound like it might fry your mind a bit? 

Well, that’s what we are doing. We are listening, analysing for meaning, changing the language mentally, and then expressing it in the other language, all on loop and at the same time. This is why interpreters should take regular breaks. The mind needs a breather when it’s been working hard. Unfortunately, when an interpreter is in a private room, his or her brain is busy with conversation and/or processing information and still remaining “on” as a professional in the presence of a Deaf consumer. Depending on the situation, personal conversations can be emotionally draining as well. It is important that the interpreter not be fatigued when the actual interpreting does occur. A mentally exhausted interpreter might not be as effective as a rested one. When you leave the room, it is an opportunity for the interpreter to reset. 

What about possible HIPAA violations?

I have encountered some medical offices where the staff is concerned that an interpreter in the hallway compromises what would otherwise be private information and conversations passed between staff members. The good news is, Partnership interpreters are HIPAA trained. We are familiar with rules and regulations as it applies to interpreters in a medical setting. We are also bound by our own ethical code though our certifications that stipulate strict confidentiality of all information encountered while working, including personal medical information. If you still feel that your environment is just too sensitive for and interpreter to be in, we are happy to wait in a nearby room, away from desks, or even in a waiting room. We are flexible creatures used to adapting to all kind of situations. Talk to us about your needs, and we’ll work with you. 


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