Hello and welcome!
You’ve heard of sign language interpreters, but you might have heard of Deaf interpreters. Yes, I mean interpreters who are Deaf themselves, not those who work with Deaf consumers. Those are called ASL interpreters, or ASL-English interpreters. You might be thinking, “Wait, is that possible for a Deaf person to be an interpreter? How does that work?” I’ve got answers for you!
Deaf interpreters often work in teams with hearing interpreters to provide the Deaf consumer the best possible experience. The reasons for using a Deaf interpreter alongside a hearing interpreter are numerous. This setup is used in situations where the hearing interpreter may not have the specific skills or extralinguistic knowledge needed to be an effective interpreter. Deaf interpreters typically have more specialized training and experience in using methods of communication that are not ASL. We also have lived experience that hearing interpreters will never have of adjusting to and matching widely ranging communication needs. Most hearing interpreters learn in a very structured environment, which is not a bad thing, but that does mean there is a gap between their formal knowledge and casual, everyday use of ASL. I’ll share some situations that can go more smoothly if a Deaf interpreter is present.
- A person who had a delay in learning a language, so they have an unconventional language that a hearing interpreter might struggle to understand. This is a situation that happens very often in the Deaf community, and Deaf interpreters often have experience chatting with people like this.
- Working in K-12 with Deaf children who may or may not have language. You know how children sometimes are just impossible to understand or they are saying words, but it’s not “normal” English? That happens with Deaf kids too, so it can be very difficult to understand, even for Deaf interpreters!
- Like I said earlier, hearing interpreters learn in a very structured environment. So they’re often not prepared to work with Deaf consumers who have additional disabilities, which might be physical, such as cerebral palsy, wheelchair users, having one hand or a different number of fingers, and many more. That might be mental, such as Down’s Syndrome (which is also physical), autism, or others that would affect how they communicate.
- The Deaf consumer is from another country or uses a different language that is not ASL. We often can figure out a way of communicating if they don’t know ASL.
- Another category of consumers who might benefit from Deaf interpreters is DeafBlind people. They fall into many of the categories I’ve already mentioned. DeafBlind people are just as varied as Deaf people are in communication preferences, access to language, and so on. Some might use only a speaking interpreter, some use tactile ASL which means ASL as usual but with their hands on yours, and some use protractile language. Notice I didn’t say ASL for the last one. That’s because it’s a distinct language of its own, all touch-based. This is yet another specialization that Deaf interpreters often have experience in.
There are *so* many different situations where the Deaf consumer will benefit from having a Deaf-hearing interpreter team. As always, deciding whether to have a Deaf interpreter there depends on the situation, and the best route to take is asking the Deaf consumer what their preference is. I hope that answers your questions on what Deaf interpreters are and how they work!
Also check out So you think you need an interpreter? Part 1