Steven Snow: Inadequate interpreting is ongoing problem

December 18, 2013 

I write this in light of the sign language interpreting fiasco that occurred at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela on Dec. 10 in Johannesburg.

Reports have branded the interpreter as unqualified and unprofessional, and his "interpreting" performance as appalling, disgusting and absolutely offensive. It showed the height of disrespect to the legacy of Mr. Mandela, and to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community worldwide. This action has ignited a fury among the community, which is spreading like a wildfire.

One might think this is a one-time affair. Unfortunately, this type of occurrence is not rare; it is surprisingly common in Idaho. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing Idahoans have experienced this on a regular basis for years. These experiences have occurred in courts, doctor's offices, hospitals, school classrooms, public/government agencies, and elsewhere.

There are several situations where clear communication can make the difference between life and death. For example, it has not been uncommon for children to be expected to interpret the conversations between their deaf parents and doctors on the results of their cancer examinations. In most of these cases, the children didn't relay the message impartially and fully because children or family members are not professionally trained interpreters. This results in essential information being left out, and deaf parents having to guess their prognosis.

As the executive director at Idaho State Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (CDHH), I have been contacted frequently by the deaf community regarding the problem of unqualified interpreters.

The council has strived to abate the issue. However, the major obstacle is the law (or the lack thereof) regarding the use of interpreters. There is no legal mechanism in place in Idaho that prevents service providers from using unqualified or non-certified interpreters. There is no law that can stop a hospital from using a 16-year-old child to interpret for her mother. Nor an employer from using one of its employees who once took a sign language class to interpret a job interview for a deaf applicant.

Granted, there is a provision in the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 that requires service providers to provide qualified interpreters. However, there is no legal definition of the word "qualified." What does "qualified" really mean? What makes a qualified interpreter? There is no reference to this in the federal law. Several states have proposed and ratified laws of their own to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens are protected. Most of them require interpreters to be certified and/or licensed.

Interpreting isn't a game: It should be licensed and run on a professional basis. Every day, the result of inadequate interpreting leads to poor schooling, imprisonment, unemployment, health disparities and even death. Interpreters must be held accountable. Licensure would be the best way.

CDHH is serving on a task force that is working on a bill to go before the Idaho Legislature, which simply requires that all sign language interpreters be licensed to perform interpreting assignments in the state of Idaho. Once the bill passes, I foresee a huge improvement in the lives of deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens of Idaho.

Just because one claims to know sign language or flaps their hands around doesn't make one an interpreter, much less a qualified interpreter. I hope the attention on the interpreting incident in South Africa will open up a public dialogue on the issue of poor quality sign language interpreting here in Idaho, and that we all will work together to ensure quality. The deaf population certainly deserves better.

Steven Snow is executive director of the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

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