Quick Tips: Working with ASL Interpreters

By Alexander Cheetham

When planning an accessible event, ASL (American Sign Language) interpreting is something you need to include. And, in daily life, you might want to talk to a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person who is using an interpreter. Here are some tips for effective, respectful communication in those situations:

When working directly with a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person, always speak directly to the D/HoH person.

Remember, you’re not having a conversation with the interpreter, you’re having a conversation with the Deaf/HoH person. Using phrases like “Tell him that…”, “Can you let her know…” or “What do they want to do about…” are demeaning and confusing.

When working directly with a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person, keep good eye contact when and if you are able.

Eye contact is important within Deaf communities, and it helps provide context for your speech. When making eye contact, you are not turning your head or body away from the Deaf/HoH person. Therefore, your body language, facial expressions, and mouth movements are all clearly visible.

Do not expect ASL interpreters to educate you on ASL or Deaf culture.

Interpreters are there in a professional capacity to provide access and inclusion for Deaf/HoH people. They are not there to teach or tutor hearing parties as this can be distracting and detract from their work. Also, the majority of ASL interpreters are not native signers and did not grow up in the Deaf community. The best resources for learning about ASL and Deaf culture will always be Deaf/HoH folks.

There will likely be a delay between what is spoken and what is signed, and vice versa

ASL and English are two different languages expressed in different modalities. They have different vocabularies, grammar, syntax, linguistic
features, etc. Because of this, sometimes a long sentence in English may be very quick to sign in ASL, or a short description may take longer to interpret. There is not a one to one time need for ASL to English or English to ASL. This means that sometimes an interpreter will continue signing after a speaker has finished or continue voicing after a signer has finished.

Additionally, because the two languages are different, an interpreter may wait to start signing until they’ve heard enough speech to understand what the context and gist of the message is. They’re not zoning out or missing key information when this happens.

In a physical space, be sure the interpreter has good lighting.

Good lighting is essential to proper communication access. If an interpreter is in a dark location, it can be difficult to clearly see their hands and expressions. Likewise, if they are standing with their back against a  window or other light source, being backlit can cause the same problems. Try to have clear, bright lighting on the interpreter whenever possible.

Do not ask an interpreter to stop interpreting.

If someone is speaking, the interpreter will be signing. You cannot pick and choose what parts of an event or conversation will be interpreted
when an interpreter is present. Remember, if other hearing people in the room (interpreter included) have access to what’s being said, Deaf/HoH folks should have access too.

Avoid crosstalk.

When having a conversation or when having multiple speakers, try to speak one at a time. One interpreter cannot interpret two voices at the
same time, and having multiple people speaking at once can make important speech hard to hear and therefore hard to interpret. Having
designated moderators can aid in this process.

When able, provide as much prep material as is possible.

The more knowledge and context an interpreter has prior to starting a job, the better prepared they will be to provide the best access possible. Good prep material can include, but is in no way limited to: information about speakers, potential talking points, any slides that will be used, copies of speeches or songs that will be used, background information on the topic(s) being discussed, potential questions that may be asked, and unusual/uncommon language or jargon.

Deaf/HoH people are the experts on their own needs.

Different people have different skills and different needs when it comes to access. Do not make assumptions about what Deaf/HoH people need or want based on past experiences with other people, and be open to change and accommodations. Similarly, do not rely on an interpreter to tell you what is best for Deaf/HoH people. It’s true that they certainly have experience working in the field of access. However, person is different and interpreters cannot speak for the Deaf community.

An interpreter and a Deaf/HoH client briefly signing back and forth is not rude nor a side conversation.

Likely, they are clarifying something said or making sure communication is clear and accurate. They are not having a conversation from which non-signing people are being left out.

Avoid excessive wordplay or jargon when possible.

Wordplay and jargon that are specific to the English language can be difficult to interpret into any other language, so avoiding it as much as
possible is best. Of course, sometimes some jargon is unavoidable and that’s completely understandable. If you know this will be the case in
advance, try to include it in the prep materials provided to the interpreter.

Do not speak directly to/directly include the ASL interpreter in the event for which they are interpreting.

The interpreter is there to provide access. If they are brought into conversation or an event, it can be distracting both for them and for Deaf/HoH people relying on them for accessibility.

If an event has multiple speakers (such as a panel) or is longer than about 90 minutes, a team of interpreters may be beneficial.

Interpreting is an intensive job and working for too long without a break can cause fatigue and a drop in services. Using a team of two interpreters who take turns can prevent this from happening. Whether actively interpreting or not, both interpreters will always remain engaged and ready to jump in with assistance should the need arise.

Remember, certified does not always mean qualified.

Not every certified interpreter is qualified for every job. Sometimes jobs may call for interpreters who hold specific identities and are familiar with specific communities and cultures. Sometimes jobs call for interpreters who have special training in a specific field (ex. Legal or medical interpreting). Try to match the interpreter to the job when possible.

If using an interpreter over video and the interpreter’s video lags or freezes, pause conversation until the issue is resolved.

While providing wonderful opportunities for improved access, technology comes with its own problems and hurdles. If an interpreter experiences technical difficulties, waiting for them to be back in action before continuing with conversation or presentation is the best way to ensure equal access. Sometimes this is impossible if the issues are severe/long lasting or if there is a very tight schedule, but make the best judgement call appropriate to the situation.

For Instagram Lives, check out @access.that.247 and @probonoasl (BIPOC interpreters).

For in person events or other platforms, check out Pro Bono ASL (BIPOC Interpreters), Jooux, Flamingo Interpreting, local interpreting agencies, and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).

Note: RID is currently undergoing a major break due to prejudicial and oppressive actions taken by those in positions of leadership and many interpreters are choosing to leave. It remains, however, a good resource for finding certified interpreters.

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