What Do You Know About Sign Language and the Deaf Community?

Until recently, it seems like The Miracle Worker (the story of Helen Keller), was about the first and last I came across the issue of deafness; though impressionable, this fleeting fourth grade reading requirement blurred in my memory shortly thereafter. And the reality is, I think most everyone can relate.

So when I began working in this area, I realized – as with most subjects – there is significantly more than meets the eye; in no time, I found myself both intrigued and enlightened by the whole topic. Did you know that the term “hearing impaired” can actually be offensive? “Hard-of-hearing” or “deaf” is preferred. Moreover, American Sign Language (ASL) has a code of ethics, and one that is very highly regarded by interpreters. Let’s rewind though.

Before going into more detail, it is essential to state that ASL is just one of many, many languages used by the deaf community. We tend to overlook the fact that there is no universal language for this community; actually, the language practically varies by country. For example, those who use British Sign Language (BSL) cannot understand ASL! And so, since I have worked primarily with ASL – the most common form used in North America – my proceeding thoughts, though possibly true for all forms, are my experience with ASL and no other language.

Moving forward, did you know there are facial expressions and postures in ASL, not just hands? As a result of the movements, it can become physically exhausting, not to mention mentally; for this reason, when using interpreters, breaks become essential about every 30 minutes or so. In fact, some settings may require a ‘team’. For example, we have used two interpreters for training sessions and long meetings. The backup interpreter is there to communicate anything missed by the main interpreter, and they switch roles also about every 30 minutes.

Likewise, content can have a lot of technical language and acronyms, which can make it even more draining; it is a good idea to use notes, outlines as well as any visual aids including charts for medical settings in almost any interpreting session.

Furthermore, for visual considerations, the deaf person is the one who will be watching both you and the interpreter; for this reason the interpreter should be opposite the deaf person so they can watch. In other formats such as groups, a semi-circle is a good option, and when it comes to an auditorium or large room, the interpreter usually stands at the front and therefore the deaf person should be close enough to see. This brings forth another dynamic- video and telephone conferences: a topic for a whole other entry!

As evidenced above, an ASL interpreting session essentially requires a devised plan. Another efficient way to manage a session is for everyone to have a ‘turn’ speaking so the deaf person can understand. However, speak at your natural pace; if the interpreter needs you to slow down, they will ask and often will wait for you to finish a thought. What also may seem basic can be somewhat of a test when you find yourself saying “tell him” or “tell her” and looking at the interpreter; but it is important to talk as you normally would while looking straight at the person.

As the interpreter is just there to facilitate communication, they should not be contributing anything to the conversation. Even questions about the subject itself should be asked to the deaf person, not the interpreter; a good time to ask the interpreter is during the break or before or after the meeting. However, the best time to start is start now! Look it up online and read up on the subject. Or, you can always ask a fourth grader.