Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters

October 5, 2016

Deaf Interpreters (DI) bring a wealth of cultural and linguistic experience to Interpreter Education. Jeremy Rogers investigated the DI experience with Education Programs resulting in some practical recommendations for how to better welcome them to the table.


In 2014, Eileen Forestal, PhD, RSC, presented at StreetLeverage – Live in Austin, Texas. One of the most poignant statements she made was, “Deaf Interpreters have been involved every step of the way since the beginning of the profession. Deaf Interpreters are here to stay. We will shape the future of the profession for all interpreters whose work includes American Sign Language and English” (Forestal, 2014). In 2016, I found that working Deaf interpreters and Deaf interpreting students did not share the same outlook.

[View post in ASL.]

I was introduced to the concept of Deaf interpreters early on in my college education. Originally majoring in elementary education, I decided to take American Sign Language to fulfill my language requirement. I randomly selected an ASL 100 course that fit into my schedule. The instructor happened to be a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI). Eventually, I changed majors to interpreting and transferred to Gallaudet University for my Bachelor’s in Interpretation. While at Gallaudet, I regularly observed Deaf/Hearing interpreting teams, as well as Deaf/Blind interpreting done primarily by CDIs. Having such consistent exposure to Deaf interpreters falsely led me to believe that working with Deaf interpreters was common practice. I quickly realized after I returned to California that this was not the case.

When I began working as a Video Relay Service (VRS) interpreter, I was again surprised to find that we did not have Deaf interpreters in the call center. Staffing Deaf interpreters seemed like such a logical component in video relay settings, especially having such high call volume for Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) calls. What was even more surprising was the number of colleagues I had whom had never worked with a Deaf interpreter before. Some colleagues even scoffed at the idea that they would need a Deaf interpreting team; after all, they knew ASL and had been doing this for years! I soon realized this was no longer a simple theme I was encountering; it was a very serious problem.

Research Process

I began my graduate studies at Western Oregon University in 2014. After considering dozens of topics of interest, it struck me: What is Deaf interpreter education? What does Deaf interpreter education look like and how can it be most effective? The magnitude of these research questions was overwhelming. I needed expert guidance, and so I asked Carole Lazorisak, a working Deaf interpreter, to join my research committee. There was no way I could define most effective approaches to Deaf interpreter education, as I am not a Deaf interpreter; I could, however, reach out to working Deaf interpreters and Deaf interpreting students to gain insight into their educational experiences. In June of 2015, the first national Deaf Interpreter Conference was held in St. Paul, Minnesota. I mailed consent forms to St. Paul to be distributed at the conference; out of 208 registrants in attendance, 52 registrants completed and returned a consent form. 8 additional participants completed the consent form. In the end, 9 participants were selected for an interview. Interviews were conducted via videophone or online video conferencing platform and screen recorded for documentation. Interviews were then transcribed from ASL to English; initial transcriptions were returned to the interviewees for feedback and corrections, and, once approved, the transcripts were coded for data.


Findings of Research Study

While the full findings of the research study can be found below, I would like to share the more unexpected findings that came to light. I was disheartened to discover that there was such a common theme of interpersonal/intrapersonal strife amongst Deaf interpreters; that is, the negative perceptions that Deaf interpreters had of themselves, not only because of the experiences they had in interpreting programs, but also working in the field alongside hearing interpreters. Several interview participants reflected on their experiences in both interpreting programs and workshop settings and noted a strong sense of distrust by hearing interpreters; many of these same Deaf interpreters criticized the constant emphasis on interpreters’ hearing status rather than the skills and abilities they had to contribute to the interpreting process.

Perhaps the most disturbing theme that arose from the interviews conducted was the resigned acceptance of the conditions of our current climate. Several participants concluded that even though they recognized the injustices in place, there was very little to be done if they hoped to continue to work as Deaf interpreters. One participant went so far as to state, “I take it from hearing interpreters right now because I am working toward building my reputation and securing more opportunities for myself. If I am not careful with how I react, I am risking my job security” (Rogers, 2016). Another participant commented, “If the bickering and arguing and discord between Deaf and hearing teams continues, hearing interpreters are going to continue being resistant to working with us. And that means less work for us in the end” (Rogers, 2016).

Recommendations by Participants

Participants were asked for their insight and recommendations for improving Deaf interpreter education in existing interpreting programs across the nation; both working Deaf interpreters and Deaf interpreting students made the following recommendations:

  1. Stronger Deaf presence in interpreter education: participants stressed the importance of hiring more Deaf faculty members to teach in interpreting programs, as well as maintaining higher numbers of Deaf interpreting students so as to avoid any perceived or actual tokenism. Participants also encouraged interpreting programs to invite the Deaf community into the classroom to participate in interpreting exercises; this would allow for more authentic interpreting practice.
  2. Skill sets to be focused on: a strong emphasis was placed on Deaf interpreting students’ command of both English and American Sign Language, noting that being a heritage user of either language did not qualify a Deaf student as linguistically capable. In regards to curriculum design, participants generally believed that hearing and Deaf students should learn together in interpreting programs, but that some courses should taken independently to address skills specific to Deaf interpreters (i.e. gestural communication, expansions techniques, ethical decision-making practices).
  3. Support for Deaf interpreter education on a national level: as most of the participants were in attendance at the 2015 Deaf Interpreter Conference (DIC), there were several comments made in reference to the DIC. All comments made were supportive of the conference and many participants stressed the importance of continuing to provide opportunities for Deaf interpreters to gather at a national, or even regional, level; this would encourage a sharing of ideas and information, thus nurturing the growth of Deaf interpreters’ education and practice.

It is time for us, as a profession, as a community, to reflect on Forestal’s words and remember that Deaf interpreters are here

to stay. As a hearing interpreter, I am humbled and honored to have been afforded the unique opportunity to record and share the experiences of Deaf interpreters who came long before me; I wish to again thank all of the participants of this research study for their time and commitment to our work.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are your thoughts on Deaf interpreter education and curricula design?
  2. How can we address the interpersonal/intrapersonal issues plaguing the dynamics of our field?
  3. How can Deaf interpreter education gain more support on a national level?


  1. Forestal, E. (2014). Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession. Street Leverage. Retrieved from https://www.streetleverage.com/2015/02/deaf-interpreters-shaping-the-future-of-the-sign-language-interpreting-profession/
  2. Rogers, Jeremy, “Deaf Interpreter Education: Stories and Insights Shared by Working Deaf Interpreters and Deaf Interpreting Students” (2016). Master’s of Arts in Interpreting Studies (MAIS) Theses. Paper 31. http://digitalcommons.wou.edu/theses/31
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9 Comments on "Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters"

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Diane A. Rhodes
Thank you for bringing light to this subject, Mr. Rogers. As a hearing person who often communicates with deaf instructors and students at my community college, I sometimes enlist the aid of hearing interpreters. I would love to learn how a deaf interpreter could provide the same level of communication for me. I think it’s people like me that need to be educated about the capabilities of deaf interpreters. I think this will go a long way in changing the perception among the general population and that in turn will hopefully filter into the interpreter sector. I look forward to… Read more »
Jeremy Rogers

Thank you for your comments Diane, I am so grateful for your support and promotion of Deaf interpreter education. Perhaps your college’s support services department can provide more insight into securing opportunities for Deaf interpreters at your school?


Great reading, was interesting and educational, i was unaware of the long term needs of interpreters. I especially like the idea of bringing the deaf community into the classroom to participate in interpreting exercises. This would bring real life into the classroom and would not only help the students and faculty but also benefit deaf community. I am looking forward to more articles in the future. Thank you

Jeremy Rogers

Thank you for your contribution Kim! I agree that creating authentic learning opportunities for our students is beneficial for both students and the Deaf community. I appreciate your interest and hope you continue to explore the field of interpreting!

I really appreciate your comments. It seems like deaf interpreting students are the ones at the bottom of the crab pot now. I only hope the interpreting programs that do offer seats to deaf students take heed of your post and work toward a less audist perspective of interpreters. I also wish that interpreting programs such as NTID would take the nails out of the door they have slammed shut and open it to deaf students who want to become deaf interpreters. I think it is a shame that this program, among others doesn’t even offer an opportunity for deaf… Read more »
Jeremy Rogers

Hello Anon, thank you for your contribution and taking the time to read this article. During my research study several participants commented on the shortage of opportunities for promoting and nurturing Deaf interpreter education in the United States. Do you have any suggestions for expanding educational opportunities in our existing programs? How can we best convince these programs that Deaf interpreter education is a benefit to both the field and our consumers?

Thank you for your article. Sadly, it seems that we are kind of stuck beating our heads against the same old wall, without considering that a different paradigm could open the door to providing better results. Referring back to my SL article (from Jan. 27, 2016) about the widely differing approaches to educating Deaf interpreters in Denmark and Finland: In Denmark, Deaf people “have been effectively barred from enrolling in the country’s only interpreter training program (ITP).” While in Finland, HUMAK’s four-year interpreter training program welcomes both Deaf and hearing students. In fact, “besides trying to attract Deaf people into… Read more »
Suzanne Terrio
Hearing interpreters often practice a “justification script” to recite to hearing people who kindly ask, “Let’s go off the record..Excuse me for my ignorance, but why are there 2 interpreters? “(DEAF/HEARING) Assume you are a 45 year old CODA, or a 60 year old spouse of a Deaf spouse, you may have to analyze the reasons which go beyond : linguistic improvements , or better MMS. In this situation, perhaps it is : a trust factor, an experience alignment, a specific analogy, we are looking for, yet wording that to my hearing neighbor, nonetheless to a judge, can be emblematic… Read more »
Bryan Davis
Jeremy, this is some important research — thank you. As a hearing interpreter whose L2 is ASL, I see the great benefits of having Deaf educators as part of my journey. I agree too that there is simply not enough Deaf people represented in IEPs on the whole. I read Joseph Featherstone’s article before reading yours, so that may have an influence on what I’m writing here. But I have always been of the mind that interpreter education is multifaceted. Interpreters need an equal balance of English language instruction and hearing culture knowledge just as much as the need ASL… Read more »

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