Deaf Interpreters

Deaf interpreters (DIs) are deaf people who provide interpreting services, translation, translanguaging, and transliteration services in signed languages, including American Sign Language (ASL), other signed languages, and various forms of visual and tactile communication for deaf people.

DIs are often used in medical, legal, and educational settings. DIs also provide access for some deafblind people, translate from one signed language to another, and work as a language model for people learning sign language. DIs are also a good fit for stage or platform interpreting, including relaying information during televised news broadcasts.

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DI’s possess a combination of language proficiency, cultural knowledge, and lived experience  that allows them to work effectively and reduce common communication barriers. In many cases, DIs provide representative message equivalency while fully including the unique features of ASL.

DIs often work in teams with hearing interpreters, but also work across a range of interpreting situations. Some sample scenarios of typical deaf interpreting arrangements are as follows.

Examples of DIs in Various Interpreting Situations

Deaf Person

Situation where a deaf person needs access to a non-signing teacher.

Hearing Interpreter
Deafblind Person

Situation where a deafblind person needs access to a signing teacher.

ProTactile DI
Signing Teacher
Deaf Person

Situation where a deaf person needs access to text or a video.


Situation where two deaf people use different sign languages.

English Text or Video

Situation where two deaf people use different sign languages.

Deaf Person

Situation where two deaf people use different sign languages.

Multilingual DI

Situation where two deaf people use different sign languages.

Deaf Person

Situation where two deaf people use different sign languages.

Role of DIs in Education

DIs can play an important role in equitable access for deaf students in educational settings. DIs can provide greater ease of access for deaf students and reduce the need for deaf students to accommodate hearing interpreters’ varying language proficiency. Deaf students can then spend their time and energy focusing on content learning and engaging with their peers, instead of monitoring the interpretation.

Testing and Accommodations

In some cases, DIs are used as specific accommodations during tests or in classrooms. DIs can provide equitable access to tests, such as verbal assessments of receptive and expressive language skills. The use of DIs can lead to more accurate assessments of content knowledge and learning, especially for deaf students who have experienced language deprivation. DIs can also provide ASL translations for course materials such as English texts or pre-recorded captioned lectures.

ProTactile Interpreting and Atypical Signers

Deaf interpreters work in all settings. One of their most visible assignments is to interpret on television during emergency press conferences. In the classroom, they often work with deafblind students, emerging signers, and any deaf student who can benefit from their mastery of ASL, Protactile (a tactile-based language used by many deafblind people), or visual-gestural communication.

Language Modeling for Emergent Signers

DIs can be language models for deaf students who are not yet fluent in ASL. Deaf students learning sign language, known as emergent signers, learn better, more quickly, and more accurately from a native user of the language. From elementary school to the university level, DIs can support deaf students who do not have access to fluent language models.

A subgroup within emergent signers are deaf people learning ASL as new immigrants or recent refugees. Deaf people who are not yet fluent in ASL may be proficient users of other signed languages. A multilingual DI can support the navigation of multiple sign languages to facilitate the transition to ASL and content learning in another sign language. The use of DIs and deaf mentors with deaf immigrants and refugees has become more widespread in recent years.

Community, Cultural, and Contextual Knowledge

DIs have lived experiences and cultural knowledge that has been developed outside of interpreter training programs, including knowledge of regional dialects, slang words, and signs particular to a given region, race and ethnicity, or age group. One example is Black ASL, used among the Black deaf community. A DI with cultural experience in a specific community can work appropriately and accurately with students from that community.

The lived experience and knowledge of DIs is particularly important when interpreting in high-stakes situations where word choice and context can make a difference in outcomes, such as legal settings or certification tests. In the legal system, many states have recognized the value of DIs by including definitions and standards in court interpreting statutes.

For legal or disciplinary situations in educational settings, it is often appropriate to use a DI to provide full and appropriate access. When considering transition planning, remember that the individualized education program is a legal process and thus may benefit from a DI when appropriate. Other high-stakes situations in educational settings include disciplinary proceedings, mental health crises, campus safety conflicts, certification tests, and interactions with medical or social services.

Certification and Qualification of DIs

Recruiting, hiring, and evaluating the qualifications of DIs is complex. DIs face many barriers to certification, including a limited number of training programs, flaws in the certification process, bias toward English proficiency in assessments, the emerging nature of the deaf interpreting profession, and a lack of job opportunities. Many highly trained and skilled DIs work in the field without certification, so certification should not be the only factor to consider when  recruiting and hiring DIs. Skills, content expertise,training, work history, and lived experiences are also relevant.

Additional Resources

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