Nigel Howard | Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion

April 16, 2013

Nigel Howard addresses definitions, perceptions, misconceptions and the benefits of Deaf and Hearing Interpreter teams working together toward a common goal: communication between parties who do not share a language.

“No two persons ever read the same book.” I share this quote from Edmund Wilson with you to highlight a point in this presentation. A reader brings to a book their own experience and understanding in order to create meaning from the story they read. We all approach our work with our own experience and understanding and often ascribe our own to others’ work. In our work with a team, these differences or similarities in how we understand our work become very clear. In order to work through it all we have to keep in mind the goal of the interpreter’s work in the first place…to ensure that people who do not have a common language are able to communicate with each other.


Many people incorrectly believe that the concept of deaf interpreters is new when, in fact, deaf people have been functioning as interpreters within the community for as long as there have been deaf people. A good example of when this happens is in the classroom when the teacher is not a fluent user of sign language. In this situation, students will ask other students to interpret for them what the teacher is saying. In this situation, the interpreter is functioning as a deaf interpreter. The standardization, training (of which there is currently not enough), and certification of deaf interpreters are more recent developments but the function itself is not a new one.

Another belief many hearing interpreters hold about working with a deaf interpreter is that they will be perceived as unskilled or new in the field. This can lead to a lot of self doubt on the part of the interpreter. The other side of this misperception comes from deaf interpreters themselves when they believe that because know sign language then that automatically means they will be a good interpreter. As a profession we know that interpreting takes more than language fluency.

All of these perceptions play into an interpreter’s beliefs and understanding about their own work and our field in general. Another perceptual layer is added on for deaf interpreters who are interpreting in their own community where they have relationships and shared pasts with the people they are interpreting for. Every interpreter carries around their past with them. For the deaf interpreter, their past can haunt them on the job when they are working with a community member that has shared their past, a fact that can lead to distrust and misunderstanding.

The deaf community also ascribes to a perception about deaf interpreters.  Some deaf community members hold a belief that deaf interpreters are useful only for deaf people that have cognitive impairments or have some idiosyncratic language need that calls for it. They don’t yet understand that deaf interpreters could benefit them as well.  This misunderstanding could simply be a result of having always worked with hearing interpreters and no experience working with a deaf interpreter. The misunderstanding could be rooted in that shared experience with the deaf interpreter and feeling distrust and lack of confidentiality or a boundary.

The misunderstanding could go back to simply not understanding that deaf interpreters are required to go through training and abide by the same code of conduct that hearing interpreters do. Or they may not trust the fact that the number of hours required for a deaf interpreter to sit for the certification test is currently FAR LESS than it is for a hearing interpreter, lending less credibility to the deaf interpreter.  The discrepancy in the amount of study required to sit for a certification test also leads to misperceptions between hearing and deaf interpreters about who is more or less qualified to be working as an interpreter.

Misperceptions abound within the deaf interpreter community as well. Deaf interpreters are often quick to judge other interpreters entering the field based on their educational background, involvement in the community past and present, and their sign language fluency. There are also deaf interpreters who are fluent users of sign language; however, do not have a clear grasp on the task of interpreting.  These judgments and perceptions occur regardless of the deaf interpreter’s certification status.

I put the “C” in CDI in quotes because I often see deaf interpreters who have achieved a national certification place emphasis on the fact that they are not just a deaf interpreter but a certified deaf interpreter.  I commend the individuals who are able to attain a national certification; however, the label has little meaning for me.  If we look at hearing interpreters for comparison, interpreters who have achieved a national certification do not ascribe to the label of certified interpreter. They are simply, interpreters. I believe that the addition and emphasis on certified in labeling oneself is a tacit way of bringing validity and an implication of expertise to one’s work.   The current certification systems are developed with a focus on generalist/entry level skills. Having this certification does not make one an expert in all things interpreted and this fact should be reflected in the work a deaf interpreter chooses to do and not do. I argue that deaf interpreters should accept this same model as hearing interpreters and not overly emphasize certification status.


Before we go any further, I ‘d like to make sure we are all working from the same understanding of terms that are often used when talking about what a deaf interpreter does  in their work.  We can’t really talk about perceptions until we are using common definitions.

A Relay Interpreter is one that passes the information from one person on to another. I see relay interpreting used often by deaf interpreters. Relaying information is retaining the form of the language in its original state.  It is passing the message on to another person without analyzing or unpacking the source text for cultural, linguistic, or environmental factors to meet the goal of the communication in the target language.

A Shadow Interpreter is used in theater settings but can be seen in other settings as well. With this method, the interpreter literally shadows the speaker as they move about.

A Mirror Interpreter is useful in settings where there are members of an audience or setting that cannot see the original signed message due to sight line or distance restrictions. This interpreter will employ relay interpreting function by maintaining the form of the source language.

A ‘translation’ according to The Oxford Companion to the English Language is “communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target language text”.   With this definition in mind, we can understand what an Interpreter or Translator is doing.

Deaf-Blind Interpreters are often deaf interpreters.   People who function as Intervenors/SSPs for Deaf-Blind people may also be deaf interpreters but their role is very different than when they are functioning as an interpreter. Often the terms (and roles) are conflated and I’d like to make clear here that Deaf-Blind interpreters and intervenors serve very different functions even though it may sometimes be the same person doing both.

Calling someone an International Sign Interpreter is a misnomer. There is no International Signed Language, per say, so in looking at our definition of translation/interpretation the word translation or interpreter doesn’t apply in its strictest sense.   Deaf interpreters who are providing access for an international audience have developed their communication skills from interacting with many deaf communities in many geographical areas that are not their own. They have learned how deaf people talk about specific concepts and topics in a common and sometimes gestural way and are able to modulate their language used depending on the audience.  This is a very specific skill of which some deaf interpreters claim to have but in fact do not because they lack the experience in a variety of international sign language communities.

High Visual Orientation/Gesturing as a form of communication is another function of deaf interpreters and is sometimes used.

More Definition

The term ‘Interpreter’ should conjure some meaning for you since I am addressing an audience of interpreters. I envision your understanding of interpreter is ‘someone who provides equivalent translations between a signed language and a spoken language’.  An ‘ASL-English Interpreter’ would be the appropriate term for those of you who work between those two separate and distinct languages.

If we take the basic definition of ‘interpreter’ that I have presented above and apply it to the term ‘Deaf Interpreter’, what is the definition? What languages are deaf interpreters working between?  It is not a signed language and a spoken language.

There are some deaf interpreters for whom they view their role as interpreter and advocate. Advocating is a very different function all together and one that should not be confused with the interpreting role. As members of the very community of people we are serving, deaf interpreters need to be cognizant of our role as language and cultural brokers only.  Deaf interpreters with little training or experience may be quick to attribute mental health issues that manifest as communication barriers to our function as interpreters and may overstep a boundary.  A boundary that is not ours to cross but should instead be conveyed to the provider that is communicating with the deaf person. This mixing of roles by some deaf interpreters may feed into the resistance and lack of trust that some deaf community members feel about using a deaf interpreter.

According to RID’s Standard Practice Paper on Team Interpreting, “Team Interpreting is the utilization of two or more interpreters who support each other to meet the needs of a particular communication situation.   Stewart, Schein, & Cartwright define it as “two or more interpreters working together, not just physically but intelligently”.  These two definitions get at the fact that while there may be individual members of the team, they are not to work individually. Instead, each member is charged with working together toward a shared and collaborative target language interpretation that is an equivalent to the source language. Truly a team approach.

I have worked as a deaf interpreter in a variety of settings. I have because it is true that a deaf interpreter can and should be used in a variety of settings; including but not limited to medical, mental health, legal and with deaf people who are non-native signers, immigrants and are of any age.

As hearing interpreters yourselves, you may be faced with a situation where you realize that you would prefer to team with a deaf interpreter.  A common scenario where deaf interpreters are called in is to work with children or in mental health situations.  I advocate bringing one in but you need to also remember that simply because someone is deaf, fluent in sign language and hangs a shingle out calling themselves an interpreter, it does not mean they have the requisite skill set for the situation you are faced with. Keeping in mind that we are all generalists and may not be the best qualified for every situation out there, discretion on the part of all interpreters is paramount to ensuring the best outcome.

It is usually the hearing interpreter that first identifies that a deaf interpreter would be beneficial in any given situation. If an agency has past experience with the deaf person or the situation, they may identify the need ahead of time but usually it falls on the hearing interpreter to make this assessment.

The interpreter may determine that a deaf interpreter is needed as a team for a variety of reasons such as the complexity of the situation.  The need for discretion applies to determining when and if a deaf interpreter is needed as well. Careful consideration needs to happen before calling a deaf interpreter in for any and all interpreted situations. A thoughtful weighing of the situation, the environment, and the resources has to be considered along with understanding that calling in a deaf interpreter is a team approach and that, together, each interpreter will remain responsible for the communication that happens.


An interpretation of someone else’s thoughts will rarely be error free. With that in mind, 2 heads are better than one. Each interpreter processing the source message and then creating a shared understanding will result in a more accurate target message.  A teamed interpretation with both a deaf and hearing interpreter working collaboratively will result in a better overall interpretation that results in a product that provides clarity of ideas and message equivalency for the intended audience.


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16 Comments on "Nigel Howard | Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion"

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Joel Duggan
This is a great article! If any haven’t had a chance to attend one of Nigel’s workshops, I highly recommend it! I had the opportunity to attend one at Beth Israel Hospital in NY, it was excellent! I look forward to the next time there is one in the area. I’ve only had the pleasure of working with a DI once, and I really enjoyed it. I definitely can see the advantages and look forward to the opportunity again. My question/challenge is how to “sell” it to the paying party. Working through an agency, I’ve suggested a DI a few… Read more »
Lori Whynot
Thanks Nigel,… good to see your smiley face again even if it’s electronic and not in person. I appreciate this very well stated and informative article and have shared it with my fellow sub-committee members here in Australia. Deaf interpreting, although prevalent throughout the history of Deaf people, is still part of a fledgling professional interpreting practice with lots of misunderstanding not only in parts of the US, but in many other places in the world, as you know. We are currently working on establishing Deaf interpreter professional recognition here in Australia. A beginning dialogue has just started between NAATI… Read more »
Lianne Moccia


Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough piece—your explanations of interpreting, teaming, and misperceptions of roles. I welcome Deaf interpreter colleagues sharing their perspectives and experiences and believe that this kind of unpacking and dialogue is what will bring about deeper understanding.

I strive to use my own experience and influence to help support more professional development options for Deaf colleagues as they identify them. I’m particularly excited about a Deaf/Hearing Teaming workshop in June in Massachusetts taught by Betty Colonomos and Jan DeLap.


Thanks for providing the background to what’s going on in Australia, Lori. I’d also like to add something about the definition above for ‘relay interpreting’. Perhaps it’s simply an Australian thing, but here we use the term in the same way it’s used in the spoken interpreting field: ‘Relay interpreting is another term for indirect interpretation, i.e. rather than translate directly from the source language to the target language, an interpreter may work from a colleague’s translation.’ It certainly does NOT imply that the relay interpreter retains the form of the source language – just the opposite, in fact. Relay… Read more »

PS Lori, I think that the terminology varies from state to state. the problem many people have with ‘deaf interpreter’ is that’s what the wider community calls hearing Auslan/English interpreters; the problem with ‘relay’ or ‘Deaf relay interpreter’ is that these interpreters are not always relaying – they may be working directly from a source ‘text’, not through someone else’s interpretation. tricky! 🙂


This is awesome! I need to learn more of becoming DI. If he comes to Hawaii, I’d be GLAD to attend one of his workshops. I was a student of CDI program but not yet certified.


What a great description of how a team should work. Both for A-EI/DI and A-EI/A-EI team situations. I’ve worked with a DI in the past and interpreted in situations where I wished I had a DI available. This is a role that I hope will continue to develop and become more of a standard.

I look forward to the day that we understand that the skill sets are not based on “Deaf” or “hearing” but on which language is our L1 or L2 and the training and background we have in a particular area, as Nigel states. This is an excellent description of how things will be someday when we all understand this distinction is not about hearing status but “in” vs. “out” of group language user. Just like in spoken language communities you have interpreters who have different L1s and L2s thus leading to different strengths and skill sets – we all need… Read more »
Hi, Nigel! Good to see your video finally posted. I’m curious about this paragraph/section of your presentation: “I put the “C” in CDI in quotes because I often see deaf interpreters who have achieved a national certification place emphasis on the fact that they are not just a deaf interpreter but a certified deaf interpreter. I commend the individuals who are able to attain a national certification; however, the label has little meaning for me. If we look at hearing interpreters for comparison, interpreters who have achieved a national certification do not ascribe to the label of certified interpreter. They… Read more »
Matthew Simkovsky
This one paragraph is something I would like to comment on… “If we take the basic definition of ‘interpreter’ that I have presented above and apply it to the term ‘Deaf Interpreter’, what is the definition? What languages are deaf interpreters working between? It is not a signed language and a spoken language.” Based on my experience and studies in my interpreter training program, when a deaf interpreter is working with a hearing interpreter, I don’t think they are interpreting between two languages but possibly between a signed systems and ASL… or between a signed system and another sign system.… Read more »

One question: as a hearing interpreter, I have worked with a number of deaf interpreter colleagues. In most of the cases u have not found additional value to the communication stream. Where does the decision to include a DI/CDI add value over a hearing interpreter who is able to break the language needs down to its most basic structure.

This is something with which I struggle. Perhaps I just haven’t observed the successful situations Nigel describes, but I have yet to experience the value-add over a very skilled interpreter.

Peggy Huber
I am really happy to see this video appear on Street Leverage. I hope all subscribers share with hearing folks far and wide. Eventually, as more information is provided, less resistance to DI/CDI services will be experienced. More inclusion of DI/CDIs can only benefit all stakeholders in the ASL/English interpreting process! I particularly appreciated some possible Deaf Community member perspectives on the use of DI/CDIs. Excellently articulated – congratulations on a great piece of training! I do want to add a short comment regarding the emphasis on the “C” in CDI. As it has been pointed out already in previous… Read more »
Jenny Miller

I wonder if you could email me as I am trying to see if you can do a workshop for the Colorado Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf-Northern District. I can be reached at Thanks! Jenny Miller


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