An Interpreter is a bilingual-bicultural professional who provides ethically sound interpretation services while being sensitive to the environmental factors that may foster or impede the message.
Although some states have laws requiring the certification of ASL interpreters, this practice does not guarantee that these professionals are qualified to provide their services in the context of domestic or sexual violence. The majority of interpreters have not received training on these issues and therefore may be ill equipped to provide adequate services during such a critical time. Training interpreters on domestic and sexual violence is a practice that can benefit all parties involved.
Moreover, the Deaf community is often small and closely connected, and most people are at least familiar with one another. This means that information can travel quickly within the Deaf community, potentially compromising the confidentiality and safety of victims seeking domestic and sexual violence services. When securing interpreters for working with survivors, it is critical that service providers be mindful of the smallness of the community and the possibility of the interpreter and perpetrator (and/or interpreter and victim) knowing one another.
Note: It is important to understand that Deaf survivors are not responsible for payment of interpreters. This is a common misconception for survivors who may not seek services because they cannot afford an interpreter. Accommodations like interpreters are the financial responsibility of the service provider when requested by a survivor or when need is known.
Tips for using an interpreter:
- Plan in advance: have a line item in your budget to pay for interpreters.
- Partner with interpreting services agencies and provide them with training on sexual and domestic violence.
- Ask the survivor if there is an interpreter she prefers to work with in that situation. She may prefer not to work with interpreters she knows personally, or she may prefer someone whose signing style (similar to a hearing person’s accent) is familiar to her.
- When using an interpreter, try to either supply the interpreter and the Deaf person with vocabulary ahead of time, or explain any jargon used in practical terms to the interpreter. This will ease the interpretation and ensure the Deaf person understands the concept you are attempting to convey.
The following scenarios provide examples of best practices when working with Deaf survivors. These scenarios are organized in order of preference, reflecting a range that includes several options. It is important to remember that the survivor has the ultimate choice regarding which option to utilize.
- Having a well-prepared Deaf advocate who has been thoroughly trained by a sexual assault and domestic violence program work with a Deaf survivor is the ideal situation.
- If your agency does not have a Deaf advocate on staff, making a referral to a neighboring agency that does employ a Deaf advocate (with the survivor’s consent).
- Co-advocacy, or a team approach, is often beneficial for survivor and advocates alike. This involves pairing a hearing advocate who is well versed in local resources with a Deaf advocate who might represent an organization with a broader scope. This might apply to the case of statewide organizations working in collaboration with local sexual assault/domestic violence programs.
- Another effective team approach when working with Deaf survivors consists of well-trained hearing advocates (not only trained in advocacy but also in Deaf culture) who work with a qualified ASL interpreter and a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) if available and appropriate.
In emergency situations, when all the other possibilities have been exhausted, well-trained hearing advocates can utilize Video Relay Interpreters (VRI) to communicate with survivors. However, this option is not meant to replace a qualified interpreter under any circumstances, who can provide services in domestic or sexual violence related situations and can be physically present in the same location with the survivor.
As previously mentioned, American Sign Language is a language with an established linguistic structure, and it is not a different form of English. Other systems, such as the Manually Coded English (MCE), attempt to represent the English language. It should be noted, however, that even though a Deaf person may sign in an English-based system, her English literacy level may still be low, and written English may be an ineffective way to communicate. Providing information on domestic and sexual violence only through written English communication could lead to misunderstandings, shame, and lack of access.
As a best practice for providing linguistically and culturally appropriate services, information should be offered in the language best understood by the survivor. This does not mean having an interpreter read the information to the survivor but rather making content adjustments so that the information is readily understood. If possible, domestic and sexual violence agencies should provide Deaf survivors with information developed by Deaf persons in ASL.