Sign Language and Oral Interpreters

In a classroom in New York City, a deaf teacher instructs hearing students in American Sign Language (ASL). No speaking or writing is allowed. The teacher uses pictures, gestures, and pantomime to teach the meaning of a sign. He stands in front of the class, and without words, emphasizes not only the importance of finger and hand movement, but of a raised eyebrow, a nod, or a smile. The room is filled with people who spend their days speaking to coworkers and friends, talking on the phone, yelling for cabs, and ordering in restaurants. Tonight the classroom is silent but for the occasional clap of a hand, or the buzzing of the fluorescent lights, or laughter.

This class, taught at The Sign Language Center in Manhattan, is composed of people who want access to deaf communities. A social worker wants to be able to communicate with deaf clients; a history teacher wants to interact directly with her deaf students; a man plays Saturday morning basketball games with a deaf neighbor. There's even an anthropologist who wants to communicate with the apes in a study lab. With about a half million Americans using ASL as their main language, ASL has come to be used in many different settings. Deaf actors perform plays using sign language. Deaf poets have developed a body of sign-language literature. Scientists, inventors, school administrators, and many others are making important contributions to society using ASL. Just as speakers of foreign languages sometimes need interpreters to help them express their ideas to English speakers, so do the users of ASL.

Interpreters are also increasingly in demand for doctors, social service workers, and others who work with elderly populations. People over the age of 65, a rapidly growing segment of society, are threatened with a number of disorders that can lead to hearing loss. Though many hearing-impaired elderly people may rely on a hearing aid, others may need to develop some sign language skills.

The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees the services of interpreters in some situations. Large private companies are required to accommodate employees who have physical limitations. In addition to working with deaf employees, interpreters work in schools helping deaf students learn from English-speaking teachers. They work in legal settings, such as law offices and courtrooms. In hospitals, doctors and nurses need the aid of interpreters in communicating with deaf patients. Social service and religious agencies need interpreters to offer counseling and other services to deaf clients. Deaf audience members rely on interpreters for theatrical or televised performances. When an interpreter is needed, the client can check with the school or theater or social service agency to make sure interpreting is provided. If not, there are interpreter provider organizations that can direct the client to an interpreter. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) publishes state-by-state listings of these organizations, as well as a directory of individual interpreters.

Deaf interpreters translate spoken material into a language that can be understood by the deaf. This may be done in either of two ways. Sign language interpreters translate a speaker's words into ASL using their hands and fingers, and then repeat aloud the deaf person's signed response to the speaker. Oral interpreters carefully mouth words without voicing them aloud for deaf people who can speech-read. Tactile interpreters work with deaf individuals who also have a visual impairment and communicate only through touch. Trilingual interpreters facilitate communication among an ASL user, an English speaker, and a speaker of another language.

Interpreters must be very visible; proper lighting and backgrounds should contribute to their visibility, not distract from it. Furthermore, they should obtain any written supplements to assist in accurate interpretation. The interpreter's role is only to interpret; they are not part of the conversation, and any personal asides or additions only cause confusion.

This professional distance is part of an established code of ethics for interpreters. Confidentiality is also part of the code, as is impartiality (strong biases toward a subject matter can affect the ability to interpret accurately). An interpreter also has the responsibility of educating the public about deaf issues. Before going to work as an interpreter, candidates should be aware of the complete code of ethics as established by RID.

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