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Deaf Interpreters: Things to Know

Why we have deaf interpreters and more

8/27/2020 9:43:23 AM

ASL version

If you are DeafBlind or prefer to watch the video in a slow-paced, high contrast format, watch the DeafBlind friendly ASL version instead.

English version

In recent times during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have seen an increased use of Deaf interpreters, both Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs) and Deaf Interpreters (DIs). There are also a few Deaf interpreters who have maintained their older Reverse Skills Certificate (RSC) certification. State Governor Offices and city mayors have worked to improve access to the diverse community of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing citizens. This continues in their messaging on Public Service Announcements (PSA), document translations, and website messaging. Colleges and universities have also included native interpreters in their Zoom class meetings.

Deaf interpreters are unique, as they are competent in two (or more) languages, cultures, and are field experts in cultural and communication facilitation. This position makes it ideal for them to work in situations where linguistic and cultural differences are present. Such situations might include communicating with deaf individuals with limited communication skills; using tactile signing with DeafBlind individuals; platform interpreting where information clarity is essential, especially in cases of informing the public - such as governor’s conferences, emergency situation announcements, etc.

Each individual is unique, and all CDIs/DIs bring with them a unique mixture of background, experiences, and knowledge. They all have their own niches and specializations - one might be savvy with medical terminology and will take up interpreting the medical field. Another one may have the know-how for platform interpreting with the ability to address audiences of varying language needs and fluency with a clear message, platform interpreters often incorporate a stage presence that best match the presenter/speaker/official in charge.

Every CDI/DI has the skills and the training to provide good service to meet the need and demand. However, not every CDI/DI is a good fit for every aspect of interpreting where one might be needed and/or available, including platform interpreting, and especially in front of the camera. This is why we are seeing a wide range of qualification and expertise between the CDIs and DIs we see, both in person and on camera.

Why am I seeing a Deaf interpreter?

You may think, ‘I’m Deaf and I don’t need a Deaf interpreter. I can understand a hearing interpreter fine. So why a deaf interpreter?’ This is far from the case. While a hearing interpreter is certainly beneficial and usually skilled enough to do the job, having a Deaf interpreter has its advantages as they present the message through fluency and fluidity in ASL. Deaf individuals are already native in the language (ASL), use ASL features including face and spaces to indicate ASL grammar that is equivalent with the messages being conveyed. This combination of native sign choices, facial expressions, and use of space and role shifting aligns with the message and conveys a more effective message to a broader audience. This makes it easier on Deaf eyes to see their own language and cultural mannerisms reflected in the communication exchange.

What’s the difference between a CDI and a DI?

A CDI - or Certified Deaf Interpreter, is a nationally certified interpreter who is deaf. In 1998, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) established guidelines for Certified Deaf Interpreters and created a certification program specifically for deaf interpreters. According to the RID website, “Holders of this certification are deaf or hard of hearing and have demonstrated knowledge and understanding of interpreting, deafness, the Deaf community, and Deaf culture,”

A DI - or Deaf Interpreter is an interpreter who is Deaf but not certified. While they are not certified, they have the background and experience necessary to interpret. The DI has been trained in the role and ethics of an interpreter but are not certified at the time. However, they have an extensive knowledge and understanding of the Deaf experience and barriers faced by deaf individuals, more so than hearing ASL interpreters. A DI may eventually become certified, and become a CDI in the future.

Why am I seeing a DI and not a CDI?

CDIs are wonderful resources to have - when they are available. There are a limited number of deaf interpreters who are certified due to several reasons:

During the summer of 2015, the RID board placed a moratorium on CDI testing, halting the CDI journeys of many DIs out there. This may be why you see many DIs that have not yet become certified. Those DIs that you see are in progress of obtaining certification but due to the fact that the RID put performance testing on hold until new tests are available later this summer or fall, they are unable to obtain certification until the tests are ready to take.

RID, as the current certifying body for ASL interpreters, has established the Center for Assessment of Sign Language Interpretation (CASLI) to review the examination process and assessment for prospective CDIs. The performance exam portion is currently suspended awaiting changes and improvements. Thus, DIs who want to become certified are stuck waiting for that to happen. So they work as DIs until they can become certified.

Also, the CDI field is relatively new, and standards and best practices are constantly changing. We simply do not have a big enough pool of CDIs to meet the demand in the community.

In Minnesota, there are currently 12 Certified Deaf Interpreters and 13 Deaf Interpreters who have passed the RID CDI knowledge test and are in line for the CDI performance test. There are more than 15 deaf individuals who did not take or pass CDI knowledge test and do the practice as DI.

What does a qualified CDI/DI look like?

A well-prepared CDI/DI has expert mastery of languages, both ASL and English, to be able to convey the message sent to a wide audience of various language modalities and education backgrounds. They are capable of relaying the message through a variety of methods - sign, gestures, reactions through facial expressions; eye gaze; and use of space, etc. This person needs to be able to manage the flow of the information and remain connected with the audience at the same time.

A good CDI/DI is able to team with other interpreters including hearing interpreters. The special relationship between a CDI/DI team and a hearing interpreter team ensures that the message is crafted to best deliver a fluid interpretation while also managing the pace, the content, and the delivery in a controlled manner that is a true cultural match.

They also are well-prepared for the assignment with a strong working knowledge of the context and capable of turning the spoken message into plain language that is understood by a wide pool of viewers. They relay the message being delivered without interjecting their opinions or adding information that is not part of the original message. They may however expand on information or jargon that might be unfamiliar to viewers to ensure the message is understood.

Not every DI is qualified to become certified in the long run, and not every CDI/DI is a good fit for every interpreting situation. A good CDI/DI will know their limits and stick with their areas of specializations whether it be medical, legal, platform, or video, for instance.

We hope to see more CDIs in the future, and are currently working with a mix of CDIs and highly qualified DIs. So you might see a DI instead of a CDI but we believe that the DIs we work with are qualified, and some are ready to take their certification tests but are unable to do due to the present situation with certifying bodies.

Where can I learn more?

For more information regarding CDIs/DIs and the certification process, please visit the following websites:

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID)

Center for Assessment of Sign Language Interpreters (CASLI)


The Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing thanks:

Representatives from Keystone Interpreting Solutions, ASL Interpreting Services, and the Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf for their feedback.

Kaitlyn Mielke for the research and script development.

Sarah Houge for ASL talent.

Patty McCutcheon for voiceover.

Keystone Interpreting Solutions for film production.

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