12/13/2013 01:02 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

Mandela Interpretation Debacle Could Happen in U.S.

This is why you need certified interpreters.

The most unbelievable mishap occurred at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. As part of the ceremony paying tribute to this visionary leader and humanitarian, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a most heartfelt speech. His remarks effectively captured the essence of the change in South Africa and the heart and soul of the man behind it.

Obama's message was clear for millions of people around the world who could understand English.

But what about the hearing impaired?

Inexplicably, the person who was hired to perform sign language for Obama was unable to carry out the duties of a qualified interpreter.

Four experts told the Associated Press that the man's hand movements were "gibberish," part of neither American nor South African sign language.

This is an embarrassment beyond belief.

Regrettably, the hearing impaired were injured, the profession of interpretation was injured and the credibility of the South African government was injured.

If this was such a milestone in South Africa, why was this interpreter not properly vetted?

Imagine if this debacle had occurred within the setting of a hospital, a first-emergency response or a courtroom. The consequences for not having a credentialed interpreter could be huge.

The significance of not having a qualified doctor or lawyer is also great. Yet these professionals are always either licensed or certified by their respective states.

Today there are several U.S. organizations that certify interpreters to ensure the highest level of quality care for all.

In the Hearing Impaired world, interpreters have The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf ( This certification ensures that interpreters who sign are qualified to handle any situation -- including signing for President Obama.

In the U.S. Court system the Court Interpreters Act, 28 U.S.C. §1827 provides that the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall prescribe, determine, and certify the qualifications of persons who may serve as certified court interpreters.

For medical interpreters, there are two certification programs: the National Board for Certification of Medical Interpreters and the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters.

Astonishingly, while the United States is moving forward to adapt national standards, measures to hire certified interpreters currently are not required. And worse yet, hospitals and medical facilities rarely get reimbursed for using credentialed services.

While it may be shocking to see a "fraudulent" interpreter signing for the President of the United States at a world-stage event, it is also very dismaying to note that even today there are still many U.S. interpreters at work in critical settings who are not yet nationally certified.

Unless your interpreter is credentialed or nationally certified, you will never know what you get in the emergency room.