Sign Language Interpreting in the K-12 Classroom

The issue

There is an ongoing and constantly increasing need for more sign language interpreters, particularly in educational settings.  School environments are more complex and demanding than ever before.  This creates unique challenges for interpreters in K-12 classrooms. The individual who chooses this occupation must be willing and able to accept a variety of roles and responsibilities simultaneously. S/he may be expected to assess language needs, tutor, teach sign language, consult with the educational team, and provide in-service training for hearing faculty and staff.  While the primary responsibility of the interpreter is to provide successful communication access, there is much more involved.  K-12 interpreters must constantly monitor changing environments and needs to decide which role should take precedence at any given time.

What we know

Most deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children now spend their school day in mainstream environments.  Whether it is public or private, rural or urban, they are surrounded by hearing peers and adults who do not sign.  The majority of these children are born into families with no history of hearing loss.  That often leaves the classroom interpreter being the lone “expert” language model for those students.

Typically, this interpreter is out there on her own, working in isolation; there are no other professionals from whom they could get feedback, collaboration or supervision.  All of which are greatly needed considering the everyday challenges interpreters working with children are encountering.

As our country becomes more diverse, teachers and other school personnel must do their best to prepare for encountering students from different family structures, socioeconomic levels, and multicultural backgrounds.  Unfortunately, there can be a negative or deficient perception that accompanies these differences.  It is important to recognize that children try to make sense of the world through the lens of their home language and culture.  Children learn best when they are allowed to acquire skills within the scope of a meaningful context.  Those who work with DHH children have all of this to deal with and more.  Our students have varying levels of hearing loss, use a variety of amplification devices, have been exposed to any number of communication modes, often coming to school with differing levels of background experience.

K-12 interpreters face this alone.  Often they work in districts or buildings where the staff have never before experienced working with a DHH student or interpreter. So, added to the responsibility of interpreting is the education and training of other staff members and the deaf students’ peers. Levels of support from school personnel can vary as well.  Some teachers express negativity about having an another adult in the classroom, ranging from initial discomfort that gradually fades away to ongoing resentment and agitation that everyone in the room is forced to confront (despite efforts to conceal it).  This may put the interpreter in a difficult position in relation to advocating for the DHH students and for themselves, another vital part of the job.

No occupation exists without some component of stress.  For an interpreter, many of the numerous, sometimes daunting expectations placed especially on those working in K-12 learning environments result in not-so-obvious stressors. It is a physically and cognitively demanding task that can contribute to high incidence of cumulative trauma disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

What we don’t know

How do these factors affect the state of educating deaf children?  We know that there always seems to be a dearth of interpreters in all areas but particularly in the K-12 setting.  Stress related injury and general job dissatisfaction have led to interpreter burnout and thus quick turn over in the field.  Interpreters have expressed a feeling of lack of control particularly regarding the educational decisions made on behalf of their deaf students in the mainstream.  Research indicates that this and other non-linguistic demands of the profession contribute greatly to occupational stress.  This inevitably leads to a continued shortage of qualified educational interpreters.


The student suffers when he or she is continually faced with a new interpreter.  It takes time to adjust and become comfortable with one another.   When the new person is a fledgling who is still at a developing level, this adjustment is even more difficult. Our K-12 students are not equipped to train new interpreters.   These are not the ideal consumers to be helping “break in” the newbies.  Children need qualified, experienced interpreters and language models to have a chance at a successful experience in the mainstream setting.  Educational interpreters need to have the appropriate preparation and ongoing supervision in order for this to be possible.

Posted on Oct. 10, 2017 by
Dawn Walton
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
dmwdis {at}


Further reading