Beyond the Ear: Myth: A Signer can be an Interpreter

Often people in the education, law and medical fields prefer deaf people to bring their family members along believing that someone who can sign can interpret.  While it is a noble idea and a cost saving one – there is a major issue with this approach, lack of quality information.  Quality information is critical when there is information that needs to be exchanged from one language to another.

A signer can range from a recent or current ASL student to a CODA (Child(ren) of Deaf Adults).  The difference is how language is applied in a communication manner, especially in professions where professionalism is a necessity rather than the norm.

Interpreters receive academic and practical training in colleges and universities. They learn the art of ensuring that there is full communication understanding in two languages (or three if you’re a native Spanish speaker – NEAT!), requesting clarification, being knowledgeable about the type of job, whether it be education, law or medical and impart a neutrality to the situation that signers do not have.

Let me give you a story: A father goes into a hospital for a planned surgery. He requests his son to interpret despite his wife’s objection that this is making this too personal for the family.  The son consents to interpret. Then came the hard part, the doctor requests to speak to the father with the son, while the other half waits outside the room. The doctor went into detail about the procedure, including the potential, side effects and what ifs that could happen on the slab.  Afterwards, the son spoke with the mother and admitted that he should not have been interpreting, even though he had experience and skill, because of the weight of responsibility as a son and as an interpreter.  He was nearly unable to control his emotions.

That is why CODAs need not be interpreting for their family members; not only is it emotional, it also can be a cause of misunderstanding due to missing critical information (intentional or not) or the terminology of the profession is unfamiliar to the signer.

Don’t get me wrong about CODAs, I have met some who are professional and attended college to gain more academic experience and training to become better interpreters – I applaud CODAs who do that.

Just because one knows a language and uses it socially or learns it academically does not qualify that person to become an interpreter. Everyone hurts from unqualified interpretation – from deaf/hard of hearing to businesses. Miscommunication that can cost a life, create mental health issues or produce malpractice events for businesses.

It is not only legal that the education, medical and legal systems must hire professional interpreters, not family members or signers – it also protects all parties from potential infractions leading to malpractices, misconceptions and future barriers in communication and partnership.


5 thoughts on “Beyond the Ear: Myth: A Signer can be an Interpreter

  1. This post stepped on a few toes I am sure, but it is 100 percent accurate. I do understand the comfort level that the deaf must have with their own kids, but wouldn’t it be better for the son/daughter to be there as support/advocate than to be stuck in the middle of something so heated/serious. (that was rhetorical). Good Job Joanna for the much needed enlightenment.

  2. Thanks for blogging. Also, there is patient privacy and attorney client privacy in which CODA interpreting for family isn’t appropriate. Interpreters are trained for such. I went to a Hearing and Speech center and was signing. No one knew ASL. And instead of having an interpreter they brought out a Deaf person who was in a different job to interpret. So inappropriate, illegal and unprofessional. These Hearing and Speech Centers only want our money from hearing aid purchases. Please blog about that too! Thanks!

    1. Medical versus quality of life. I would say the chances of a CODA interpreting for family is not as high as it was now that many deaf parents are enlightened or in my case, my defiant rebelliousness for not allowing my in-laws interpret (especially one of them).

      I recently found out that someone I knew did interpret for his/her father (he/she is deaf with CI) who is deaf to the point where the nurse said she would go ask for an interpreter. I found it a bit odd that this would happen as the person is a year younger than I and equally enlightened. I have done interpreting even though I am deaf and prefer to do so in personal settings, not in professional settings unless my role is clear.

      That is one side. The other side is the ‘professions’ who need the training of how to use interpreters and when, where and who to use. God knows!

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