Sign Here: ASL Interpreters and Access to Justice
American Sign Language
language access
language barriers
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This month, the Ayuda Community Legal Interpreter Bank plans to train and certify at least five more American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, and at least one Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) to serve low-income residents in legal matters in the District - more than doubling the number of interpreters available to Legal Aid’s deaf and hard of hearing clients.

I, for one, am thrilled.

As a Legal Assistant at Legal Aid, one of my responsibilities is to coordinate office interpretation and translation services.  This means I spend a lot of time working with the Interpreter Bank and the DC Bar Volunteer Interpreter/Translator Registry, as well as with individual volunteers, to ensure that our clients are able to communicate effectively regarding their legal matters.

We frequently assist clients with language barriers, but often find it to be a greater challenge to assist individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.  This experience mirrors the difficulty deaf and hard of hearing clients face navigating the court system and interacting with local and national government agencies.  Clients who are hard of hearing and are not completely fluent in ASL or are also limited English proficient (LEP) or non-English proficient (NEP) face even greater challenges.

Alternative Forms of Communication

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires government agencies, social services and businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Compliance is mixed and given the range of people’s individual needs and circumstances, flexibility is necessary to adequately serve members of the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Text Telephone (TTY) and the Telecommunications Relay Service (through which typed messages are transmitted to an operator who then reads them to the other party) are effective in many circumstances.  However, many people living in poverty do not own a TTY.

Emailing is also a common alternative to calling over the phone.  However, this requires regular Internet access, another expense out of reach for many of our clients.

Furthermore, both of these forms of communication rely on the client to communicate effectively in writing, a burden and an ineffective solution for clients with low levels of literacy.  Literacy is a particular concern with deaf and hard of hearing clients, as many studies indicate that people who are deaf and hard of hearing may read and write English at a lower level than hearing people.  This is likely due to the challenges people who are hard of hearing face in language acquisition at an early age, and the difference in the linguistic structure of ASL.[i]

Finally, LEP clients who are hard of hearing cannot communicate via the TTY and relay service, nor compose email in English.

Emphasis on Live Interpretation

Here at Legal Aid, we have a policy of using live interpreters whenever possible, particularly when working with clients who are deaf or hard of hearing. This can be difficult - only a few ASL interpreters are currently available in the Interpreter Bank, and interpreters willing to provide services pro bono are few and far between.   Even live interpretation is not always effective, particularly with clients who are not fluent in ASL.

Flexible Policies are Most Effective

Government agencies are often unequipped to serve individuals who are both hard of hearing and LEP.  In these instances, clients often have to pick which interpretation they need more – language or sign.  For example, one elderly client, a native Amharic speaker who was also hard-of-hearing, had a hearing at the Office of Administrative Hearings using Language Line.  She struggled to understand and had to repeatedly ask the telephonic interpreter to clarify or repeat.

In order to avoid such a situation, many hard of hearing and LEP clients report that they rely on a family member or case manager to accompany them to appointments at government offices.  While understandable in an emergency situation or for a quick transmission of information, relying on outside parties to interpret in legal matters is not a long-term solution.  The potential for miscommunication and/or breaches of confidentiality are too great to risk for our clients, whose incomes, housing or familial stability may rest on the events of the case.

The D.C. Superior Court has shown a high level flexibility in employing Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs), who have a greater knowledge of deaf communication and assist ASL interpreters in communicating with officers of the court.  In one Legal Aid case, a deaf and LEP client signed first to a CDI, who then signed to an ASL interpreter, who then spoke on behalf of the client.  Although this is a lengthy process involving twice the number of people as is normal for such an interaction, it is the only reliable method of ensuring that clients are able to communicate clearly.

In order to adequately serve deaf, hard of hearing and LEP clients, interpretation and translation policies must allow for creativity and require individual employees to take initiative in securing adequate interpretation.  Reliance on any specific form of interpretation, such as Language Line or a relay service, is inadequate for many of the District’s most vulnerable residents.

While I’m confident that the new Interpreter Bank ASL interpreters will decrease the wait-time for our clients to receive services, I am also hoping that government agencies will join local service providers in our efforts to extend an equal level of service to the District’s deaf, hard of hearing and LEP residents.

Post updated on 4.21.10.

[i] The following links are several resources for further information on literacy rates and English language acquisition among people who are deaf or hard of hearing: , and

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