Classroom Interpreting

Parents - Case Studies: Exploring Different Perspectives on Educational Interpreting

By Jennifer Pfau, Parent & Rights Advocate

My Deaf son grew up in a school environment with direct communication access, which means the use of a sign language interpreter was minimal. He could communicate directly in American Sign Language with his teachers, who were fluent ASL communicators themselves; all teaching and interaction was in ASL. But by the end of his 4 th grade year, my son asked to be transferred from a deaf school to a mainstreamed program as he began 5 th grade. His reasons were valid and this fall is his first experience of using sign language interpreters in the classroom.

As a Deaf parent with the new experience with a Deaf son enrolled in the mainstreamed program, several questions came to my mind. What is the difference between education and community interpreter, and will my son have the same benefits as I do in the community as I use the interpreters on a daily basis? I decided that although there are differences, the basic responsibility of an interpreter is to facilitate effective communication between two parties. In the community, referral agencies strive to provide the “best communication match” between the Deaf consumer and the interpreter. I do not know if the school district applies the “best match” philosophy as referral agencies do.

As an experienced user myself, what do I teach my son about utilizing sign language interpreters? Here are some basics:

It is okay to be assertive and ask for clarification if he does not understand the information. It is often bad form for students to ask the teacher to repeat or clarify concepts or activities. However, in a mainstream classroom where all of the information is being funneled through the interpretation of a third party, then I want to make sure that my son is not being chastised for being assertive and making known his needs for understanding the message. Nevertheless, I worry that he will be perceived of being a troublemaker when he is simply taking an active role in his education. It is important that the teachers and the school personnel do not to underestimate his ability to know when he does not understand the information.

He needs to learn to work with the teacher/interpreter as a team to make sure that he is getting the information accurately. He must double check for understanding. There were several occasions my son comes home and tells me that he understands one interpreter but struggles with understanding another interpreter. The questions came to my mind- how the interpreters are conveying the information- in an English format or ASL format. There is a difference between transiliatering and interpreting: Transliterators listen to the spoken message and sign it in a way that closely approximates English. The second type is interpreters who listen to spoken English, then interpret it into American Sign Language (ASL), which has its own grammar and syntax. That is one of the biggest differences between interpreted messages and direct communication – the interpreted message includes another person who may or may not know how to check in for understanding whereas a teacher, who is directly communication with the student, will make the effort to ensure that the student has understood the concept before moving on.

Sometimes problems can arise, and my son needs to know who to go to if he needs to share a concern about the quality of interpreting—this is very important in his own developing sense of self-advocacy. Unfortunately, most schools don’t have policies in place that help Deaf children in mainstream settings who have a complaint about their interpreter. Empowerment is the first step-- I would tell my son he would need to talk to the support teacher, usually a deaf/hard of hearing coordinator, and address the concerns. If the support teacher does not address to his concerns, then he would need to let me know as his parent. Even though there isn’t a policy in place as it should be, I would then communicate with the d/hh coordinator to address the qualification of an interpreter and my son’s concerns. If I am told the school is unable to do something about this, I would then address this issue with the school district administrator about effective communication--according to the qualification under the ADA--if the interpreter is unable to fit my son’s means of communication, then it is not effective.

Deaf students must understand the difference between a tutor and an interpreter. In the working and post-secondary world, the interpreter does not provide tutoring, as this falls outside their code of ethics and boundaries. But in some educational settings, it’s a standard practice for the interpreter to function as a tutor as well. If we use an interpreter in this role, we need to address it specifically in my son’s IEP. Could my son have a tutor who can communicate in ASL fluently to work with him? I asked that question prior to the IEP meeting and I was told that the school district does not provide tutoring services outside of the school. So only the last 45 minutes of each day, my son spends with the support teacher to go over the courses he needed help with. Is that enough? I am not sure. I would have to work with him every night.

Other Concerns I Have as a Deaf Parent of a Deaf Child in Mainstream Schools

My son’s only language “peer” right now is his sign interpreter and the support teacher. How can a deaf child genuinely interact with hearing peers without the communication obstacles? That is something I am working with my son at this point. We are still trying to figure out how my son can be included without having to rely on the interpreter to facilitate the communication between peers on a daily basis--but this is a tough one with no easy answers.

I wonder if the school district or education interpreters understand child and language development theories and current practices around bi-lingual (ASL/English) education. Regardless of whether my son is attending a deaf school or a mainstream program, his first language is American Sign Language, which does not have a written form and he uses English as a second language and is not yet fluent in written English. I also wonder about the assumptions that the school district makes about my son. Even at age 11, he is a fluent user of American Sign Language. He is intelligent and developmentally on par with his peers. However, because he uses English as a second language and is not yet fluent in written English—I wonder if the school personnel are trained to conduct such assessment in the individual’s preferred language and mode of communication which in my son’s case, is American Sign Language, not English-Based manual as assumed by the school personnel.

It seems to me that all of the school personnel who are working with my son should be trained around the issues of bilingualism (ASL/English) and be familiar with the research relating to intelligence and language fluency. I question whether the school district understands the definition of education interpreter as outlined in the state law here we live: in Colorado statute, "educational interpreter" means a person who uses sign language in the public school setting for purposes of facilitating communication between users and nonusers of sign language and who is fluent in the languages used by both deaf and nondeaf persons.” This statute applies to my son who needs an interpreter who is fluent in ASL, not English-manual signs. However, there seems to be a serious lack of ASL education interpreters. Although my son’s right to communication access if protected by several laws, the most specific to his rights as a deaf student is the Colorado Deaf Child Bill of Rights. It says the “provision of appropriate, direct, and ongoing language access to teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing and interpreters and other specialists who are proficient in the child’s primary communication mode or language” must be a consideration of his IEP. But what if there aren’t any educational interpreters proficient in ASL?

Community Interpreters vs. Educational Interpreters

I often tell myself how I wish my son could have the same benefits as I do using a community interpreter. For instance, any interpreting job assignments that are longer than two hours require two sign language interpreters working together as a team to ensure the information is conveyed effectively and accurately. Team interpreting does not seem to exist in the school district’s philosophy--due to “budget restraints.” I am aware there is a shortage of interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing students in Colorado and across the United States. The shortage affects elementary and secondary schools most severely.

However, the bottom line is effective communication in the classroom. I know that the interpreters need breaks and that one interpreter cannot be with my son all day each day. I couldn’t imagine an interpreter interpreting alone all day without any team support. I truly believe that team interpreting for my son is vital. “Team interpreting" means two interpreters working and "spelling"/assisting each other at brief intervals for the full time assigned. It does not mean "relief interpreting" where one interpreter interprets while the other leaves the room and returns 20 - 30 minutes later. By teaming as many classes as possible to maintain a level of quality, my son can be assured of receiving the information fully and accurately. I am aware that team interpreting may raise many concerns about its necessity among the school district administrators. Initially, it seems too expensive in its cost. However, in the long run, the quality of the service is maintained at a high level and it helps to eliminate mental and physical fatigue for both- my son and for the education interpreters.

Effective Communication Access

What exactly does effective communication mean in a mainstreamed school environment? I get the sense that many people think that effective communication is equivalent to effective English communication. I do not believe this is the legislative intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Moreover, is effective communication guaranteed at all times while he is at the school or at a school function or just most of the time? For me, these answers are not clearly known. According to the ADA, effective communication is the best communication strategy as determined by the child. Fortunately, my son can ask for a qualified interpreter to fit his means of communication which is American Sign Language.

How does a parent measure effective communication--especially when the lessons are taught through an interpreter? If the child arrives home, aggravated and struggling with homework, is the root of the problem because the child is having difficulty learning a new concept or is it because the child did not get clear and accurate information through the interpreted message and therefore he struggles with lack of information on top of trying to learn a new concept? Parents should always consider whether the interpreter is qualified for your child. What does a qualified interpreter mean? As it stated in the ADA, the definition of qualified interpreter is “an interpreter who is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary”.

Know Your Rights as Parents

I recently had my IEP meeting and was disappointed to discover the interpreter was not even in attendance! I believe they have an important role in developing and implementing the communication access plan. The most important issues, when contemplating the IEP for my son, are related to language and communication: Communication needs and my son’s preferred mode of communication, linguistic needs and social, emotional, and cultural needs, including opportunity for peer interactions and communication. Fortunately, laws and regulations to ensure effective communication protect my son’s education. It is extremely important for all parents who have a child in the special education system to be knowledgeable about the rights and protections afforded to our children through laws. It can be overwhelming but bottom line--the IEP team mustconsider the student’s language and communication needs, including opportunities for direct communication with peers and professionals in the student’s language and communication mode.

I found the Everyday Guide to Special Education Law handbook written by Randy Chapman, Esq. full of the information about the 2004 changes to IDEA and its requirements outlined emphasis the importance of the communication needs of a deaf/hard of hearing children. (Page 35)

Is Mainstreaming Worth It?

Some parents are questioning my decision to place my son in a mainstreamed program instead of a deaf school. It is a very good question. I believe it is a good opportunity for my son to have daily association with hearing students in an inclusion setting to better develop his ability to communicate with hearing people, leading to skills he will need in later years. In addition, I believe it is important to expose him to interpreters at this early age because he will be using interpreter services for the rest of his life. One reason that my son will more than likely succeed in this new environment, although there are obstacles ahead of him, is that he has a solid foundation from the nine years of previous direct communication education in a solidly visual environment at a deaf school. Now in the mainstream environment, there are some challenges ahead of us as there seems to be very little support in the mostly auditory environment, and my son is faced with learning new strategies and approaches of surviving and thriving in this new world.

What does the future hold for my son? We will see as times goes on…

Useful Resources:  

The Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People: The Everyday Guide to Special Education Law: A handbook for Parents, Teachers and Other Professionals written by Randy Chapman, Esq. (2005) The handbook may be ordered online at or by e mailing to

Colorado Hands & Voices: Colorado Deaf Child Bill of Rights

Educational Interpreter Handbook: Colorado Department of Education: