Sign language interpreters are having another moment in the spotlight as high profile public officials across the country are using in-screen interpreters for online press briefings, raising the visibility of sign language access for deaf and hard of hearing consumers on a never-seen-before scale. Even the current administration at the White House has taken note; a certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter can now be seen on-screen at every press briefing. Providing access for deaf and hard of hearing consumers is something we advocate for here at deaffriendly Consulting and we are thrilled to see this kind of access becoming more normalized and visible.
Access isn’t always smooth sailing, however. The first time the White House used an in-screen interpreter was a bit of a disaster; The White House didn’t know what most deaf and hard of hearing consumers already knew – not every certified ASL interpreter is a good fit for every job.
This important but not widely known truth became clear during the administration’s first press briefing when they unwittingly hired a notorious right-wing ASL interpreter to provide access for deaf and hard of hearing sign language users. The outrage from the sign language community was swift, but it was not just deaf and hard of hearing sign language users who noticed. National news outlets, media pundits, and journalists all over the country, and even the world, were clear on one thing: the interpreter hired for that particular job was an embarrassingly poor choice.
To be clear, the issue wasn’t that the White House refused to provide an interpreter (which has been the case during previous administrations) or that they hired an interpreter who wasn’t certified (something that also happens with regularity all the time). The interpreter in question was indeed certified. However, the interpreter was not vetted with an eye towards appropriateness or goodness of fit for the job itself.
Why is this important? Just like every field, interpreters are made up of different people with different backgrounds and different skill sets that make them well suited for some jobs, and not so well suited (or not at all) for other jobs.
Here is an example:
Some interpreters are trained and experienced with legal interpretation, interpreting in legal settings such as hearings and trials. Some interpreters specialize in theatrical interpreting and are uniquely suited for interpreting for plays. Most interpreters do not have either specialty because specializing as a legal or theatre interpreting is a niche skill that requires both a combination of trained experience and innate ability. Rarer still, is the interpreter who can do both, and do both well.
The reason it is rare for an interpreter to excel in and have experience with interpreting in both settings is because they are two diametrically opposed specialties. Generally speaking, what it takes to be a good legal interpreter (neutrality, exacting in language, and the ability to blend into the background in a high stake, stressful environment) is the opposite skill set that is required to be a good theatre interpreter (expressiveness, language creativity, and dynamic stage presence).
Finding an interpreter that is certified and also possesses the specific skill set and experience needed for the job is critically important to ensuring access for deaf and hard of hearing consumers. There are additional considerations that are equally important. There are some personal qualities that may make an interpreter an inappropriate choice for that job. In these cases, it is wise to defer to the deaf and hard of hearing consumer about what they do and don’t want in an interpreter. In the case of the White House and the right-wing interpreter, it would have been prudent to ensure ahead of time that the interpreter hired did not present such a glaring conflict of interest to the public.
Here at deaffriendly Consulting, we know it can be confusing for any business to know how to go about hiring an interpreter. Figuring out if the interpreter you are hiring is a good interpreter, a good fit for the job, and a good fit for the consumer can feel daunting.
Deaffriendly Consulting can help you navigate the uncertainty. To start, we’ve created a tip sheet to help streamline the process in a clear to understand fashion. This tip sheet will help you go through some key areas to be considered when hiring a qualified interpreter. Some tips that are covered:
- When to begin the hiring process
- Ways to determine if an interpreter is qualified
- How to incorporate deaf and hard of hearing consumer’s preferences
- Insights into industry standards such as fees and billing responsibilities
- Considerations when choosing to use an interpreting agency
- Common sign language interpreter usage etiquette norms
Access for everyone should be a given but we know access isn’t always easy to understand. We will help you bridge the gap and together we can create a more deaf-friendly world.