Blurb: An interpreter is a DeafBlind person's link to the world.
But not all interpreters understand their role.
I envy Deaf and DeafBlind individuals who have been using
American Sign Language (ASL) Since they were youngsters. It is
hard to learn any new language. Trying to learn ASL as a
DeafBlind adult with only touch to guide you is a major
challenge. That is the fate I faced.
When I lost my remaining vision and hearing, I also lost the
feeling and use of my hands. To communicate, people printed
letters on my face. Once my hands healed enough, I was pleased to
be able to using tactile fingerspelling. I already knew the sign
language manual alphabet, which made things much easier.
Eventually, I moved back to Ohio and found that I needed
interpreters for medical, legal and vocational rehabilitation
meetings/appointments. I would tell the interpreter that I used
tactile fingerspelling. The meeting would begin. Within minutes,
the interpreter would start using actual signs. I had no clue
what was being said. I always had my parents come in with me, so
they could tell me later about everything I missed. That's not
how interpreting is supposed to work.
Theoretically, the interpreter is to communicate in the Deaf or
DeafBlind individual's preferred communication method. In my
experience, that often does not happen in practice. The
interpreters never stuck with spelling words into my hands. I
couldn't change them, so I felt I had to change myself.
I enrolled at Kent State University and completed ASL I through
V. My main reason for doing this was to improve my ability to
benefit from using interpreters.
In some ways, I succeeded. I have improved my receptive signing
skills. I do understand most interpreters. But my expressive
skills are lacking, and I don't use ASL.
It took me a long time to understand my communication needs...
and even longer for me to start informing others. I need
interpreters to use signed English at a moderate speed, with
fingerspelling as needed for clarification. I also want signing
to be limited to a small area in front of the interpreter's
chest. This limits my arm movements and cuts down on shoulder
The interpreters who really know me understand what I need. It
amazes me now that I can keep up with my interpreters and be a
functioning part of my community. I'm no longer sitting there in
a panic, pretending to understand when I have no idea what's
I think it's funny now when I'm in a class or meeting and feeling
bored. I'll try to day dream, but the interpreter is a
distraction because I can follow what he/she is saying. It's
taken a lot of work to reach that point.
Yet, I still have trouble with some interpreters. Even though I
tell them my needs, they still sign in ASL or too fast. I'll even
remind them, but they go back to doing it their way. What good is
an interpreter if I can't understand him/her?
I had an interpreter at the Cleveland Clinic who would never
listen to me. He signed too fast and always in ASL. He would not
sit close to me, so I had to sit forward and reach out to him.
That caused a lot of muscle strain. I tried to get him to adjust
his signing, but he wouldn't budge.
It got to the point where I was totally lost and hurting when he
was my interpreter. Following the advice of a friend, I contacted
the agency to request that he not be assigned as my interpreter.
Oh, crap! It turned out he was the owner and boss of that agency.
I was so embarrassed. He said he wasn't offended, but he did act
put-off. He told me he'd probably have to work my appointments,
because it was hard to find other interpreters willing to do
tactile sign language.
I've also had other problems with some interpreters. A few act
like I have cognitive impairments, signing slow and simple.
Others assume I didn't understand and repeat themselves several
times. If I've nodded to show I understood and if I answered
the doctor's question, why does the interpreter keep on signing
the same question?
There are certain situations that only apply to DeafBlind people
who use tactile sign language. For example, I've been scratched
by women with long fingernails. Jewelry can be a problem. Rings
are distracting and sometimes too sharp.. Necklaces can get in
the way. One time, my fingers got stuck on an interpreter's long,
Another time I had an interpreter who wore low-cut shirts. My
hands often touched skin above her chest. She had this odd habit
of signing "please" with my hand under hers. She did this once
while wearing a push-up bra. It was disgusting!
A more recent issue was with a great interpreter who I really
liked. My appointment was right after lunch. Every week she
showed up with onion and garlic breath. I found it hard to
breathe, but I was too shy to talk to her about it.
DeafBlind interpreting is not just signing into a person's hand.
Many interpreters think that all they have to do is sign like
they would to a Deaf person, but use tactile sign language.
There's far more to it than that. I think a big problem is lack
of training. Interpreters often show up on the job with no
experience communicating with a DeafBlind individual.
For one thing, the needs of DeafBlind people vary from person to
person. Not everyone uses tactile. An interpreter has to be ready
to communicate in different ways. They must learn the needs and
preferences of the DeafBlind individual and not stray from there.
It's all about the DeafBlind person. And each person is
Most importantly, interpreters must understand the importance of
visual interpreting. This refers to the visual aspects of
communication that a DeafBlind person misses. First, the
interpreter should describe the physical layout of the room. This
helps create a visual image of the environment. The interpreter
should tell who is present, where they are sitting and what they
are doing. What is the emotional atmosphere of the group? What is
the speaker's attitude and body language? All of this is
essential information that the individual who is deaf-blind needs
to know. Communication will never be truly successful without
There are cultural aspects that should be considered. Some of
these are the same as Deaf culture. But there is such a thing as
DeafBlind culture. Not knowing about these aspects can negatively
affect communication. For example, people who are DeafBlind use
touch for almost everything. They may touch the interpreter. If
the interpreter isn't aware of this cultural behavior, he/she may
become uncomfortable or offended.
I'd like to tell interpreters, "Do not assume." If they don't
have experience, they should ask the DeafBlind person for
guidance. When working with a new individual, they should find
out about his/her preferences and needs. If a situation or
behavior is confusing, they should discuss it with the DeafBlind
person to find out what's wrong and how to make adjustments. The
DeafBlind individual is the boss. The interpreter is the link.
For communication to be successful, the two must work as a team.
contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.