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What to Know When Speaking with a Sign Language Interpreter

Mar 22, 2023

More organizations are taking advantage of sign language interpreter services. In 2021, the White House announced that it would provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters at all daily press briefings, and more recently, Rihanna’s ASL interpreter became a viral sensation for her energetic interpretation during the 2023 Super Bowl halftime show.

Your business may also benefit from ASL interpreters. A professional interpreter can help you communicate efficiently with D/deaf employees, customers, shareholders, and anyone else who speaks sign language.  

However, if you don’t have experience with interpreters, you may feel overwhelmed or nervous. That’s perfectly normal — but by learning a few basic principles, you can avoid common mistakes. 

1. Don’t speak directly to the interpreter

A sign language interpreter is, of course, a person, and you may have a natural tendency to speak directly to the person who can hear you. However, remember that they’re not your target audience. 

Speak directly to the Deaf individual (or if you’re giving a presentation, proceed as if the interpreter is not present). Some quick tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t direct the interpreter by saying “Ask them…,” “Show her the handout…" or anything similar. 
  • Speak naturally, but give the interpreter enough time to translate your speech. 
  • If you’re speaking too quickly, your interpreter will probably let you know. Don’t ask for feedback.
  • Sign language interpreting can be demanding. Long meetings and presentations may require several interpreters, so provide your interpreter with accurate information about your needs.

Finally, remember that ASL and other sign languages have their own grammar. Don’t assume that your speech will be directly translated with exactly the same word order; the interpreter is there to ensure that the concepts and ideas of your speech are translated appropriately.

Related: 5 Myths About Sign Language 

2. Remember that the interpreter will interpret everything you say

Never ask an interpreter to censor (or “leave out") part of your speech. A professional interpreter won’t honor the request — their job is to interpret everything you say, along with important environmental sounds and other audio information. 

Regardless of your intentions, asking an interpreter to omit information can be offensive. Sign language interpreters have a strict code of ethics that requires them to be impartial, respectful, and objective. Even if you’re paying them for their time, they will not provide an inaccurate representation of your speech.

Related: 8 Facts About Hearing Disabilities and Web Accessibility

3. If you’re using written materials, provide them to the interpreter 

Providing the interpreter with a copy of your agenda, charts, speaking notes, and other materials may help them communicate accurately. If you’re speaking directly with a Deaf person, provide that person with a separate copy of the materials.

If you ask your audience to review handouts, give them enough time to do so. Remember, sign language is visual, and your audience cannot read materials while watching the interpreter. 

Related: Live Transcribe Gives Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Individuals Instant Captions with Speech Recognition Technology

4. For presentations and meetings, make sure the interpreter is visible

This may sound obvious, but it’s a common mistake: If you’re lowering the lights for a presentation, make sure that the interpreter remains visible. 

You may need to put a small spotlight on the interpreter, so plan accordingly. You might also prepare seating for Deaf individuals near the interpreter, but the best practice is to avoid assumptions: Ask the interpreter and the Deaf individual(s) for their preferences.

Related: Tips for Making Your Presentations Accessible

5. Take additional steps to make online presentations accessible for everyone

Hiring a sign language interpreter can improve accessibility, particularly for web meetings and presentations. However, to provide a truly inclusive experience, you should also consider the needs, expectations, and preferences of other users with disabilities.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can help you here. Review WCAG when planning presentations and publishing video content (including both live and pre-recorded videos). Some general tips:

  • Provide captions and transcripts for all videos. For live videos, automatic captions are better than nothing, but if possible, write captions in advance.
  • If you provide live captions for a presentation that will remain online, review the captions after your event concludes and correct any errors.
  • Provide audio descriptions for all pre-recorded video content. Transcripts serve a similar purpose, but audio descriptions are especially useful for users with hearing disabilities.
  • Ensure that visual text maintains an appropriate level of contrast with its background.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help you incorporate WCAG into your digital compliance strategy and improve experiences for your entire audience. To learn more, send us a message to connect with an accessibility expert. 

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