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Sign Language Interpreters in the Courtroom

General Information Regarding Interpreting for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People


What does the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) say about providing equal access for the deaf and hard of hearing?

The ADA assures equal access to justice for people who are deaf, deaf-blind, or hard of hearing. Courts must work closely with interpreters, parties, and witnesses to determine effective communication methods. Possible accommodations may include:

  • sign language interpreters,
  • specialized interpreter services such as the use of Deaf interpreters,
  • computer assistive transcription services, and
  • assistive listening devices.
The ADA also requires the provision of a “qualified” interpreter. The Alaska Court System provides and pays for sign language interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing people:
  • involved in all courtroom proceedings (criminal and civil),
  • parties to a case,
  • deaf and hard of hearing observers, and
  • deaf jurors.
The Registry for Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) is the national organization that certifies American Sign Language Interpreters (ASL).

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What kinds of accommodations are available to assist people in the courtroom who are deaf or hard of hearing?

The ADA lists different auxiliary aids and services that may be used to provide effective communication for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Depending on the needs of the individual, an accommodation may involve:

  • allowing the person to sit where he or she can hear better;
  • allowing use of a telecommunication system to communicate;
  • providing a qualified sign language interpreter appointed by the court; or
  • providing an assistive listening system or computer-aided transcription services (CART).

A common misconception is that all deaf and hard of hearing people can read lips. However, very few people can read lips well enough to understand speech, even under optimum conditions.

The Alaska Court System’s statewide Interpreter Services Coordinator assesses the best type of delivery method to provide in consultation with the deaf and hard of hearing person, the interpreter, and the judge. Contact Stefanie Burich for information on scheduling a qualified sign language interpreter.

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How should I communicate with a deaf person in the courtroom?

It is important from the deaf or hearing-impaired person's point of view that judges, court staff, and attorneys talk directly to the deaf or hard-of-hearing person. This means speak directly to the person as if you were speaking to a hearing person. Do not ask the interpreter to “Tell her to explain what happened on October 16.” Instead, say “Tell me what happened on October 16.” Speak naturally, without shouting or distorting your normal mouth movements.

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Can a family member, sign language/interpreting student, or volunteer provide interpreting services?

Do NOT use family members, sign language/interpreting students, or other volunteering persons to interpret for courtroom proceedings. Failing to use RID certified interpreters is problematic on many levels and not appropriate for courtroom proceedings.

  • An interpreter who is a family member is not impartial and rarely has the interpreting skills to interpret for even the simplest of legal proceedings.
  • Untrained interpreters, whether for sign language or spoken languages, are not able to provide an accurate interpretation for the record. The court can only be confident that the record is accurate with a court-trained and qualified interpreter.
  • Untrained interpreters do not have the sign language skills to interpret for courtroom proceedings that involve legal terms and even the simplest procedural issues. Evidence Rule 604 addresses the qualifications of interpreters.
  • “An interpreter is subject to the provisions of these rules relating to qualifications as an expert and to the administration of an oath or affirmation that the interpreter will make a true translation of all communications to and from the person for whom the interpretation is made. In determining whether an interpreter is qualified and impartial, the court shall inquire into and consider the interpreter’s education, certification and experience in interpreting relative languages; the interpreter’s understanding of and experience with the proceeding; and the interpreter’s impartiality.”

    Additionally, the ADA requires the use of “qualified” interpreters. The ADA regulations define “qualified interpreter” very specifically as, “…an interpreter who is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.”

  • Untrained interpreters and volunteers are not required to adhere to a code of ethics or confidentiality. In contrast, certified sign language interpreters abide by the RID code of ethics and the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters.

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How do people who cannot hear prefer to be referred to?

According to the National Association of the Deaf:

The deaf and hard of hearing community is diverse. There are variations in how a person becomes deaf or hard of hearing, level of hearing, age of onset, educational background, communication methods, and cultural identity. How people “label” or identify themselves is personal and may reflect identification with the deaf and hard of hearing community, the degree to which they can hear, or the relative age of onset. For example, some people identify themselves as “late-deafened,” indicating that they became deaf later in life. Other people identify themselves as “deaf-blind,” which usually indicates that they are deaf or hard of hearing and also have some degree of vision loss. Some people believe that the term “people with hearing loss” is inclusive and efficient. However, some people who were born deaf or hard of hearing do not think of themselves as having lost their hearing. Over the years, the most commonly accepted terms have come to be “deaf,” “Deaf,” and “hard of hearing.”

“Deaf” and “deaf”

According to Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988):

We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture. The members of this group have inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society. We distinguish them from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma or age; although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people.

Padden and Humphries comment, “this knowledge of Deaf people is not simply a camaraderie with others who have a similar physical condition, but is, like many other cultures in the traditional sense of the term, historically created and actively transmitted across generations.” The authors also add that Deaf people “have found ways to define and express themselves through their rituals, tales, performances, and everyday social encounters. The richness of their sign language affords them the possibilities of insight, invention, and irony.” The relationship Deaf people have with their sign language is a strong one, and “the mistaken belief that ASL is a set of simple gestures with no internal structure has led to the tragic misconception that the relationship of Deaf people to their sign language is a casual one that can be easily severed and replaced.” (Padden & Humphries).

“Hard of Hearing”

“Hard-of-hearing” can denote a person with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss. Or it can denote a deaf person who doesn’t have/want any cultural affiliation with the Deaf community. Or both. The HOH dilemma: in some ways hearing, in some ways deaf, in others, neither.

Can one be hard-of-hearing and ASL-Deaf? That’s possible, too. Can one be hard-of-hearing and function as hearing? Of course. What about being hard-of-hearing and functioning as a member of both the hearing and Deaf communities? That’s a delicate tightrope-balancing act, but it too is possible.

Deaf Life, “For Hearing People Only” (October 1997).

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What terms are offensive?

According to the National Association of the Deaf:

Every individual is unique, but there is one thing we all have in common: we all want to be treated with respect. What’s in a name? Plenty! Words and labels can have a profound effect on people. Show your respect for people by refusing to use outdated or offensive terms. When in doubt, ask the individual how they identify themselves.

Most people find it offensive to be referred to as:

  • Hearing-impaired
  • Deaf and dumb
  • Deaf-mute

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Do deaf and hard of hearing people speak?

Deaf individuals may have little or no speech depending on the severity of the hearing loss and the age of onset. They will often communicate through a sign language interpreter. American Sign Language (ASL) is widely used and has its own grammar and word order. Other individuals may use manual English (or signed English), which is sign language in English word order. A certified interpreter is used for translation into either language. Individuals who are deaf may also benefit from real-time captioning, where spoken text is typed and projected onto a screen.

Individuals who are hard of hearing may have difficulty communicating with speech as a result of their inability to hear their own voices clearly. They may hear only specific frequencies or sounds within a certain volume range. They may rely heavily upon hearing aids and lip reading. Some who are hard of hearing may never learn sign language.

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Credentials of Sign Language Interpreters


What certification can American Sign Language Interpreters acquire?

The Registry for Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) is the national organization that tests and certifies interpreters in American Sign Language. Interpreters who meet RID’s professional guidelines by passing both practical and performance skill based examinations are not only “qualified” under ADA, but are also professionally committed to a strict code of professional ethics, subject to a nationally administered grievance resolution process, and required to maintain a high level of continuing professional skill development. The Alaska Court System schedules and pays for RID certified interpreters for court proceedings and for deaf jurors.

RID certified interpreters are able to provide their RID certification card, which they receive annually if they are current on their continuing education requirement, upon request. Their RID certification card will note one of the following certifications:

RID Specialist Certification (the highest level of certification for court interpreting)

  • SC: L (Specialist Certificate: Legal)

RID Generalist Certifications

  • Conditional Legal Interpreting Permit-Relay (CLIP-R)
  • Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI)
  • National Interpreter Certification Master (NIC Master)
  • National Interpreter Certification Advanced (NIC Advanced)
  • National Interpreter Certification (NIC)
  • Certificate of Interpretations and Certificate of Transliteration (CI and CT)
  • Master Comprehensive Skills Certificate (MCSC)
  • OTC (Oral Transliteration Certificate)
  • National Association of the Dear V (NAD V Master)
  • National Association of the Deaf IV (NAD IV Advanced Master)
  • National Association of the Deaf III (NAD III, Generalist)

Sign language interpreters who interpret for court proceedings must also follow the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters.

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Are there RID-certified interpreters in Alaska?

Yes. The court system contracts with Alaska-based RID-certified interpreters to provide sign language interpreting for courtroom proceedings and for deaf jurors. Additionally, the court system has access to RID certified interpreters from other state courts. It is extremely rare for the Alaska Court System to use an untrained or un-certified interpreter for any hearing. Only RID certified interpreters are scheduled for trials and for jury service.

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How do I know what qualifications a RID interpreter has?

Sign language interpreters scheduled through the interpreter services coordinator are RID certified. However, if you have any questions about an interpreter’s level of certification, ask to see their RID card. RID certified interpreters carry their RID certification card with them. Their cards are renewed annually if they are current with their continuing education requirement. You may also inquire into their education, training, and experience interpreting in legal situations and in the courtroom.

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How does the court system provide RID certified sign language interpreters?

The court system provides sign-language interpreters in-person and video-remotely. The statewide Interpreter Services Coordinator decides what delivery method to provide for the deaf person after speaking with them, conferring with the interpreters that may provide the service, chambers, and the clerks’ office.

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What if the deaf person cannot communicate adequately with a sign language interpreter who is able to hear?

Not all deaf or hard of hearing persons are proficient in American Sign Language. Occasionally, it will be necessary to use other means of ensuring communication. Some deaf and hard of hearing people do not use American Sign Language. In this instance, the court system may have to bring a deaf person who holds the Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) credentialing to help with the communication. A CDI acts as an intermediary between the deaf party and the hearing sign-language interpreter.

A person who is both deaf and blind may need an interpreter skilled in tactile communication.

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Do sign language interpreters follow an ethical code?

Sign language interpreters actually follow two ethical codes when interpreting in court:

Both ethical codes are very similar and require interpreters to:

  • accurately and completely interpret all that is said
  • avoid conflicts of interest
  • maintain confidentiality
  • not give legal advice, express personal opinions, or explain anything that he or she is not interpreting
  • engage in professional development

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Working with Sign Language Interpreters in the Courtroom


What is the role of the sign language interpreter in the courtroom?

The sign-language interpreter has the same role and responsibility as a spoken language interpreter. The interpreter is impartial and is present only to accurately interpret the proceedings. The sign-language interpreter interprets only what is said without adding, omitting, or summarizing anything. The interpretation communicates accurately the meaning of everything that is said. The interpreter must also follow the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters.

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Should I ask the interpreter about their qualifications and administer the interpreter oath on-the-record?

Yes. You should voir dire the interpreter’s qualifications on the record. You might ask the sign language interpreter:

  • What level of RID certification do you possess?
  • What specialized training have you had?
  • Are you familiar with the RID Code of Ethics and the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters?
  • What type of cases have you interpreted?
  • Are you related to or close acquaintances with anyone in this case?
  • Are there any professional or personal issues that may influence your interpretation?

Once satisfied with the interpreter’s qualification, the in-court clerk can administer the interpreter’s oath on the record.

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How do I swear in the interpreter?


Interpreter's Oath
Do you solemnly swear and affirm that you will interpret accurately, completely, and impartially, using your best skill and judgment, and follow directions established by the court?

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What is the sign language "proceedings interpreter"?

The sign language interpreters hired by the court system are “proceedings interpreters”. Proceedings interpreters interpret all of the proceedings, including everything the judge, parties and witnesses say. The proceedings interpreters are sworn to interpret accurately for the record. The proceedings’ interpreter is located in the well, facing the deaf or hard of hearing person sitting at the counsel table for the bulk of the proceedings. The position will change if a deaf person moves to a different location to testify.

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What is the "party interpreter"?

The party interpreter is the interpreter that an attorney hires to communicate with his/her client during the court proceeding. During the proceedings, the party interpreter provides immediate access to counsel to assist in presenting the case by interpreting privileged communications. Additionally, the party interpreter watches the sworn court interpreters’ interpretation. If the proceedings interpreter makes an error, the party interpreter alerts the attorney about the error in order for the attorney to be able to object to errors in interpretation.

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How can I facilitate communication with a deaf person and an in-person sign language interpreter in the courtroom?

  • Advise everyone in the courtroom of the presence and role of the interpreter.
  • Instruct participants to speak one at a time.
  • Allow the interpreter to converse with the deaf or hard of hearing person prior to the proceedings to ensure effective communication and identify possible signing differences or other concerns. Be aware that deaf persons with minimal language skills, blindness, or who rely on lip reading may require specialized interpreting services. If you think this is the case, contact the Interpreter Services Coordinator immediately.
  • Allow the interpreter to view court files prior to the proceedings to become familiar with names and technical vocabulary. Allow the interpreter to view exhibits, photos, or other records prior to introduction into evidence.
  • Speak directly to the party or witness, not to the interpreter. Do not ask the interpreter to explain or restate anything the party or witness says. The interpreter will interpret in the first person in order for the record to be accurate. The interpreter will convey all questions, answers, and courtroom dialogue. Therefore, the interpreter is always working. Advise the interpreter to notify the court when breaks are needed.
  • For longer hearings and trials, two interpreters are usually provided to address interpreter fatigue. Usually the interpreters will determine when they will switch but studies show that accuracy decreases after as little as 20 minutes. Even though an interpreter is not interpreting, they are still working. The “resting” interpreter continues to monitor the courtroom proceedings, check the working interpreter for accuracy, and assist the working interpreter with terms and concepts. Professional interpreters do this in such a way that no one even notices. Be aware that fatigue sets in relatively quickly and interpreters often switch off in order to rest. If there are not two interpreters, please build in regular breaks so the interpreter can rest.
  • Remember: Proper interpreter positioning and close proximity to the speakers allow optimal access to communication.
  • The court must make sure the deaf or hard of hearing person can watch the interpreter and then look at any visual evidence. If there is written evidence, provide to the deaf or hard of hearing person to review and suspend talking. The deaf or hard of hearing person cannot read and see a sign language interpreter at the same time. When the deaf or hard of hearing person is done reading, continue speaking.

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Will the sign language do an word-for-word interpretation?

NO LANGUAGE CAN ACCOMMODATE A LITERAL WORD-FOR-WORD ENGLISH TRANSLATION. The interpreter’s role is the accurately render the meaning of the spoken language into ASL and vice versa.

A deaf or hearing-impaired person may become confused by a word-for-word translation. There are both American Sign Language (ASL) and signed English commonly in use and both of these languages differ from spoken English. The interpreter should inform the deaf or hard of hearing person's lawyer of the language and mode used by the client so that the lawyer can inform the court of any problem and the possible need to explain in more detail.

Confusion can also result when a deaf or hard of hearing person nods "yes" to an interpreter's question but still has a quizzical look. "Yes" may not be the answer to the question, but only an indication that the person understands the question. A deaf or hard of hearing person may even nod "yes" without completely understanding. Repeating part of a question is often the deaf or hard of hearing person's attempt to clarify it and it does not necessarily mean confirmation or agreement.

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How should we speak when a deaf person is in the courtroom?

Speak naturally, but not too fast. Remember that names and some other words must be finger-spelled, and this takes more time than signing. Although these proceedings may take longer they are otherwise identical to other court proceedings; speak at a normal rate.

It must be realized that a deaf or the hard of hearing person can concentrate on only one person at a time. It is just as impossible for an interpreter to interpret for two people simultaneously as it would be for a court reporter to accurately take that testimony.

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What do I need to be aware of when visual evidence is being presented?

Deaf or hard of hearing people rely on information they see. To be effective, communication must be visible. The court should make every attempt to facilitate a good visual contact between the deaf or hard of hearing person, the interpreter, and other participants. The court must make sure the deaf or hard of hearing person can watch the interpreter and then look at any visual evidence. If there is written evidence, provide to the deaf or hard of hearing person and a deaf juror to review and suspend talking. The deaf or hard of hearing person cannot read and see a sign language interpreter at the same time. When the deaf or hard of hearing person is done reading, continue speaking.

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What environmental factors may interfere with communication

Any time there is a deaf or hard of hearing person in court, be aware of environmental factors that may interfere with communication.

While a deaf person may or may not be affected by background noises, a great deal of background movement or changes in lighting will be distracting. A hard of hearing person using a hearing aid or with residual hearing might be seriously distracted by background noises. Minimize machinery noises or other conversations.

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Should the court provide rest periods for the sign language interpreter?

Interpreters must hear everything said and must concentrate fully in order to do their job accurately. As a result, interpreters require rest periods for best performance. During lengthy proceedings of forty-five minutes or more, it may be necessary to use two interpreters. When two professional interpreters are present, usually one is actively interpreting while the other is monitoring the "on duty" interpreter. This helps reduce fatigue and enhance accuracy. Interpreters switch out often, commonly every 15-20 minutes.

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Can I use written notes as a means of communication?

At times a deaf or hard of hearing person will use written notes to communicate or to supplement other modes of communication. Writing is not, however, always effective or appropriate. Technology is affecting this area as machine readable assistance is becoming available. Real-time court reporting may be beneficial and a number of court reporters are becoming certified in this area.

Some deaf or hard of hearing people are highly educated; they read and write well. Others do not. It is a common misconception that deaf or hard of hearing people compensate for their inability to hear by reading and writing. Many deaf or hard of hearing people, especially those who lost their hearing before they learned to talk, have difficulty with written as well as spoken English.

It is also important to remember that for many deaf and hard of hearing people, English is their second language

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What about lip-reading?

Not all deaf and hard of hearing people can read lips. Lip-reading often supplements other modes of communication but is seldom sufficient to assure effective communication in a courtroom. Furthermore, lip-reading ability may decrease dramatically in stressful situations, like those encountered in the court environment.

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Positioning Sign Language Interpreter in the Courtroom


Where should sign language interpreter be in the courtroom?

In-Person Proceedings Interpreter

The visual nature of sign language requires that the interpreter stand in front of and in the direct sightline of the deaf person. It is also helpful if the interpreter is located near the person who is speaking so the deaf person can glance back and forth from the speaker to the interpreter to get a flavor of the speaker’s mood and manner of expression.

The National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC) recommends the following:

When a deaf person is located at counsel table, the interpreter should stand in the center of the courtroom (the well) with his/her back to the court. In this way, the deaf party can see the judge, the interpreter, the attorneys, and witnesses and will be better able to participate. The interpreter will indicate who is speaking visually by gesturing or pointing to the speaker. While the interpreter may have to move on rare occasions, such as during the use of exhibits, the centralized placement of the interpreter is standard practice in any group setting with which most deaf people are accustomed.

When the deaf person is on the witness stand, the interpreter should remain in the well facing the witness with his or her back to counsel. Interpreters should not be placed in a position which would block the jury’s view of the witness. However, where an interpreter’s placement blocks counsel’s view of the witness, it is preferable that the court instruct counsel to move to a location from which they can see the witness rather than moving the interpreter.

When the deaf participant is a juror, the interpreter will be in the well facing the deaf juror and not obstructing the jury’s view of the witness.

When there is an interpreting team, and both members of the interpreting team are interpreting, the interpreting team will stand side by side in the well to allow the interpreters to unobtrusively monitor each other’s interpretation and make minor adjustments for accuracy. The placement also is effective when there are both dear parties and a deaf witness as long as sightlines to the interpreters are unimpeded. When the only participant is a deaf party at the table, one interpreter will be in the well facing the deaf person and the other will typically be across from the interpreter, in their sightline, usually standing behind the deaf party in order to monitor the working interpreter for accuracy and to make minor adjustments visually through sign as necessary.

When the deaf person is in waiting for his/her matter to be called, or there is a deaf audience member, such as a family member, the court interpreter will want to stand or sit in the aisle or just inside the well facing the audience member to interpret the proceedings for them.

Video-Remote Proceedings Interpreter

The Alaska Court System uses video-remote interpreting when:

  • a RID certified interpreter is not available onsite;
  • transportation to a court location is prohibitive;
  • bandwidth can sustain an uninterrupted visual image through on-line video;
  • the court event is of an immediate nature and cannot be delayed, such as an arraignment for an in-custody defendant and ex parte DV protective order hearing;
  • the deaf person is an observer only and is not a party to the case; or
  • a party uses standard ASL and no deaf intermediary interpreter is needed.

The interpreter services coordinator confers with the clerk of court or designee, judge, and the IS department to setup and monitor video remote interpreting services.

The video remote set-up allows the judge, the deaf person needing interpreting services, and attorneys to see the interpreter. The interpreter is able to see all parties in the courtroom from their video screen.

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Questions


Whom do I contact with questions about scheduling sign language interpreters?

Stefanie Burich, Interpreter Services Coordinator

Whom do I contact about policies and procedures for sign language interpreters?

Stacey Marz, Family Law Self-Help Center Director and member of Language Access Task Force

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