Certification for American Sign Language Interpreters



Sight translation by Mary Luczki.

When a patient needs medical attention beyond routine tests and annual physicals, he or she is often referred to a specialist; a doctor who is trained and devoted to a particular medical condition. The specialist has extensive experience, and resources that help to diagnose and treat patients beyond a general practitioner, and the specialist has often passed a series of tests and boards that prove this knowledge and training. The interpreting profession operates similarly; general practitioners work in a variety of settings and when the interpreter encounters become more specialized, the interpreter’s training should as well; but that is not always the case.

Currently, interpreters can earn a national certification and a legal certification, both of which are offered by RID. However, there is not a national certification for the medical setting, a setting that can have life changing results, a setting that demands more than just general knowledge as an interpreter. There is a push from Deaf patients and their allies for specialized healthcare certification and making this a requirement for all interpreters working in medical environments. While ASL interpreters do not have a healthcare certification, spoken language medical interpreters can receive their certification from the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters. Deaf and LEP patients are demanding more of their interpreters and industry standards are starting to change, but not fast enough.

While many interpreters and Deaf consumers are familiar with national certification standards, some hiring entities and interpreting agencies don’t require interpreters to hold national certification because they are unaware of the industry standards or frankly, choose to ignore them.

There are a number of reasons why some interpreters accept work but don’t hold national certification:

  • An interpreter has been working for decades, long before national certification was an industry standard.
  • An interpreter has been vetted by a local Deaf community and has built a strong reputation and foundation for being a qualified interpreter.
  • An interpreter has attempted to take the national certification exam, but has failed yet still accepts work.
  • An interpreter doesn’t believe in national certification and would rather let the Deaf community decide if they are qualified. This process can take years and in the meantime, the interpreter may be doing more harm than good.
  • An interpreter has held national certification, but let it lapse by not completing the necessary continuing education or has had their certification revoked.

In 2015, a Deaf couple from Colorado was subjected to a non-certified interpreter during a group therapy session for couples struggling with fertility. The interpreter was unqualified, non-certified, and unable to interpret effectively for the couple. Further, the Colorado Consumer Protection Act requires national certification for all working ASL interpreters. As a result of this violation, the couple is suing the hiring agency and demanding that agencies and the non-certified interpreters that work for them to stop working as they are causing incredible harm to the Deaf community. You can read more about their case here: Lawsuit: Sign Language Interpreters fail to communicate

While requiring national certification should be the bare minimum to ensure Deaf consumers have access to qualified interpreters, as seen in the lawsuit above, that isn’t always the case. As I mentioned earlier, a general practitioner may not have the knowledge and training necessary to interpret specialized, medical encounters. As a result, Deaf patients are asking for an improvement in industry standards.

A Final Illustration:

A Deaf patient is being treated for chemical dependency and is meeting with addiction and mental health counselors regularly. The interpreter hired is nationally certified so the hospital believes it has done its part in providing a qualified interpreter. However, the interpreter works most often in post secondary environments and only occasionally in medical settings. Chemical dependency is a complex disease and the doctors who work with these patients have years of training, experience and strategies they employ with patients. If the interpreter working with the patient and the provider is only remotely familiar with chemical dependency and mental health issues, then the interpretation will most likely fall short; thus errors in interpretation will occur and the patient and provider will not have the most effective exchange possible. The interpreter doesn’t realize what he/she needs to know to work effectively in such a specialized setting and can end up doing more harm than good.

What is the solution? Healthcare certification.

At a minimum, all working interpreters, in healthcare settings, must hold national certification. Some states are starting to pass laws that require state licensure, which would require interpreters to hold national certification to receive their state license, but not all states have been in favor of licensure. Yet the ultimate safeguard for hiring entities and Deaf patients would be the creation of a healthcare certification and making that the gold standard for all working medical interpreters. It is an active conversation in the interpreting profession to listen to the demands of consumers and to advance the industry and quality of work provided. 

Subscribe Here!