Sign Language Interpreter Career

Sign language interpreters help people who use sign language communicate with people who can hear and speak. They translate a message from spoken words to signs, and from signs to spoken words. They are fluent in American Sign Language, and/or sign systems based on English (such as Seeing Essential English, Signing Exact English, and Linguistics of Visual English). Oral interpreters help to deliver a spoken message from someone who hears to someone who is deaf. They also have the ability to understand the speech and mouth movements of someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, and to deliver the message to someone who is hearing.

Sign Language Interpreter Career History

Sign Language Interpreter CareerUntil the 1960s, sign language was considered by many educators to be inferior to spoken and written language. Oralism, the tradition of teaching deaf children to speak and lip-read, was practiced exclusively in deaf schools, and sign language was forbidden.

A child born deaf can learn sign language as naturally as a hearing child learns English, but English does not come naturally to deaf children. Hearing children pick up many of their English words and language skills from listening to all the noise that surrounds them—a radio or TV on in the room; a phone conversation down the hall; older siblings playing in the front yard. Deaf children can only carefully and painstakingly study the English language. They are limited to watching the movement of a person’s mouth and to touching a person’s neck and throat to learn sounds. Lip-reading is difficult at best, as many words require the same shaping of the lips. Even the best lip-readers can become lost quickly during a normal conversation.

Various forms of sign language were widely used in the 19th century. Laurent Clerc, a deaf Frenchman, and Thomas Gallaudet, a hearing minister, introduced French Sign Language to America in 1816. This system, integrated with the signs Americans were already using, served as the foundation for American Sign Language (ASL, although the language did not come to be called ASL until the 1960s). It also led to the establishment of the first school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Many schools for the deaf followed and, by 1867, all of them used sign language in their lessons, resulting in the spread of ASL. But even educators who supported the use of sign language criticized ASL, favoring instead sign systems that followed English sentence structure and word order. (American Sign Language is considered a “natural sign language,” a language completely separate from English.)

By the mid-1800s, some educators came to believe that by letting deaf children sign, they were preventing the children from developing speech and English language skills. This led to a conference on deaf education in Milan, Italy, in 1880. There, a resolution was passed to ban all sign language from deaf education. This ban was widely accepted in America, and all schools for the deaf had eliminated ASL from their lessons by 1907. In some classrooms, teachers even tied down the student’s hands to prevent them from signing. However, American Sign Language survived. The language was passed secretly from deaf parents to deaf children, from deaf teachers to deaf students. The resilience of the language, through nearly 100 years of oralism, was finally acknowledged with a series of linguistic studies in the 1960s. In the 1970s, ASL was reintroduced to deaf education and is now considered important in the teaching of English to deaf students.

American Sign Language has enabled members of the deaf community to accurately express their cultural values, beliefs, and ideas, and interpreters help to communicate these ideas to the English-speaking majority. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), established in 1964, introduced certification standards in 1972. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 led the way for better opportunities for deaf people; by mandating interpreters, the legislation gave deaf people access to employment, education, health, and social services. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were both passed in 1990 and guarantee, in some instances, interpreters for deaf students and even deaf workers.

The Job of Sign Language Interpreters

In a classroom in New York City, a deaf teacher instructs hearing students in ASL. No speaking or writing is allowed. The teacher uses pictures, gestures, and pantomime to teach the meaning of a sign. He stands in front of the class, and without words, emphasizes not only the importance of finger and hand movement, but of a raised eyebrow, a nod, or a smile. The room is filled with people who spend their days speaking to coworkers and friends, talking on the phone, yelling for cabs, and ordering in restaurants. Tonight the classroom is silent but for the occasional clap of a hand, or the buzzing of the fluorescent lights, or laughter.

This class, taught at the American Sign Language Institute in Manhattan, is composed of people who want access to deaf communities. A social worker wants to be able to communicate with deaf clients; a history teacher wants to interact directly with her deaf students; a man plays Saturday morning basketball games with a deaf neighbor. There’s even an anthropologist who wants to communicate with the apes in a study lab. With about a half million Americans using ASL as their main language, ASL has come to be used in many different settings. Deaf actors perform plays using sign language. Deaf poets have developed a body of sign-language literature. Scientists, inventors, school administrators, and many others are making important contributions to society using ASL. Just as speakers of foreign languages sometimes need interpreters to help them express their ideas to English speakers, so do the users of ASL.

Interpreters are also increasingly in demand for doctors, social service workers, and others who work with elderly populations. People over the age of 65, a rapidly growing segment of society, are threatened with a number of disorders that can lead to hearing loss. Though many hearing-impaired elderly people may rely on a hearing aid, others may need to develop some sign language skills.

The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees the services of interpreters in some situations. Large private companies are required to accommodate employees who have physical limitations. In addition to working with deaf employees, interpreters work in schools helping deaf students learn from English-speaking teachers. They work in legal settings, such as law offices and courtrooms. In hospitals, doctors and nurses need the aid of interpreters in communicating with deaf patients. Social service and religious agencies need interpreters to offer counseling and other services to deaf clients. Deaf audience members rely on interpreters for theatrical or televised performances. When an interpreter is needed, the client can check with the school or theater or social service agency to make sure interpreting is provided. If not, there are interpreter provider organizations that can direct the client to an interpreter. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf publishes state-by-state listings of these organizations, as well as a directory of individual interpreters.

Deaf interpreters translate spoken material into a language that can be understood by the deaf. This may be done in either of two ways. Sign language interpreters translate a speaker’s words into ASL using their hands and fingers, and then repeat aloud the deaf person’s signed response to the speaker. Oral interpreters carefully mouth words without voicing them aloud for deaf people who can speech-read. Tactile interpreters work with deaf individuals who also have a visual impairment and communicate only through touch.

Interpreters must be very visible; proper lighting and backgrounds should contribute to their visibility, not distract from it. Furthermore, they should obtain any written supplements to assist in accurate interpretation. The interpreter’s role is only to interpret; they are not part of the conversation, and any personal asides or additions only cause confusion.

This professional distance is part of an established code of ethics for interpreters. Confidentiality is also part of the code, as is impartiality (strong biases toward a subject matter can affect the ability to interpret accurately). An interpreter also has the responsibility of educating the public about deaf issues. Before going to work as an interpreter, candidates should be aware of the complete code of ethics as established by RID.

Sign Language Interpreter Career Requirements

High School

In high school, interested students should take English and composition courses, as well as foreign language courses. ASL is taught in some high schools and some community learning centers.

Postsecondary Training

Many colleges offer sign language courses, courses in deaf culture, and some offer complete deaf studies programs. A college degree is not required for a qualified interpreter, but a solid education will help ensure better jobs and better pay. A postsecondary education will also provide the background and skills necessary for passing the certification exams.

Certification or Licensing

There are two classifications of interpreters: qualified and certified. Certification by RID is recommended or required in some instances (such as in legal or recorded situations). But a qualified interpreter, with good skills and experience, can also find a lot of work due to a shortage of interpreters. It is important, however, that an uncertified interpreter use careful judgment in taking on assignments; interpreters should not accept work that is beyond their skill level.

RID certification is the only national certification system for sign language interpreters. Different certificates are available according to the candidate’s talents or areas of service. An interpreter can hold a CI (certificate of interpretation) and a CT (certificate of transliteration) for a broad range of assignments. An SCL (specialist certificate legal) is necessary for assignments in legal settings. Oral interpreting requires an OTC (oral transliteration certificate). A number of different certificates are also available for deaf or hardof- hearing interpreters, such as the CDI (certified deaf interpreter). To receive certification, a candidate is first evaluated for eligibility, then tested with a written exam and a performance exam. Most qualified sign language interpreters without certification are in the process of getting certified. Tests are expensive and are only offered at various times of the year, at random sites. As a result, interpreters don’t take the tests until they are certain they can pass them.

Certificate holders must keep their certification valid by earning continuing education credits via a RIDapproved sponsor. Contact RID for further information regarding continuing education requirements.

Other Requirements

Interpreters should be interested in the ways people communicate. They should also be prepared to learn all about complex languages, and to take on the responsibility of conveying accurate messages from one person to another. Sign language and oral interpreting is difficult and demanding work. It requires a thorough understanding of both English and ASL. Interpreters must also be honest and trustworthy—people will be relying upon them to get their messages and meanings across.

Some experience with the deaf community is very important. Though interpreters may spend many hours studying ASL, they will need to see the language in use among deaf people to gain a more complete understanding of ASL. This will require a commitment to a continuing education in deaf culture. Interpreters should be aware of the issues that affect deaf people, such as the debate of ASL versus oralism, or special residential schooling versus mainstreaming into an English-based classroom. They also need to learn about the technological tools used by deaf people: devices that assist in amplification, phone calls, and watching television and movies.

It is also important that interpreters remain on an equal level with the clientele they serve. The interpreter should remain cooperative and respect the client’s self-esteem and independence. In working with the deaf community, theirs is not a parental or leadership role; interpreters are providing a service.

Exploring Sign Language Interpreter Career

Many books about sign language and interpreting have been published and can give students a good idea of the demands of the job. To find publications on sign language and interpreting, visit the local library, or write to RID for their list of publications. Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World (Vintage Books, 1995), by Leah Hager Cohen, is a vivid and authentic account of life as a hearing person within the deaf community. Cohen also describes her experiences as an interpreter and the particular problems with which she was confronted.

Some exposure to American Sign Language will help you decide if interpreting is for you. Try to learn some sign language, or visit a place in your community (such as a religious service, town meeting, or community-sponsored event) where signing is used. If courses in ASL are not available, you should study Spanish, German, French, or any foreign language course, as learning another language will help to improve your translating and comprehension skills.

An excellent way to get an insight into the career of an interpreter is to talk to an interpreter, a teacher of deaf students, or any other professional who works with deaf people. In some cases, you may be allowed to watch an interpreter at work in the courtroom, classroom, or at a presentation.


There is a demand for deaf interpreters in many fields. Possible employers include public health agencies, employment agencies, hearing and speech clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, public schools, trade and technical schools, colleges and universities, business and industry, government agencies, theaters, television stations, churches and religious agencies, law enforcement agencies, and the courts.

Starting Out

Once sign language skills have been sufficiently developed, interpreting students may then tutor deaf students or volunteer in a social service agency that works with deaf clients. In either case, they should become familiar with the deaf community centers and any other deaf organizations in the area. The more experience with deaf people they acquire, the smoother the certification process will be. Also, to help prepare for certification, students should study the RID Code of Ethics and the other books and videotapes recommended by RID. Once certified, interpreters can be listed in various directories, including directories published by RID.


Because most interpreters work on a freelance basis, the best way to advance is to take on more clients and to remain active in the community. The key to becoming a successful interpreter is a continued study of language and deaf culture. By being part of a deaf community, interpreters can always improve their grasp of ASL. Just as the English language grows and changes, so does ASL. New developments require new signs, and some old signs become outdated. Also, by staying involved with the deaf community, interpreters can make their services readily available.

To retain certification, interpreters are required to earn continuing education units. Continuing education will allow them to maintain their skills and learn about new developments in interpreting. With a background of continuing education, interpreters can attract more clients and organizations, as well as charge higher fees.


Freelance interpreters can charge by the hour or the day, providing services to a variety of organizations and institutions. Their fees will be determined primarily by their skills and experience. Other factors include the type of certification held, educational background, and previous employer. A beginning interpreter will charge about $12 to $25 per hour, and an experienced interpreter can charge from $50 to $60 per hour. Salaried interpreters may earn between $15,000 and $30,000 or more per year, according to RID.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, interpreters and translators of all types had median hourly earnings of $16.28 in 2004. The lowest-paid 10 percent made less than $9.67 an hour, and the highest paid 10 percent made more than $27.45 an hour.

Interpreters living in large cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago will have many opportunities to interpret and will be able to charge more. RID reports that highly skilled, credentialed interpreters living in such areas can earn up to $50,000 a year. Living in a city with a deaf college or residential school, or a college where there is a lot of deaf research and cultural study will also increase business opportunities. Some rural areas may offer good, varied work for an interpreter.

Work Environment

Working as an interpreter can be stressful. When interpreting from ASL to English, or from English to ASL, translators must make many quick decisions. The two languages are very different structurally, and an inexperienced interpreter can get lost in their complexities. In some situations, such as in a court case or in a public presentation or performance, many people are relying on the interpreter’s ability to translate messages clearly, quickly, and accurately. But in other situations, such as one-on-one interviews or counseling sessions, things can be more relaxed. Interpreters should only accept the assignments they feel they can perform well and with confidence. This will help lower the stress level.

Generally, interpreters work inside, in a variety of settings, including offices, meeting halls, and classrooms. They may be interpreting for just one person, a small group, or a very large group. Though working directly with many different people, the interpreter’s role is limited to that of a translator.

Sign Language Interpreter Career Outlook

Deafness inhibits a child’s ability to communicate and interact with English-speaking children and adults. This makes English a difficult language for deaf children to learn. And for several years, there has been a great deal of concern about the quality of education for deaf children. Only one out of four deaf people is able to read a newspaper upon graduating from school. Some deaf students even refuse to learn English, preferring to live and work entirely within an ASL-using community. Regardless of whether ASL becomes more widely accepted, or more efforts are made to teach deaf students English, interpreters will be in high demand. While the prospects for deaf interpreters in general are good, there is also a growing need for relay interpreters, deaf individuals who use visual and gestural means to help other deaf people communicate.

Legislature enacted over the last 20 years has increased demand for interpreters. More deaf students are getting a postsecondary education because of access to classroom interpreters.

About a half-million Americans have chosen ASL as their language. But the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are more than 2 million deaf people and more than 16 million people with some kind of hearing impairment (including deafness). The elderly population is growing as well, a population threatened with a number of disorders that can lead to hearing impairment. Society recognizes the need to involve more deaf people in the larger community and to pay more attention to deaf culture.

The role of the sign language interpreter will change as the deaf community changes. An interpreter’s job can be greatly affected by the politics of the deaf community. There is much controversy concerning how deaf children should be educated and how involved deaf children need be with the hearing population. Some members of the deaf community want to be classified as a minority group instead of as a disability group; however, this would prevent deaf people from receiving most of the benefits they now receive, including interpreters in the schools. It could also result in difficulty “mainstreaming” deaf students into public schools. Without the interpreters guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the parents of deaf students would have to hire their own interpreters, or send their children to residential schools.

For the last few years, however, legislation has fully supported mainstreaming. Government has even been moving toward “full inclusion,” or mainstreaming, of all deaf students. This causes concern among many members of the deaf community—full inclusion could mean deaf students would not be allowed the opportunity of a special education environment.

Many more deaf people are enrolling in postsecondary programs, and occupational opportunities have improved for highly educated deaf people. But the overall employment rates for deaf people have not improved much. Interpreters may become more involved in correcting this imbalance; employee assistance programs will need interpreters to help train and integrate deaf people in new jobs. Businesses may also provide special programs for their deaf employees to help them earn promotions. Social services need also to focus on helping young ethnic-minority deaf persons. A number of problems affect this group, including a lack of role models and cultural confusion. Programs need to be established to help them become prepared for postsecondary education.

Because of such legislation as the Americans with Disabilities Act, opportunities will be good for sign language interpreters. In addition, the increased demand for interpreters in the schools and in the workplace has resulted in a shortage of qualified professionals.

For More Information:

Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association