A sign language interpreter facilitates communication between you and a Deaf or hard of hearing person. Here is a list of the top ten things to keep in mind when using an interpreter.
- Talk to and look directly at the Deaf or hard of hearing person. Your conversation is with the Deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) person, so do not try to engage the interpreter in the conversation. Don’t say, “Tell her …” because then you are speaking to the interpreter. An interpreter’s job is to sign everything you say and speak everything he sees signed. The interpreter will then sign, “Tell her …” The DHH person will then wonder who you would like them to tell. You may feel awkward using an interpreter the first few times, but trying to engage them will only confuse everyone’s roles.
- Speak at your normal rate of speech. Interpreters are trained to interpret at any normal rate of speech. Don’t ask them if you are speaking too fast. If an interpreter is having any difficulties that they need you to address, he will let you know. He may wait until after the assignment is finished, so as not to call attention to himself or the DHH person. If you speak too quickly, the signs may come too fast for the DHH person to follow. If you talk too slowly or pause and wait for the interpreter, the message may look choppy and your message may not come across the way you would like. Just be yourself. Let the interpreter worry about the interpreting.
- Use good eye contact. Eye contact is important in Deaf culture. It may feel strange to look someone in the eye, but this will make your DHH counterpart more comfortable. You don’t have to have a staring contest, but keep a comfortable level of eye contact. Try not to face away from the DHH person when you are talking (e.g., a teacher facing the chalkboard) or talk while walking away. Deaf or hard of hearing people rely on facial cues and body language to get the full effect of what you are trying to say. You may feel uneasy since the DHH person is looking at the interpreter and not at you, but keep looking at the DHH person.
- Remember to give the interpreter or his agency any available materials in advance. You will receive a better interpretation if the interpreter is able to prepare ahead of time, with, for example, an agenda for a meeting, a list of names, a script for a performance, song lyrics, a PowerPoint presentation, etc. If you can email the materials ahead of time, the interpreter will have time to go over them and will be able to ask for clarification from you before the meeting starts.
- Don’t ask the interpreter to stop signing. Again, the interpreter is there to sign everything he hears and speak everything he sees signed. If you do not want the DHH person to know what you are saying, step out of the room. The DHH person has the right to know what is being said in the room they are in, just like any hearing person would.
- Don’t assume the DHH person can read your lips, speak or hear you if you just speak louder. Your DHH customer or patient may or may not have been trained in lip-reading and speech. If the DHH person is using an interpreter, the preferred form of communication is most likely sign language. The best lip readers catch about 30 percent of what is said. The rest, they must figure out from the context. Hearing loss is different for each individual. Many times DHH people can hear sounds but they just can’t make out speech clearly. Most have some residual hearing, but it may or may not be usable. Again, if a DHH person has requested an interpreter, use the interpreter. Some DHH people have been trained in the “oral” method and were trained in speech. Don’t assume you will be able to understand the person. Some people are very clear and others are more difficult. There is a wide variety.
- The interpreter is not a companion, tutor or helper. The interpreter is there for one thing and one thing only: to facilitate communication. Don’t expect him to sit with a DHH patient and chat. Interpreters will maintain their role and boundaries. Interpreters don’t tutor students with school work or give clients a ride in their car. The interpreter will arrive a few minutes before the assignment and may take a few moments to assess the forms of language the client is using, so as to match their form, but they won’t engage any in depth conversation about their own life or the clients’ lives.
- When in a group setting, speak one at a time. When a group of people meet, they tend to talk over one another. Be mindful that the interpreter can only interpret one message at a time. Whereas a person who can hear may be able to pick up most of what is said when two people are talking at the same time, this is not possible for the DHH person. It helps if someone is selected to “police” this, since some meetings become heated or intense and people forget they need to take turns. The interpreter may become the “communication police” if too many people are talking at once, but then attention is called to the interpreter and the DHH person. It is better if someone else watches for it.
- Request a team of interpreters if the assignment is more than one and a half hours. Interpreting can be taxing mentally and physically. If an assignment will be more than an hour and a half, it calls for a team of two interpreters. They will likely take 15-20 minute turns. They will quickly and quietly switch places and will not draw extra attention to themselves or the DHH person. While the “off” interpreter is not signing/speaking, he will continue to pay attention be ready to lend any needed support to the signing interpreter.
- You are a consumer, too. The interpreter is there to facilitate communication between you and the DHH person. You need him as much as the DHH person does. Don’t refer to the interpreter as “your interpreter.” It’s better to say “our interpreter” or “the interpreter.” The interpreter will keep the DHH person’s and your communication confidential. He will advocate for your communication to flow smoothly as much as he will for the DHH person.
Kay Tucker is the Director of DEAF Way Interpreting Services at Paraquad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.