We learned in the focus group discussions that Deaf Interpreters share many aptitudes and formative experiences in common. Most grew up with Deaf family members and sign language. The National Survey of Deaf Interpreters supports this finding. They had experience in many, or most, aspects of the Deaf community, related education systems, and support services. Their foundational knowledge and skills grew from early experiences with diverse languages, communication styles, people, and cultures.
Linguistic Development and Adaptability
Deaf Interpreters commented often on the versatility of their communication skills, including a mastery of various forms of visual communication and ASL as well as English. They described their experience and expertise with:
- Home signs versus conventional signs.
- Variations of communication styles used throughout community and comfort with all of them, including the sign language and systems used in k-12 education programs.
- The full range of types of people who use interpreters, and situations in which they find themselves – children, people with Ushers Syndrome, elderly, ASL/Deaf; and medical, business meetings, education, regional differences and dialects, etc.
- Communicating with people who use mixed sign systems, have limited language proficiency, or use rudimentary gestural communication.
- Matching the communication modes of people/consumers (ASL/CL to more English-like), even if not personally comfortable with the mode.
- Communicating with people who are mentally challenged and/or mentally ill.
- Cultural and ethnic differences.
Informal Experiences of Interpreting
Participants described functioning as interpreters from an early age. They felt that these experiences laid the foundation for development of their own interest and development as a Deaf interpreter.
- Interpreted within Family: Participants assisted their own Deaf parents and/or siblings with communication, especially for parents who lacked formal education, communicated with gestures, or whose native language was other than English. These interpreting experiences included all types of interactions of life such as visits to professionals, queries in stores, meetings with teachers, and completion of forms and documents (e.g. for school, social services, employment).
- Interpreted with Peers: Participants helped peers in school understand teachers’ and other students’ communications. In oral education programs, they conveyed clarifying instructional information in sign to peers when teachers were not looking. In residential schools, especially in dormitory interactions, they assisted students with weaker sign language skills understand what was being said by others.
- Assisted immigrants who were Deaf: Participants had experiences working with Deaf people from other countries, some of whom were fluent in their own sign language, but needed assistance with complex English, especially with printed materials and forms. They assisted with documents, forms, and all manner of issues and situations. As they observed what non-Deaf ASL interpreters were doing was not helpful, they would do whatever worked.
Language Consultation to Others
Participants also reported experiences in the work place, such as in higher education, where they assisted hearing colleagues and professionals with ASL comprehension and interpretation, towards better communication with Deaf students.
Personal Attributes Supporting Professional Ethic
There was a strong belief expressed among focus group participants that Deaf Interpreters have certain competencies and attributes specifically as a result of being Deaf and having had the experiences that they have had. These experiences gave Deaf Interpreters a heightened sensitivity to the needs of consumers, and, therefore, a drive to assure comprehension and participation by Deaf consumers.
Experiences Shared With Consumers
Shared experiences cited by participants included:
- Communication challenges of comprehension of situations, interpreters, and communication styles and
- Challenges of being oppressed and discriminated against
- Experiences of being in dire need of interpreting assistance for communication
Catalysts for Becoming an Interpreter
Participants’ paths to becoming a Deaf Interpreter were varied, such as:
- Realization of own interpreting competence due to experience
- Spouse or someone else suggested it
- Admiration of the work of interpreters in church grew into an aspiration to do the same
- Realization that one could do Deafblind interpreting, and did
- An enjoyment of playing with English to ASL interpretation became playing “interpreter,” working from written English, which became actual interpreting
- During a hiatus from a professional course of study, began interpreting in that field, and when it was possible to return to professional studies chose Deaf interpreting in the field instead.