Sign Language Interpreters in Public School Classrooms

The issue


The passage of PL-94-142 (in 1975) and its later iterations (IDEA, 2004) were intended to offer “least restrictive” educational settings for children with identified disabilities. While the intent of this legislation was (and remains) good, the law did not take into consideration implications (or systems’ readiness) of inclusion for children with unique learning styles and needs. Thus, and especially related to educational interpreting, individuals without professional training, credentials, or means of objective assessment were employed working between professional educators and deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) students. Furthermore, many school systems and educators were not be aware that sound-based teaching methodologies would be virtually inaccessible (let alone interpretable) to many DHH learners enrolled in regular schools. In addition, the role of the educational interpreter (EI) was and is vague largely due to the lack of a professional standard. Resources for training personnel in this unique form of interpretation remain scarce and largely inaccessible (especially for currently employed EIs). EI training continues to demonstrate a lack of consensus related to curriculum, outcomes, and prescribed roles of EIs.

What we know

While perhaps not obvious, the mainstreaming of DHH students is a form of bilingual education. Signed languages and spoken languages are not one-and-the-same. English is an acoustic language with distinct phonology, grammar, semantics, etc.  Students using a signed language have a different set of grammatical/linguistic tools, equal to yet different from spoken language. In order for inclusion to be successful, and for the act of education to be successful, many DHH students will need to have functional foundations in both languages. The DHH student’s ability to cognitively engage in the transfer of content knowledge across the two languages remains uninvestigated.

The notion of disability status (versus language-minority identification) is complex and further muddies the waters of inclusion. Terms such as “access” are related to other debilitating conditions and are not terms used in the area of language and translation.  It is vital to change the perspective on DHH students away from “disability” and towards language and cognitive development. Thus, the inclusion of language-unique (and bilingual) DHH children, and IEs serving them and educators, would benefit from the experience of and guidance from existing ESL and ELL professionals in public school settings.

Federal initiatives like IDEA have not defined the term “qualified” as it pertains to EIs.  In addition, few interpreter education programs are preparing graduates for employment in K-12 settings.  Those programs remain largely driven by adult sign language models, and course content tends to be geared towards interpretation in the adult community.

What we don’t know

For most children, early childhood is the time for language acquisition and development.  What is known is that many DHH enter public education without sufficient language foundations.  What isn’t known is when children are ready for an interpreted education and how parents and educational professionals know when they are. Thinking, in and of itself, is interpretation.  For DHH students, watching an interpretation requires not only cognitive skills (for comprehension, monitoring, etc.), it also requires metacognitive skills to think about the interpretation, think about their own thinking, analyze their own learning and the thinking of others, and so on.  Few public schools educate DHH learners about what EIs do or how to use them, but their roles are unique and vary across grade levels.

Another thought-provoking notion is this: When DHH children think, what language are they using? We assume that DHH children use English as the language for their “thinking engines.”  Reviewing DHH children’s writing or think-aloud protocols, it is evident that this often is not the case.

An additional consideration related to inclusion is that a significant portion of a child’s education is not via direct instruction. Incidental learning plays a significant role in a child’s education and is often lost due to the inability for interpreters to convey all forms of language interactions in a regular school setting.  The implication of this form of impoverishment, and the impact on social literacy, need to be addressed.


Many professionals engaged with DHH children and educational interpreting have labeled inclusion as an “unguided social experiment.”  The act of inclusion is not static – it is dynamic. Regular educational systems, if educating unique learners, need advanced learning related to current practice and its effects on atypical children. Educational communities, as well, need training in order to support academic and social literacy.  Professional organizations specifically focusing on educational interpreting, need to be put into place in order to formulate and assure best practices and to curtail potential professional malpractice.

Posted on Jan 11, 2016 by
Kevin T. Williams
The National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
kevin.williams {at}

Further reading