K-12: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreter Training Programs

October 22, 2013

How can ITPs better prepare sign language interpreters to work in mainstreamed K-12 settings? Specific steps are proposed to help educational interpreters become advocates for their students – and for change.

K-12 interpreting* has been around for quite some time, at least since the precursor of today’s IDEA was passed in 1975.  In the early years after this law was passed, we saw the development of what were called “self-contained classrooms,” where Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (DHH) students attended a mainstream school, but congregated in special classes with a teacher of the deaf (TOD).  As years and decades passed, the percentage of DHH students in self-contained classrooms slowly decreased and the percentage placed in regular classrooms for at least part of the school day increased.

It is no secret that professionals schooled in the overall needs of DHH children, including numerous sign language interpreting professionals, have felt that this trend has not been in the best interests of DHH children.  Many such individuals learned about those overall needs in teacher training programs, from Deaf individuals themselves, and from CODAs.  Much effort has been expended over the years to stem this tide, unsuccessfully.

Yes, concerned individuals, groups, and organizations have been working against the wholesale mainstreaming of DHH children for the last 4 decades.  Yes, they have been researching, writing, publishing, presenting — attempting to educate the powers that be of the pitfalls in general education settings for DHH children.  Gina Oliva and Linda Lytle’s book, Turning the Tide: Making Life Better for Deaf and Hard of Hearing School Children (published by Gallaudet University Press in February 2014), includes two chapters uniquely highlighting the efforts of these scholar-advocates. Sadly, despite the clamoring of knowledgeable and passionate individuals and groups, the push towards “full inclusion” of DHH children has continued. With each passing year we find more and more of these children in their neighborhood schools, separated from each other.  And that is why this phenomenon has become an issue for the sign language interpreting community.

The Impact is Important

The increasing numbers of DHH children in general education settings has coincided with a related trend in how much experience educational interpreters have.  Many, if not most, interpreters fresh out of their training find initial work in K-12 settings.  Interpreters with limited training find work in these settings, also, though this fact may be slowly changing as a result of the development of the EIPA and its subsequent adoption in numerous states.  The EIPA and the people behind it, both as an instrument and as a requirement, is but one example of the work of advocates for DHH children.  At the same time, however, the fact that so many new interpreters work in K-12 settings is all the more reason for Interpreter Preparation Programs (IPPs) to develop more focus on preparing students for this kind of work.

Dr. Oliva’s February 2012 article, “Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged,” spoke to the issue of K-12 interpreters being actual eyewitnesses of the exclusion that results from “full inclusion.”  Ironic, yes.  Doug Bowen-Bailey, in “Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents,” says that “for interpreters working in schools, we clearly need to find new role space to lead to more success.”  He offers several suggestions for how K-12 interpreters can find this new role space in their K-12 workplaces.

One way to address issues raised by Oliva, Bowen-Bailey, and others is for IPPs to solicit input from working K-12 interpreters and from DHH adults who have used interpreters in K-12 settings in recent years.  Since things are changing so rapidly (economics, cochlear implants, to name a few influences), we suggest that this be done at least every 3-5 years.  Oliva and Lytle’s book also reports what their research participants (in focus groups and an online survey) conveyed about their K-12 years.  Not surprisingly, even without direct prompting, they had a lot to say about their interpreter(s).

Did these focus groups and survey participants, all between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2012, talk about their sign language interpreter’s interpreting skills?  To a point, yes.  In one glaring example, a then 9 year old’s interpreter was using the sign for a coin, a 25-cent piece, in conveying to the young deaf child that she could work on her assignment until “quarter to 12” (as in the time on a clock).  Chaos ensued, admittedly.  But significantly more frequent were remarks about the behavior, misbehavior, and overall cultural knowledge of the interpreters.  As such, in the remainder of this article we describe four learning targets and associated projects that we suggest for IPPs.  The topics are based on both the experience of Petri and her fellow working K-12 interpreters and on the reports from Oliva and Lytle’s research participants.  These suggested projects should result in providing interpreting students with knowledge, options, and confidence to explore the “new role space,” as Bowen-Bailey suggests.

Where to Start

We recognize that IPPs may already be assigning projects similar to these.   We also recognize that IPP coursework, particularly for K-12 interpreter specialization, necessarily follows any and all policy guidelines provided by the respective states to which they are responsible.  We wish to set forth an opinion that, where such policy dictates for coursework do not reflect the real life experiences of working K-12 sign language interpreters and their now-grown consumers, IPPs have a responsibility to do whatever is needed to educate state-level personnel about this conundrum.  Interpreters and interpreter trainers are uniquely positioned to educate everyone one concerned about the unique needs of DHH children.  Dave Coyne’s recent Street Leverage article, “Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters,” certainly is aligned with the need for sign language interpreters to employ leadership tactics in partnership with DHH adults/professionals.

Everyone knows that something needs to change vis a vis the experience of DHH students in general K-12 educational settings.  Maybe more than something: much needs to change.   Let’s all take part and be the change – let’s share, collaborate, and grow a new role, turning the tide together.


Here are some specific recommendations for Interpreter Training Programs to consider adopting:

Learning Target 1

Understand Incidental Learning – how it informs and empowers all humans, how Deaf students in a hearing school are at risk for limited access to incidental learning, and a variety of ways interpreters can respond to this risk.

Instructor to lecture on the dissertation “Positioned as Bystanders: Deaf Students’ Experiences and Perceptions of Informal Learning Phenomena” (Hopper, M. 2012) – her methods, findings, and recommendations.

1. Students to consider where and how incidental learning has occurred in their own lives – through reflection and discussion on how they acquired language, knowledge, and insight by overhearing peers – slang, obscenities, vicarious learning.

2. Students to spend time in public spaces (coffee shops, bars, gyms, etc.) listening and (unobtrusively) taking notes on what is learned incidentally (e.g. overheard).  Students to report on how what was overheard did or could inform their decisions or other elements of life, and on the potential impact of not overhearing particular bits of information.

3. Students to observe at the local school for the Deaf and report on how incidental learning naturally occurs in this environment.

4. Students to observe in a regular education setting with DHH student(s), list the incidental learning opportunities they witness (before class, in the hall, in the cafeteria), and make estimations about whether or not the information was accessible to and/or absorbed by the DHH student(s).

5. Students discuss the above observations and reports with classmates and develop ideas for strategies that sign language interpreters can employ to reduce the lack of access to incidental learning.  Students should consider strategies aimed at all levels – hearing peers, the DHH student(s), teachers, administrators.

Learning Target 2

Have a solid understanding of the nebulous issues regarding the role of a sign language interpreter in general education settings.

1. Students to investigate and report on various sources for information on interpreting ethics in general education settings.

2. Students to interview working K-12 interpreters to learn about various situations that have challenged thinking about ethical behavior for interpreters in K-12 settings.

3. Students to prepare a report on situations where the interpreter’s role may be blurry and debatable.  For each of these, students should report varying responses and the repercussions of each.  Some examples might be:

a. Interpreters monitoring behavior or performing disciplinary actions:  Give examples of why this is an issue, give numerous examples of situations where other adults might expect an interpreter to take some kind of action, and identify the options open to interpreters in each example.

b. Interpreters are bound by safety policies (“life, limb, or liability”) that apply to all adults in the school settings.  Give examples of student actions that would clearly require interpreter intervention, student actions that would clearly not be bound by safety policies, and student actions that would fall into a gray area.  Discuss various options for responding to the latter.

c. In matters of instruction, sign language interpreters have some flexibility.  Students should come up with numerous situations that typically need to be decided case by case.  Students should include extreme situations to illustrate flexibility within certain boundaries.

4. Teachers and other school personnel often expect and/or request an interpreter to assist with instruction.  Students should give examples of requests for assistance from teachers/staff that they deem reasonable, unreasonable, and ambiguous.

Learning Target 3

Understand how DHH youth and adults feel about their experiences in general education classrooms.

1. Develop questions and interview DHH adults about sign language interpreting services during the K-12 years.

a. Which of their interpreters’ practices were/weren’t empowering?

b. What recommendations do they have for K-12 interpreters?

2. Develop questions and interview currently working K-12 interpreters and/or former working K-12 interpreters about interpreting services during the K-12 years.

a. In what ways did they empower and advocate for their students?

b. What insights do they have for you?

3. Discuss findings with classmates.

a. What were common problems/issues cited by the Deaf adults/Interpreters?

b. What solutions were commonly deemed effective?

c. What recommendations do they have for currently working K-12 interpreters and for IPPs?

4. Use this information to develop fact sheets for general education settings – develop one fact sheet for adult staff, and one for hearing classmates.

Learning Target 4

Be able to function as an effective advocate for DHH students in general education settings – learn how to establish oneself as an approachable, trustworthy, and knowledgeable ‘local expert’ on issues related to DHH students.

1. Students to compose a one-page letter introducing him/herself and explaining the sign language interpreter’s role.  Include a brief description of the interpreting process, your training and experience, and what services you provide.

2. Students to prepare an in-depth inservice presentation for general education staff members.

3. Provide a practice inservice session by doing one of the following:

a. Do a ‘mock inservice’ with current educators in local school.

b. Present to a college class of future K-12 educators.

In the end

We have offered some specific student learning objectives and associated assignments or projects that will provide interpreters-in-training an opportunity to learn about and discuss issues regarding interpreting in K-12 settings.  This is particularly important because so many newly-trained interpreters find themselves working in such settings for at least a few years.  We further emphasize the responsibility that IPPs have for considering the impact of the “end product” of their programs, which is the education of deaf and hard of hearing children, for better or for worse.  In particular, they must be involved in educating state-level officials about the kind of training these children deserve their interpreters to have.

Do you have Learning Target that you might suggest?


Co-Author – Jenee Petri

Jenee worked as a K-12 Interpreter for 10 years.  She is currently a staff interpreter at the University of Minnesota. In addition to freelance work, she has been a Video Interpreter at Sorenson Communications for 5 years.  Jenee has been nationally certified since 2003.  She is also a national certified Cued Language Transliterator.  Growing up in Faribault, Minn., Jenee studied ASL in high school, which lead her to pursue a degree from Saint Paul College’s Interpreter Training Program in 2001.  She currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend, Steve, and their dog, a 9 y/o English Springer Spaniel, Henry.


*We use the term “K-12 interpreting” for the sake of precision.  Issues involved with interpreting for K-12 students differ from those involving college students and adults.  We think that the term K-12 interpreting allows us (and other writers) to be more precise.

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34 Comments on "K-12: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreter Training Programs"

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Sunny Bishop

Amazing and insighful article! Do you travel to do workshops for K-12 interpreters?


We are discussing! If you have specific ideas about what is needed by all means post these or send to me directly at gina.oliva09@gmail.com


And we wonder why Deaf schools are closing. It upsets me that many DHoH do not get the acclimation to their culture that makes life as a Deaf person full and rounded. Sigh.


Amen!!! Truly, Amen. In the forthcoming book, we talk a lot about this. The short term solution is that we need more summer and weekend programs for DHH youngsters.

Maureen Moose

These learning objectives are all right on target. However, we need to remember that an effective k-12 interpreter needs both knowledge and skills. If IPPs are going to produce interpreters who are effective in working with children then we need to provide more opportunities for students to develop receptive and expressive skills. Students need to work with source texts of children of various ages as well as various language preferences and needs. Locating appropriate source texts for students can be extremely challenging.

Jenee Petri

Maureen – good point. Perhaps greater collaboration between state level Deaf schools and IPPs is in order? What might that look like?

* ITP students assisting with classroom activities at a nearby Deaf school?
* Deaf school submitting videos of ‘typical’ instruction and class disucssion for ITP students to analyze?
* Required volunteer hours?

Thanks for getting things percolating!


Would it be possible for you to vlog translate the article English to ASL? Much appreciate.

Jenee Petri


That’s a completely fair request, and something I wish I had thought of before we posted the article. Thank you for suggesting it!

We will see what we can do; we want this fully accessible. In the future, we’ll be sure to include an ASL vlog off the bat!


Here’s my stab: *Understand how many of the interpreter’s day-to-day decisions are constrained by the IEP — a document generated by a group of people often not able to directly communicate with the student, who are limited or skewed in their information on Deaf people, and their language development, or see more than snapshots of the students daily interactions. 1. Sit in on an IEP, make note of the actors, the dominant voices, and the conclusions they reach. What worked? What didn’t? 2. Interview best-of-practice classroom interpreters and ask about their interpreting choices in light of the IEP. 3. Examine… Read more »

rather, “… or see LITTLE more than snapshots…”

Jenee Petri
Dan, It’s interesting that you bring up IEPs. Do you mind elaborating on in what ways you’ve seen the IEP constrain the interpreter’s ability to perform? Your post makes me consider, ‘In what ways could the IEP be used to as a tool to get Deaf students the much needed face-to-face time with Deaf peers and mentors?’ Perhaps setting IEP goals regarding ‘socialization and esteem’ could have action steps as such: * Being assigned a Deaf adult mentor who visits weekly for a ‘lunch session.’ * Being educated about Deaf history. (perhaps as an independent study or during DHH time?)… Read more »
Jenee, Thanks for responding! I was thinking of times in the IEP when it was decided, for instance, that all communication be presented in SEE II (or some other English-based sign system), without regard for the student’s communicative abilities or inclinations, and without regard for different communicative settings. Also, allowing space in the IEP for students learning how to best use an interpreter is another topic worth addressing. Some of these issues do depend on the parents’ exposure to Deaf people, as well as the educational philosophy of the teacher or program. But they do drive what limits of an… Read more »
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Dan: I appreciate your suggestion about doing an observation and analysis of the IEP meeting. That, I think, ties into a better understanding of what Gina and Jenee described as the “nebulous” role of an interpreter in K-12 settings. Inherent in that, I believe, is the ability to really analyze who has power in the decision-making process and how that power gets used. That, I think, is a critical skill for interpreters to develop – the ability to do a power analysis. I wonder what role Interpreting Programs can play in fostering that ability – as well as what role… Read more »
Jenee Petri

Doug – I think your ‘power analysis’ learning target FABULOUS idea! I so appreciate the movement, lately, for interpreters to recognize their own privilege and power. I think that would be a necessary foundation to build upon, no?

And then doing a power analysis on, something like, the IEP team. Then, as they discuss how would they approach those in power, it leads really well into discussions about professionalism, being approachable and ‘team like’ while establishing yourself, the interpreter, as a colleague/equal to the ‘power holders.’

Or what ideas did you have in mind?


This analysis of power differentials is definitely important for k-12 interpreters. It’s certainly something that students could incorporate into an observation especially if they are already familiar with the Demand Control Schema.

Theresa Heath (Terry)

Excellent suggestions Dan!

The crucial concept here is CRITICAL MASS. At least in urban areas, we need to get school districts and parents to understand that Deaf children need to be clustered. Once the school has several Deaf children in every grade, you will begin to see some hearing students and teachers learning signs, enabling more incidental learning. You will see interpreters working in teams rather than alone (it’s become painfully obvious that just-graduated interpreters cannot progress without peer-and-mentor support on the job!). And Deaf students can support each other, peer to peer, fostering student responsibility and independence. They will no longer depend… Read more »
Hey Bill, and hi to everyone else who has posted — thanks so much for all your comments. I have thought a great deal about what Bill is saying, that “Once the school has several Deaf children in every grade, you will begin to see some hearing students and teachers learning signs, enabling more incidental learning. You will see interpreters working in teams rather than alone (it’s become painfully obvious that just-graduated interpreters cannot progress without peer-and-mentor support on the job!).” I agree with this. And so do many who have been fighting against the concept of “full inclusion” (always… Read more »
Lisa Schulman
I see a big difference in the school district where I currently interpret compared to my experiences in past districts. There are multiple DHH in the classrooms and a team of interpreters that “share” these students; i.e., the students work with multiple interpreters each day in different classes. The students seem to have more confidence to participate in group classroom activities, to respond to classroom-wide addressed Q & As, and to be an active part of extracurricular activities such as Student Council. Additionally, they seem to be more flexible with regards to comprehending and using a variety of signing styles.… Read more »
This was a very insightful article. As an educational interpreter, I agree with the points you have made. Regarding Learning Targets, there are two areas I have found myself wondering about. If educational interpreters had a solid understanding of bilingual learning (such as challenges faced)/bilingual education strategies, would this improve their interpreted product? Additionally, would an understanding of methods deaf teachers use (attention getting, awareness of visual split attention (Odyssey, Spring 2012), making things visual, etc.) assist in the interpreting process? There’s so much to consider. It is definitely more than “just” interpreting! Gina, I look forward to reading your… Read more »
Theresa Heath (Terry)
I take exception with many of the issues presented. I have been interpreting in the K-12 setting, at least half time, for eighteen years. My perspective may be a bit different from many of you as I also have a deaf son and a deaf brother. Some of my comments will be from the perspective of my son who is now an adult. I want to address your points in order: 1) Let me address Teacher of the Deaf training (TOD) programs and how few of them require ASL fluency for their graduates. In some states, such as mine, only… Read more »
Jenee Petri
Terry, Thank you for sharing your insights. Gaining perspective from those with experience in the field and an understanding of the Deaf Experience is exactly what we’re looking for. Your son is sure lucky to have a mother with Deaf heart! You make a good point about needing to beef-up the ASL requirements for TOD training programs. I know that Gina found that TOD requirements are a state by state thing and I know she plans to say more about that. For sure, they need to be trained to work with all kinds of DHH children in all kinds of… Read more »

I agree that educational interpreters would benefit by also working with deaf adults but many interpreters only want to work a forty hour week and then they are done. Sigh. At the very least, they should interact with deaf adults on a regular basis but that is impossible to regulate.

I am a k12 interpreter and do have some contact with deaf adults. I agree it benefits every interpreter to interact with the deaf community. However, let’s consider things before we start judging k12 interpreters for not doing more community interpreting. Many of us are already working a 30-40 hour week. It can be exhausting to spend evenings and weekends interpreting as well. How many community interpreters are working 50+ hours a week on a regular basis? It can also be expensive. In my state we need to be nationally certified, have a state license and be a member of… Read more »
A Learning Target I would add would be a course on education. During my training as an intervenor, I had to learn what stages were normal for a child, then understand how that was different for a DeafBlind child, then work on activities to facilitate learning. I do not think we address K-12 101 for interpreters, to get the overall goals of education and how chidlren learn, to then frame our role and work within that system with a DHH student. Further we might do well with something to give us the overall school administration and navigation of their goals.… Read more »
Jenee Petri

Monica – right on! I concur! Somewhere along the way I learned about ‘typical’ child developmental stages (perhaps in a psychology class? perhaps in an article I read regarding language and social development in DHH children?), but I don’t recall if that was a highlighted portion of my ITP training.

I agree that understanding developmental milestones, learning how to sensitively talk about a unique child’s progression towards those milestones, identifying barriers to achieving milestones, and finally being able to suggest ways to overcome identified barriers is an essential piece of training for an advocate to have.


Chiming in here — responding to Terry: First, it’s wonderful to hear from a Mom/Interpreter — you have more knowledge of the myriad issues than most parents. Your son has been fortunate for this knowledge and involvement. We totally agree that one size DOES NOT fit all. Perhaps the comments about how so many professionals have decried and fought against the push towards “full inclusion” led to the impression that we are against mainstreaming. We (me, Jenee, and my co-author Linda Lytle) are not against mainstreaming per se. However we want to emphasize that our research subjects had much to… Read more »
Short comment here: I, Gina, am NOT suggesting that K-12 interpreters do more interpreting work in the community. I AM suggesting that K-12 interpreters find ways to be involved in educating teachers and parents about their students’ experiences/needs. K-12 interpreters can be instrumental in bringing in Deaf Community members to meet with students, parents, etc and can advocate for weekend and summer programs. They can also record their experiences and share them with researchers so that things can be on a track towards continual improvement of the students’ experiences. I do realize the K12 job is difficult, and exhausting. I… Read more »
Carrie Davenport
I would like to add that more and more preschoolers (yes, 3-5 year olds) are being provided with interpreters in mainstream settings…or in special needs preschool programs. A colleague from another school for the deaf and I partnered to create a survey for those individuals providing interpreting services (e.g., aides, tutors, TODs, and educational interpreters). The response was amazing, with over 100 individuals responding. I will admit, we are novices at putting together such things so there were flaws. However, the message was loud and clear – those providing the services are struggling, oftentimes with minimal resources, and without appropriate… Read more »

It’s GREAT that you did this!! We need so much much more of this. Yes it DESPARATELY needs our attention. Will you publish your results or present them somewhere?? Let me know if I can be of assistance. Gina.Oliva09@gmail.com

Hilary Mayhew
Dr. Oliva and everyone, I read this article and its precursor (http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/02/sign-language-interpreters-in-mainstream-classrooms-heartbroken-and-gagged/) when it first came out, and came back to them this summer to re-read the rich thoughts and comments that were shared here. All of this is at the front of my mind, because I am taking an elective online class this summer on Bilingual Education Policy, through Gallaudet (a class like this could be a good one for educational interpreters too, as others suggested). There are so many ideas here that I could pull from while in this class, from concrete steps to big complex systemic changes.… Read more »
Hi Dr. Oliva and everyone– I read this article and its precursor ( )when they first came out, and have found myself coming back to them often this summer. I’m not a K-12 educational interpreter actually, but I am taking a class through Gallaudet this summer on Bilingual Education Policy as an elective, and I’ve found these articles rich in ideas. I also think of my first Deaf friend in middleschool, a “solitary” Deaf student who had the same interpreter for most of her K-12 years. I often look back on that and wish many of us around her had… Read more »

Hi Hilary — thanks for all your very good thoughts!! I would like to follow up with you on these…could you send me an email (Gina.oliva09@gmail.com) or friend me on FB (Gina A. Oliva)

Look forward to hearing from you….

I really enjoyed reading this article. I am currently a student in college and I am interning at a hearing high school, where there is a handful of Deaf students who are mainstreamed into hearing classrooms. The interpreters I intern with seem to really engage with the students to help them understand and interpret what is being taught. But what I really enjoy in the school is that there is a library for the Deaf students/interpreters only. The students get to interact with each other and the interpreters help them with their schoolwork. I can agree that mainstreaming Deaf students… Read more »

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