THE BLOG
02/03/2014 12:39 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014

Equality Equals Qualified Interpreters

Did you know that until the 1960s, American Sign Language use was discouraged among deaf students? Educational leaders, most of whom were not deaf, thought deaf people could assimilate to a hearing lifestyle by learning to speak English and lip read. These methods proved challenging and largely ineffective. Young deaf students were refused the freedom to communicate in a way that felt natural and comfortable for them, which often limited their ability to learn and interact.

Denial of language is an act we now recognize as oppression. 

As a child, I recall interpreting doctors appointments for my mother, who is deaf. I certainly had no business interpreting medical interactions but, during that time, it was just expected that CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults) perform the role of communicator.

The first interpreter training program began in 1969, and it was not until the 1980s that interpreter training programs became widespread. Before this time, deaf citizens had no guarantee of access, and they relied heavily on hearing friends or family members to participate in daily activities. 

As the interpreting field continues to evolve, members of the Deaf community have struggled for solidarity on the subject of qualified interpreters. We consider ourselves professionals performing a highly skilled labor, yet there is no mandate on certification or licensure. What this means is that hiring entities -- businesses unfamiliar with the needs of Deaf consumers -- are left with the responsibility of identifying a "qualified" interpreter. 

While some private organizations require interpreters to be certified, there is little regulation on the larger scale. There is no federal requirement, and state licensing has become a growing concern among the Deaf community due to inconsistent service standards.

I would like to take this opportunity to explore the most prominent national organizations working to establish stricter guidelines within the profession. The ultimate goal of this regulation is guaranteeing that deaf clients are provided equal access and clear communication in every situation.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is the oldest civil rights organization in the United States, and the largest non-profit run by deaf people to advocate for deaf rights. Founded in 1880, NAD has been instrumental in promoting deaf education, the use of sign language, and equal access. One of the primary missions of NAD is promoting deaf self-advocacy. NAD has associations in all 50 states and DC, and the organization has powerfully influenced critical legislation affecting the deaf population; including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) is a national membership organization which works closely with NAD to establish consistent expectations for those serving the Deaf community. RID was established in 1964, and membership has since grown to over 16,000. At first, interpreters and the Deaf population were not working as closely as they could have to meet the demands of deaf consumers, but all that has changed over the past 20 years.

In 2004, RID and NAD implemented a joint Code of Professional Ethics for all members and certified interpreters. RID has established an interpreter certification program to to help maintain a high level of excellence, and the organization provides a support network for constant professional development. Although these efforts are slowly improving service for deaf consumers, they have not prevented unqualified interpreters from getting work. 

Together, RID and NAD are leading the movement to define "qualified interpreter." The ADA definition,"an interpreter who is able to interpret effectively, accurately and impartially both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary," is vague, at best. It leaves a lot of grey area for those looking to hire a professional. 

In an effort to raise the standard, RID has established the National Interpreter Certification (NIC) process. This website illustrates which states require interpreters to have NIC certification and/or state licensure. Ideally, RID would like to see all interpreters become nationally certified

Progress has been incremental, but all the recent media attention on unqualified interpreters has really ignited a push for reform. The deaf population is fighting against oppression, and demanding more from the professionals who serve them. This movement is rapidly gaining ground and hopefully, some day soon, "fake" interpreters will be a thing of the past. 

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