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FAQs About Interpreting

  • The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) offers several search tools, such as a directory of both individual interpreters and interpreting coordination agencies. RID also has state chapters that can be contacted for local referrals as well.

  • Many states have state affiliated agencies supporting deaf people that offer information and referrals to interpreters. If your state requires interpreters to be licensed, the licensing entity may also have public search options for finding licensed interpreters.

The Department of Justice’s Effective Communication guide defines a qualified interpreter as someone who is able to “interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.” The most critical strategy when pairing interpreters with deaf students is to plan ahead and identify interpreters that are a good fit for the student’s communication access needs.

Examples of strategies:

  • Utilize the Interactive Process Tools: Checklist and Sample Questions for Deaf Students during the initial meeting with the student. 

  • Learn about the student’s subjective experience, such as past experiences, along with communication style and preferences.

  • Ask if there are any interpreters the student has effectively worked with before. 

  • Each semester, ask about course loads and possible use of technical terminology.

  • Confirm that the interpreter has the knowledge and skills to be a good fit for the student.

Sign language interpreting is unique in that interpreters have to simultaneously process two languages (ASL and English) at the same time. Research has shown after 30 minutes of continuous work, mental fatigue increases and the quality of the interpretation decreases when an interpreter works alone. There may be situations where a team is needed for assignments under one hour. Consider the following when determining whether a team of interpreters are needed:

  • Length and/or complexity of the assignment (e.g., heavy lectures, highly specialized technical jargon and concepts, multiple speakers)

  • Unique needs and preferred communication mode of the individuals (e.g., tactile, oral, or close vision interpreting)

The interpreting team supports one another by monitoring the environment, providing any cues, and making sure transitions are made with the least disruptions. Team interpreters should be actively engaged in the process; one providing direct interpretation services and the other functioning in a supporting role. This support is necessary to enhance the team’s performance and provide accurate communication. Team interpreting also protects interpreters from common industry injuries and minimizes interpreter errors.

Pairing deaf individuals and interpreters in educational settings is a complex task which requires thoughtful consideration and depends on multiple factors.

There may be circumstances where a specific interpreter may be the most appropriate choice for effective communication, which ensures equitable opportunity for the student to benefit from programs and services. Take into account the reasonableness of the request and the student’s subjective experience. The Department of Justice’s Effective Communication guide emphasizes what a qualified interpreter means; also, there may be certification or licensing requirements to consider for your state.

Evaluate the requested interpreter’s background including any certifications, knowledge or skills in specific content areas, years of experience, and previous experience working with the deaf student. If there are reasons the requested interpreter cannot be scheduled, discuss with the deaf student before scheduling an alternative interpreter.

Institutions should have a process in place where deaf students can provide critical feedback and have their concerns addressed regarding interpreting services. In many ways, the disability services office becomes the mediator for addressing concerns between students and interpreters. The following are suggestions to include both the student and interpreter regarding access issues:

When working with the student:

  • Ensure the feedback process is confidential for the student, allowing the student a trusted space to share concerns.

  • Discuss or model ways the student can provide feedback with the interpreter to resolve concerns directly.

  • Consider possible resolutions with the student if there are concerns of insensitive or unethical behavior.

    When working with the interpreter:

  • Collect feedback from the interpreter to identify whether the interpreter may need additional support with course content or language skills.

  • Review your institution’s policies and the Code of Professional Conduct with the interpreter as needed.

  • Determine if the interpreter has the appropriate skill set to meet the student’s communication access needs, or if another interpreter would be more effective in the situation. 

Samples of interpreter evaluations (by students):

Each video conferencing platform is unique. Some schools may use a stand-alone video conferencing platform while some are integrated into the Learning Management System (LMS):

  • Connect with your IT department and learn more about your platform’s features for remote interpreting and real-time captions. Research your platform’s knowledge base or support website.

  • Work with the instructor to ensure providers have the appropriate permissions within the platform, and know how to support pinning, spotlighting, streaming captions, sharing screens, and other features to help maintain access to service providers. If time permits, conduct a practice run with the instructor, provider, and student to determine what works best.

  • If real-time captions cannot be synced in the platform, explore alternative options for viewing. If access to the interpreter’s video is not ideal, consider a multi-platform approach. For example, the student and interpreter can still be logged into the class platform and use a separate video platform for direct communication access.

  • Ensure that students are aware of how videos appear on their screen (gallery, side-by-side, etc.), to configure their view of the interpreter and others. Students may need more than one device (e.g. a laptop and tablet) to access an online course and accommodation services simultaneously.

Substituting one accommodation for another when not requested by the deaf student can cause barriers to access. It is important to engage the deaf student in an interactive process to gain a better understanding of their communication access needs in a variety of settings. Depending on whether your institution is public (Title II) or private (Title III), who determines accommodations varies, but ultimately the accommodation must provide effective communication. The goal of effective communication is to ensure the deaf student is able to communicate, receptively and expressively, with others. If a deaf student primarily uses sign language to communicate and requests interpreting services, a qualified interpreter should be provided.

Service providers (university staff, hourly and contracted employees) are bound by the same employee requirements as any other university employee, and are expected to adhere to the confidentiality framework outlined by FERPA. Furthermore, service provider professions each have their own codes of professional and ethical conduct which addresses confidentiality. While service providers may share important details with their team or the coordinator on a "need to know'' basis, the service provider will not share details about the student's disability with the instructor or information shared during the assignment to others. The only exceptions that apply are the federal and state laws of mandated reporting. Violating confidentiality can be addressed through the university (as an employer) and through the appropriate certification body.

Yes, the use of sign language interpreters for exams may be a reasonable accommodation, allowing the student to demonstrate content knowledge while reducing barriers to the test. To determine if the use of a sign language interpreter is appropriate, review the accommodation request with the instructor and student on a test-by-test basis.

It is important to remember that there are varying levels of combined hearing and vision loss for deafblind students. Interpreters (tactile/protactile/low vision) and Support Service Providers (SSP) are considered essential workers, but the safety of the interpreter, SSP and deafblind student should always be a priority. Some interpreters and SSPs will continue to work using protective gear if everyone feels comfortable in doing so. The DeafBlind Interpreting National Training and Resource Center (DBI) discusses this in their COVID-19 statement. Some of the tips below are also from the New York Deaf Blind Collaborative.

Technology options:

  • Allow time for trial and error with technology in advance. Find what works best for the student and the interpreter. Multiple screens or windows may be needed to view the information and interpreter at the same time. When possible, do a test run of things before to make sure the set-up works.

  • Some videophones allow the deafblind student to zoom in to see the remote interpreter. If interpreters have access to a videophone, this would be a good method in providing remote interpreting.

  • Webcams may have the option to zoom in on the user. Make sure auto-focus is turned off, otherwise the video will become blurry when the interpreter moves on camera.

  • Other low vision aids may be used (e.g., digital magnifiers, smartphone apps, and tablet cameras with zoom in capabilities) to increase visual access on the screen.

For the remote interpreter:

  • Communicate in advance how the student can contact the interpreter if issues arise.

  • Ensure the interpreter's background is dark (e.g., black or dark blue) and solid with no patterns. Interpreters should wear solid, contrasting color to their skin tone. Wear shirts that are ¾ sleeve or longer, covering up to the neck.

  • Pace the sign language production, slow down fingerspelling and keep sign placement within a smaller frame.

  • Lighting is important! The interpreter should be illuminated from the front, without glare.

  • If tactile interpreters are needed, the interpreter could work remotely with the support person available in the home.

Additional resources:

It is a common misconception that service providers (interpreters and speech-to-text professionals), as a third party, may be a violation of HIPAA. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) explains the allowance of service providers whether remote, in-person or via telecommunications relay service (TRS); including obligations to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Additionally, protecting consumer privacy is reinforced through confidentiality clauses in service provider codes of ethics: 

Watch in ASL

Before classes begin:

  • Make sure service providers have access to the Learning Management System (LMS, such as Canvas or Blackboard), or are able to receive emails from the instructor.

  • Do a practice run using the platforms and find out what works best (for example, experiment with viewing the interpreter in a split screen or through dual monitors or practice pinning the interpreter). Make sure you, your service providers and the disability services office have a back-up plan in case technology fails.

During class:

  • Communicate with your service providers. Let them know if something is not working, if your video/captioning stream is choppy, or it is hard to see the interpreter.

  • If using interpreters, work out a strategy for them to let you know when they will switch, allowing you time to locate the team interpreter’s video.

Troubleshooting tips

  • Communicate with your service providers while online. Consider using a live chat or messaging platform to stay in touch during the class.

  • Learn how to troubleshoot with the platforms or systems being used to connect with your service provider(s). Discuss your preferences, such as lightning and background color before classes begin.

If your school offers in-person classes with a limited seating capacity following safe distancing measures, don’t forget to add the interpreter and/or speech-to-text providers in the room count. Notify the instructor and the department as soon as possible to ensure the service provider (or team of providers) is included in the official room count.

If providing interpreters or speech-to-text services for in-person classes is not possible, discuss with the student about using remote services. Consider the following arrangements: 

  • The student attends the class in-person while the service providers are remote (on campus in another location or from an off-campus location).

  • The service providers are in the classroom while the student utilizes remote services from another location.

  • If the class is available online to remote participants, the student and service providers can also consider the following: 

    • The student and service providers can meet in another room on campus while streaming the class or 

    • The student and service providers can access the course from separate remote locations, while staying online only.

While remote services may appear convenient, please review the guiding questions in the Providing Remote Access Services tool. This tool covers the technical capacity needed and potential barriers to the course format that the student and service providers may experience.

For group tutoring sessions, check with the deaf student to see what accommodations would be most effective in this type of setting. If they request speech-to-text or interpreting services, coordinate these services the same way you would for any online appointment.

  • Remind students they should continue to follow the same procedures to request accommodations.

  • Discuss what options are available for the student, tutor and service provider to get connected on the platform being used.

  • Have a back-up plan or a second option to connect virtually (e.g., logging onto a different platform).

  • For one-on-one tutoring situations, consider using interactive approaches (e.g., Google Docs) to support visual support with chat features in one screen to discuss back and forth.

For more information:
Remote Access Services
Tutoring Deaf Students

VRS and VRI may provide similar services but their purposes are very different. VRS is governed by the FCC and is to ensure telecommunication, such as phone calls, are made accessible for deaf individuals. VRI is used as an option for providing interpreting services if an in-person interpreter is not available.

VRS should also not be used in lieu of VRI interpreters in live, online classes for the following reasons:

  • Consistency cannot be maintained. Every time a deaf individual places a call through VRS they get a different interpreter from anywhere in the country.

  • ASL has regional dialects and inconsistent specialized vocabulary, especially in academic subjects.

  • VRS interpreters do not have prior knowledge or advance preparation of course content and who is involved in discussions to identify speakers.

  • The burden is on the deaf student to manage communication because VRS interpreters do not have visual access to the online classroom and only rely on phone call audio.

  • Utilizing VRS for classes may cause longer queue times, especially deaf people trying to navigate the crisis and essential activities from home. There is no guarantee a VRS interpreter would even be available at the scheduled time of class.