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A Brief Introduction to American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreting

When it comes to interpretation services, most people tend to think of foreign language interpretation, such as Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic. However, with approximately 11 million individuals in the United States consider themselves deaf or have serious difficulty hearing, American Sign Language (ASL) and other types of interpreting services for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities are also vitally important. Moreover, U.S. law and regulations provide strict requirements for equal access, including the provision of interpreter services for the Deaf and hard of hearing.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that: “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.”

The ADA further states that “…a failure to take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services…” and that “auxiliary aids and services” includes “qualified interpreters or other effective methods of making aurally delivered materials available to individuals with hearing impairments.”

While the most common form of language access services for the deaf and hard of hearing is ASL interpretation, it is not the only means of communication utilized by the Deaf community. Other types of language access services include Signed Exact English (SEE), Pidgin Sign Language (PSE), Tactile, as well as Cued Speech and Real-Time Captioning. Therefore, when looking to provide language access services, it is vital that the recipient of the services is asked which mode of communication they prefer, as not all deaf and hard of hearing individuals know or feel sufficiently comfortable with ASL.

For a business, organization, or government agency looking to procure ASL interpretation services, it is important to know that unlike other foreign language interpreters who have no single governing body or examination for certification in the United States, ASL interpreters should adhere to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). RID is the largest governing organization and certifying body for ASL interpreters.

RID offers two types of certification, including the National Interpreter Certification (NIC) and Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI). While the NIC typically certifies hearing interpreters, the CDI certifies Deaf or hard of hearing interpreters. These certifications include minimum requirements for education, training, as well as verification of credentials and a rigorous testing battery. Certifications that were developed and administered by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) are also recognized by the RID.

Because of the rigorous physical and mental demands of ASL interpretation, assignments that are scheduled to last more than 60-90 minutes typically require a team of two (2) interpreters, and the interpreters will take turns for the duration of the assignment. Frequently, interpreter teams include one hearing interpreter and one Deaf interpreter. Deaf interpreters play a vital role in interpreting situations, particularly in “high risk” assignments, such as legal or healthcare/medical related situations, as well as situations when a hearing interpreter does not possess the unique communication skills required by a recipient who is either not as proficient in ASL or other languages.

Deaf interpreters also often have a much greater depth of understanding of the subtleties of communication and vocabulary. Not to mention, some Deaf or hard of hearing individuals simply feel more comfortable with a Deaf interpreter present, particularly in high stress or sensitive situations. These factors should all be considered when assigning an interpreter or interpreter team, as ultimately, the interpreter is there for the sole purpose of facilitating communication in the most effective (and comfortable) way possible.

This represents the briefest of introductions to the complex and vibrant world of interpreting services for the Deaf and hard of hearing. When in need of an interpreter for a Deaf or hard of hearing individual, it is important to find a service provider that is experienced and qualified and can walk you through all of the unique considerations that go into planning and scheduling an ASL (or other type of communication) interpreter to best fit the needs of the recipient(s).

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