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A Guide to Planning Accessible Meetings

Using Qualified Interpreters

Many people with hearing and speech disabilities use sign language as their primary means of communication and use interpreters to communicate with people who don’t sign. Interpreters are professionals who must be qualified. The ADA regulations define a qualified interpreter as one who is “able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary." In some states, interpreters are also required to hold specific qualifications or certifications, either developed by the state or through the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).

Many professional interpreters are hired through interpreting agencies, but others work independently, or freelance.

In most cases it is not appropriate to use an individual’s family or friends to interpret at a meeting. Unless an individual specifically requests that a friend or family member interpret, and state law allows it, the ADA regulations say that an individual’s companion may only be relied on to interpret in two situations: 1) in an emergency involving an imminent threat to the safety or welfare of an individual or the public where a qualified interpreter is not available, and 2) in a situation not involving a threat where the individual requests that an accompanying adult interpret, and that adult agrees.

When hiring interpreters, ask them to refrain from wearing or using fragrances and scented personal care products, including perfumes and colognes, scented soaps and lotions, body sprays, after­-shave, scented hair care products, scented deodorant, scented laundry detergents, fabric softeners, etc.

Types of Interpreting

There are several types of interpreting, and it is important to ask individuals which type they need. You may need to provide multiple types of interpreters for multiple individuals. Types of interpreting include:

  • American Sign Language (ASL): A visual language that uses the shape, placement, and movement of the hands, as well as facial expressions and body movements to convey information. Like any spoken language, ASL has its own unique rules of grammar and syntax, distinct from English and from sign languages in other countries. Like all languages, ASL is a living language that grows and changes over time.

  • Pidgin Signed English (PSE): A combination of certain elements of both ASL and English. This may include ASL signs used in mostly English word order, fingerspelling (using ASL signs that represent individual letters of the alphabet in order to spell out specific words), and other similar combinations.

  • Signing Exact English (SEE):  According to The S.E.E. Center, “SEE is a sign system that represents literal English.” While ASL has a syntax and structure distinct from English, SEE uses some ASL signs and adds visual information to convey exact English meaning. For example, ASL uses facial expressions and time signs to convey tense, whereas SEE adds specific movements to show verb tense forms such as “-ed” and “-ing”, “was” and “is.”

  • Oral interpreting or oral transliteration: Typically used by Deaf or hard of hearing individuals who do not sign or who rely primarily on speech and speech-reading (also called lip reading) for communication. An oral interpreter presents on the lips and face what is being said, and does so in a way that is easily understood by a person using speech-reading. An oral interpreter may also voice what a Deaf individual mouths. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) explains, “Group meetings may pose difficulty for speech-readers. It is often challenging to locate the next speaker in a conversation or discussion, thereby resulting in missed information. In settings such as the classroom, seminars, or conferences, speech-readers may be unable to see the speaker’s face clearly or may not be physically close enough to successfully speech-read. Speakers may also be located out of the sight lines of speech-readers. Speakers … may be difficult to speech-read due to unclear speech, accents, or facial hair that obscures mouth movements. Each of these scenarios necessitates oral transliterators whose responsibility is to silently replicate what speakers say, in an easy, speech-readable, clear and consistently visible manner."

  • Voicing: when an interpreter speaks to a hearing person what a Deaf individual is signing.

  • Interpreting for individuals who are deaf-blind: Individuals who are deaf-blind use a variety of communication modes ranging from interpreting at close visual range and/or in a limited sign space, to signs or fingerspelling received through the sense of touch (tactile interpreting).

  • Use of a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI): In some cases, it may be necessary to use a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) as the only interpreter or in conjunction with a hearing interpreter in order to convey the message accurately. “A Certified Deaf Interpreter may be needed when the communication mode of a deaf consumer is so unique that it cannot be adequately accessed by interpreters who are hearing. Some such situations may involve individuals who use idiosyncratic non-standard signs or gestures such as those commonly referred to as 'home signs' which are unique to a family, use a foreign sign language, have minimal or limited communication skills, are deaf-blind or deaf with limited vision, or use signs particular to a given region, ethnic or age group.”

  • Video Remote Interpreting (VRI): In rare instances, it may be appropriate for a small meeting to hire an interpreter through Video Remote Interpreting (VRI). With VRI, the interpreter is at an off-site location and is conferenced in using high speed Internet and videoconferencing technology. Most people prefer to have in-person interpreters since it is easier to see facial expressions, and technology cannot always be relied on for smooth transmission of images. Also, local interpreters will be familiar with local signs (e.g. cities, organizations, etc.) and vernacular. VRI can be more costly, but may serve as a viable alternative when a local interpreter is not available. VRI will not meet the needs of individuals who use tactile interpreting.

Considerations When Hiring an Interpreter

Consider the following factors when hiring interpreters for a meeting:

  • Length and type of meeting: If the meeting will last two hours or more, you will need to have at least two interpreters so they can take breaks to avoid fatigue.

    • Even if the meeting is less than two hours, two or more interpreters may be needed if the content is highly technical or complex, or if there will be small group discussions and individuals using interpreters will be participating in different groups. 

    • Interpreting on a stage to a large group of people requires larger, more expressive signing. Request interpreters with platform-interpreting experience for this type of meeting.

  • Cost: The hourly rate for an interpreter can vary tremendously depending on location, the interpreter’s certification and skill levels, and the type of meeting being interpreted.

    • The range could be anywhere between $25 and over $100 per hour for each interpreter. Costs may be higher if interpreters are hired through an agency.

    • It is standard practice for interpreters to charge a two-hour minimum for a shorter assignment and to charge last-minute cancelation fees ranging from two hours to the full contracted amount, depending on when the cancelation is made.

  • Positioning/placement: The placement of an interpreter at a meeting is extremely important.

    • Typically, interpreters should be placed at the front of the room near the speaker in a well-lit area. If the speaker is on a platform, the interpreter should generally be on the platform as well. There must be light on the interpreter at all times, even if lights are dimmed for a performance or video. Sign language is very precise and relies heavily on facial expression for meaning, so adequate lighting is necessary.

    • In an extremely large event where cameras are used to put the speaker on a large screen, the interpreter should be on screen as well to ensure that everyone using the interpreter is able to see adequately.

    • If the audience is divided into small groups for discussion, interpreters should be placed within each group that includes a Deaf person. If an interpreter is working with a deaf-blind individual or someone with low vision, the interpreter may sit directly in front of that individual to perform close-range interpreting or tactile interpreting.

    • If the interpreter will be voicing for a Deaf presenter, the interpreter will typically sit in the first or second row of the audience, where they can clearly see the signer for whom they are voicing. In this case, the interpreter should use a microphone, and adequate lighting on the Deaf presenter should be provided.

    • Ask Deaf attendees where they would like interpreters placed to best meet their needs.

  • Question and answer: If audience members will be allowed to ask questions to the full group, at least one interpreter should be placed where they can see the audience members so the interpreter can voice any signed questions. If there are multiple Deaf individuals in the audience, it will be important to either have audience members come to the front to ask their questions so that the other Deaf individuals can see their signing, or to have an interpreter “copy-sign” in the front of the room. This should not be the same interpreter who is voicing the question for the hearing people in the room.

  • Pre-meeting preparation: Interpreters need to prepare for an assignment by familiarizing themselves with the topic, the meeting style, and any specialized vocabulary that may be used in the meeting. Provide interpreters with the following:

    • Presentation materials or handouts;

    • A list of commonly used acronyms or other vernacular and their meanings; and

    • Correctly spelled names.

  • Interpreting during networking times: It is often assumed that interpreters will not be needed during meeting breaks, lunch times, or social events. However, these are often extremely valuable times for networking and information sharing. Provide interpreters during these times so individuals who are Deaf can participate.

    • If there is an exhibit hall, interpreters may be stationed there or at the registration desk, or you may add an "interpreter desk" for very large conferences and advertise the availability of interpreters stationed there.

Finding Sign Language Interpreters

  • The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID): RID is the national certifying body for interpreters and all nationally certified interpreters are required to maintain membership. You can find more information from RID on hiring an interpreter and search for individual members or interpreter agencies in their membership directory.

  • State agencies: Not all freelance interpreters are members of RID. If there are no RID interpreters available in a particular area, there may be others who hold state level qualifications or are otherwise qualified. You may find these interpreters through a state agency that serves people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. The National Association of State Agencies Serving the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has a list of their members, and the Illinois Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing maintains a list of state commissions and offices.

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