Working with ASL Interpreters

Your client’s Deaf! What are you going to do?


She is your client — the accused, plaintiff or defendant — and she’s Deaf.* How can you best represent her? How can you communicate with her? Initially, you will probably react from whatever knowledge or assumptions you have about people who are Deaf. Assumptions, growing out of personal experiences, are sometimes right, but often they are wrong. Here are some common assumptions about Deaf people and the way they communicate with others.

Common assumptions

“Deaf people have a ‘gift’ for lip-reading.” — False. The ability to lip-read is similar to the ability to sing. Some people have a natural ability and others can’t carry a tune in a bucket! The same is true for lip-reading. Some people have the natural ability to read lips. Others, even with years of training, are unable to comprehend information from lip-reading alone.

In addition, various spoken languages are more or less difficult to see on the lips. French is easier to lip-read than English because more of it is produced in the front of the mouth. Only 23% of English words are visible on the lips.

“I’ll just write notes. after all, the only problem is they can’t hear.” — Not completely true. In most ways, Deaf people are just like everybody else. They go to school, get jobs, get married and have families. However, a person who can hear has been exposed to at least one spoken language from the time that person was in the womb. This programs the brain for auditory input long before a person can string together a first sentence and has a significant impact on later ability to read and write that language.

When someone is unable to hear in early development, or when something happens that distorts the sounds perceived by the brain, the entire learning process is affected. Further, the education system has not always been effective in developing English literacy among many children who have a significant early hearing loss. Thus, while most Deaf individuals you encounter will be able to write to some degree, you must be extremely cautious — those with lower English skills may recognize individual words but may not necessarily understand those words when put together in a sentence or paragraph. Further, because of the value of literacy in our culture, any clients who have lower English literacy skills may have a sense of fear and shame and may not say when they do not understand what is written.

“OK, I’ll just grab an interpreter!” — False. Most people assume that having an interpreter means “equal access” to everything being said. Unfortunately, not everyone who calls herself/himself an interpreter is linguistically competent and knowledgeable about the legal system. Use of an unqualified interpreter often results in misinformation and confusion.

How sign interpreters work

How do interpreters work? Interpreters deliver messages between two languages with the goal of conveying equivalent meaning. This does not always mean an equivalent numbers of lexical items. Thus, a short utterance in one language may require a lengthy number of words/signs in the second language in order to have equal meaning. Because the goal is equivalent meaning, an interpreter cannot begin to move information from one language to the other until he or she understands the intent of an utterance. Thus, there will always be a pause between the time one person speaks/signs and the beginning of the interpretation. In fact, competent interpreters use consecutive interpretation at critical points (waiting until one person has completed an entire question or answer before beginning the interpretation) to ensure their own comprehension and thus the accuracy of the interpretation. For the same reason, interpreters will sometimes stop and verify what is being signed or spoken before interpreting it.

How hard can it be? After all, sign language is just English on the hands, right? Wrong. Not all Deaf people use the same sign language. Most Deaf individuals living in B.C. use American Sign Language (ASL), which is more similar to Inuit or Japanese than English in structure. Others use English-based signs — using the grammar and syntax of English. Immigrants from other countries use the sign language that is indigenous in their home country and most Deaf residents in Quebec use a French-based sign language called Langue des signes du Québec (LSQ).

An interpreter will often ask to meet with the Deaf person(s) involved to ensure that the interpreter can understand them. When there is a significant difference between the interpreter’s linguistic skills and those of the Deaf individual, the interpreter will excuse himself/herself or request the use of a Deaf Interpreter (DI). A DI is a person who is deaf and has special training for communicating with people who do not use standard forms of ASL, perhaps because of social or educational deprivation or because of a regional dialect or foreign sign language.

How can I know if an interpreter is qualified to work in legal settings? The Court Services Branch of the Ministry of Attorney General retains sign language interpreters in all types of court proceedings, including Supreme Court civil and Small Claims cases, for Deaf litigants and witnesses. The policy of the Branch is to use accredited court interpreters whenever possible. In the case of a sign language interpreter, this means a person who holds a Certificate of Interpretation from the Canadian Association of Sign Language Interpreters ( CASLI ) or the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf ( RID ), an American organization. Lawyers may wish to bear these qualifications in mind if they are themselves retaining an interpreter in a law office or other legal setting.

Tips for retaining and working with a sign language interpreter

Make a point of hiring accredited interpreters. Almost all Deaf people have hearing parents and siblings, many of whom have limited skills in visual communication. Relying on a family member of a Deaf person is not a good idea as they lack the necessary skills. A list of accredited interpreters who hold a Certificate of Interpretation from CASLI may be obtained from the Chair of Professional Standards Committee of the B.C. Chapter of CASLI, the West Coast Association of Visual Language Interpreters ( WAVLI ). Lawyers may also book through a service agency that offers CASLI or RID accredited interpreters.

Book interpreters as far in advance as possible. Do not expect to get a qualified interpreter on short notice. There is a critical shortage of interpreters throughout B.C., especially accredited interpreters. It is best to book interpreters at least two weeks in advance of when you will need them, even further ahead if they have to be brought in from out of town.

Prepare the interpreter. Interpreters don’t need highly detailed information, but they can do a much better job if they are provided with some underpinnings of information about the Deaf client and the upcoming interaction in advance. Knowing the names of parties involved and the nature of legal charges pending, for example, will help the interpreter transmit information accurately and effectively between the visual and auditory languages.

Think about placement, background and lighting. One thing that sets visual language interpreters apart from spoken language interpreters is the need for specific placement, background and lighting. It is not possible to read signs when the background is cluttered or has bright glare. Thus, you may be asked to close the blinds in your office or to place your chair in a different place. The interpreter typically sits or stands beside you so the deaf individual can see you and the interpreter in a single visual scan.

Expect to use a team of interpreters if a hearing or trial is expected to go longer than one hour. Research indicates that mental fatigue sets in after 20 minutes of interpretation and accuracy begins to deteriorate. Thus, it is typical for interpreters to spell each other off after every 20-25 minutes. In this case, each interpreter monitors his or her own work and the work of the colleague. They may even confer with one another briefly before providing an interpretation for the record in court to verify that their understanding of the statement is accurate. The interpreting team will notify you if there is the need to employ a Deaf Interpreter.

How do I talk to a Deaf client through an interpreter?

Look directly at the Deaf person, not at the interpreter, when speaking. This will feel a bit awkward because the Deaf person will probably be looking at the interpreter, not at you. But giving direct eye contact shows interest and respect.

Speak in first person, saying, for example, “Where were you at 10:00 p.m. on that night?” rather than “Ask him where he was …”

Anticipate the pause or lag between the time you ask a question or make a comment and the response from the Deaf person. Remember that moving a message from one language to another takes a few seconds. Your lack of comfort with this pause may lead you to keep talking to fill the silence. This simply gives the interpreter more to interpret and delays the response of the client or witness.

Ask one question at a time. Conveying questions from English into ASL is particularly challenging, given the differences in the two languages. This is complicated when multiple questions are asked.

Be patient with the process. Your client may have little to no awareness of the legal system, his or her rights or how to work with you. You will need to fill in the experiential blanks. Further, ASL-based Deaf individuals typically express themselves in a narrative fashion. They have a deep-seated cultural and linguistic need to put all comments into a context; consequently, a question seeking a simple yes or no reply may get a lengthy narrative response.

*Editor’s note: Deaf is capitalized to denote those persons who associate with Deaf culture or the Deaf community, most notably through use of sign language as a primary language. There are other people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing who do not use sign language or identify with this community.

For more information, contact the Professional Standards Committee of WAVLI at or visit the national associations CASLI and/or RID.