Making the Right Choice: Choosing Your Sign Language Interpreter in the United States

The issue

Choosing your sign language interpreter can be a multifaceted process. Considerations need to be given to interpreter certification, ability, quality, and attitude. Interpreters can, and do, have a variety of attitudes towards Deaf people that are dependent on their individual experiences. As a result, the quality of the interpreters has a wide variation that affects the overall communication experience for the Deaf consumer and the non-deaf individuals that need to participate in conversations. Therefore, Deaf consumers, and relevant stakeholders, need to be aware of the range of interpreters available with respect to the interpreter’s attitude, skill, mindset, and overall interpreting capabilities.

What we know

Sign language interpreting has been in use ever since hearing people and Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs) saw a need to facilitate communication between people who are Deaf and those who are hearing. Formal certification processes and training initiatives followed the founding of the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf (RID) in the United States in 1974. Since then, Interpreter Training Programs (ITPs) have developed formal interpreter training preparation curricula. This program-specific approach may be a root cause of the current variation in the quality of interpreters available to Deaf consumers.

Further, the Video Relay Service (VRS) industry is a contributing factor to interpreter attitude and skill development. In general, sign language interpreters have had either positive or negative experiences working within VRS contexts. These experiences can have an effect on the overall attitude of an interpreter. Based on the situations that they encounter, interpreters may adopt a negative mindset, become jaded, and see their profession as a means to an end in terms of “just earning a paycheck”. Not all VRS interpreters are expected to hold certification but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has since made interpreter certification a more stringent expectation, placing the burden on VRS providers. On the other hand, interpreters can also capitalize on positive learning opportunities for feedback and continue to develop their craft, as well as maintaining an open, or growth, mindset to better serve the Deaf consumers they work with.

What we don’t know

There are scenarios across life contexts that require a specific type of interpreter. For example, in the state of Texas in the United States, the law requires that an interpreter going into legal proceedings or court environments must have a specific type of legal interpreting certification enabling them to interpret accurately the legal information in conversations that they are facilitating.

Certifying bodies such as the RID or the Board for Evaluation of Interpreters (BEI) in Texas have certification levels. Based on testing metrics, the RID assigns the National Interpreter Certificate (NIC). The BEI assigns a larger range, some of which include the Basic, Advanced, Master, Certified Deaf Interpreter, Court Interpreter, and Trilingual certifications. People (both Deaf and hearing) who are looking for interpreting services, or making requests for such services, should find out the certification levels of the interpreters. They can request this information from the agency providing services, or visit the appropriate websites to find out the certification level of the interpreter that has been assigned to interpret their upcoming meeting. Both the RID and the BEI have online directories that provide the name and certification level of interpreters that have earned certification, including the certification level, and type of certification.


While creating an understanding of the levels of interpreter certification is a way to successfully choose the right interpreter for your context, the research process itself essentially empowers you and makes you a more aware advocate of your own rights as a Deaf person, or an interested stakeholder. By becoming a better-informed advocate, you are also contributing to the overall improvement of interpreting standards in the United States. As a well-informed self-advocate, you can:

  • Expect, and request, interpreters with a certain level of certification in advance of your meeting(s),
  • Make note of interpreting agencies that may not work to fit your needs,
  • Rest assured that because of your own self-advocacy, your next communication delivery experience where you need interpreting services will be improved.

Posted on Jan. 17, 2020 by
Oscar Ocuto
Owner, 512 Terps
Austin, TX

Further reading