Working with Sign Language Interpreters During Instruction

If you are teaching students who require American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, there are some core considerations to keep in mind when you are managing your classroom. This guide should form the foundation of your daily classroom engagement.

In addition, please remember essential universal design principles when developing your course content, including the need for closed captions and visual descriptions for multimedia materials. These services help facilitate full access to course content for all students including those with communication disabilities.

If you have any questions about interactions with ASL interpreters or about course accessibility, contact Dr. Maggie Butler, Director of DSS.

If students have any questions about disability accommodations for deafness or hearing loss, they should contact Disability Support Services, and they should also consult our Interpreting and Captioning Services information.

Interpreters in Your Classroom—What Will They Do

  • You can expect two interpreters to work in tandem. One will actively interpret auditory speech into sign language, while the other will monitor that interpretation. These interpreters will switch roles every 20-30 minutes. Interpreters are present solely to facilitate communication between the D/deaf student, instructor, and the class. They translate spoken language into visual language to ensure that everyone has equal access.
  • The interpreters will convey all auditory speech into sign language, and all sign language into auditory speech, so that the hearing and D/deaf participants in the class can fully interact. Interpreters are highly trained professionals who adhere to a code of professional conduct with strict standards of confidentiality, neutrality, professionalism, and respect.
  • For remote/online courses, ASL Interpreters will join all synchronous meeting times and interpret over video. Share your course meeting links with DSS as needed. Do not use the Zoom setting “Authenticated Users Only” for your course meetings, as service providers may be unable to join. Instead, try requiring a passcode that can be shared to all attendees!
  • For in-person courses, the ASL interpreter will find a location to stand so that the interpreter and instructor are both in the D/deaf student’s line of sight. Whenever possible, work with interpreters so that they can stand in front of a neutral background, rather than a window or backlit background.

Interpreters in Your Classroom—What Should You Do?

  • The sole role of the interpreter is to interpret the spirit and content of all classroom communication. Never ask the interpreter to serve the role of teacher’s aide, to participate in class activities, or to perform any activity other than interpreting.
  • If possible, meet with the interpreter before the first class to share outlines, texts, technical vocabulary, a class syllabus, etc. Familiarity with the subject matter will enhance the quality of the interpretation.
  • Keep lines of sight free. If deaf students cannot see their interpreters, they will miss important information. The interpreters will position themselves directly in line with you, the students for whom they are interpreting, and any visual aids. Do not worry. Interpreters are flexible, and they are adept at working with everyone in the classroom to enhance sight lines.
  • Speak naturally and at a reasonable pace. Interpreters process information cognitively before performing their interpretation, meaning that information is generally conveyed one or two sentences behind the communicator. Please keep this matter in mind during class discussions. Pace the discussions appropriately, ensuring extra time for deaf students to contribute before the topic has changed.
  • Interpreters can only convey one message at a time. Manage class discussions to minimize overlapping conversation.
  • Avoid talking while students are completing independent work (for example, continuing to explain material while students are either reading or writing). Deaf students will depend on sign language interpretation in order to follow these extemporaneous comments; therefore, they will need to stop completing the task at hand, which will put them out of sync with the rest of the class. Methodically stop and start your class activities, which will ultimately be a benefit for all of your students.
  • If the students who are receiving sign language interpretation are not present when class begins, the interpreters will wait a short time for possible late arrivals. If the students do not arrive, the interpreters will leave unobtrusively.

Etiquette for Communicating with D/deaf Students

It is important to recognize that your personal communication with deaf students should not change based on the presence of an interpreter. As always, speak with your customary tone and volume. Do not raise your voice of gesticulate excessively. These affectations are considered rude.

Remember, always be direct, and speak directly to the student as you would to any student (“What questions do you have?” “When would you like to meet during office hours?”). Do not communicate with the student through the interpreter (“Ask her what she wants to ask me.” “Ask him when he wants to meet during office hours”). Sign language interpreters convey communication; they are not personal intermediaries for professor-student conversations.

Also, when speaking to a deaf student, maintain direct eye contact (as appropriate). Even though the student will be looking at the interpreter and will only periodically make eye contact with you, it is still considered good form to focus your attention on the student and not on the interpreter.

Interpreters are bound by a Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) overseen by the National Organization of Sign Language Interpreters. The CPC includes seven tenets that pertain to confidentiality, knowledge, and professional skills. These tenets should guide every interpreter’s performance on any job assignment, including ensuring respect for everyone involved in the interpreted communication.

More information about the CPC can be found on the Registry for Interpreters of the Deaf’s website.