How to Include a Sign Language Interpreter in Government Communications

A woman using Guatemalan Sign Language stands next to a podium where a man is speaking into a microphone.

Government should make sure to include sign language interpretation during events and make important materials available in sign language translation so all citizens have equal access to information. For example, the Ministry of Transportation might add a video that uses the local sign language so Deaf citizens can learn about accessible transportation options.

Finding an Interpreter

Deciding to include sign language is a great first step, but it is important to hire an interpreter who is qualified. Below are a few recommendations for finding an interpreter:

  • Contact a local Deaf organization

It is important to work with the Deaf community when finding a sign language interpreter. In some countries, there are people who work as interpreters but do not really know how to communicate in the sign language that Deaf people use. Be aware that in some countries, different dialects or even completely different signed languages may be used in separate parts of the same country. Deaf organizations can tell you if this is the case in your country, and they can guide you toward interpreters likely to be the best fit for the Deaf people who will be using them.

If you are not sure how to find Deaf organizations in your country, try consulting the membership directory for the World Federation of the Deaf. If there is a national association of the Deaf in your country, then it is most likely listed here. The national association will probably be familiar with local level Deaf organizations throughout the country. If there is no national association of the deaf in your country, then try inquiring with associations in neighboring countries, or find the WFD regional secretariat for your region. These contacts might know of smaller, local Deaf communities even if your country does not yet have a national association.

  • Ask if there is an accreditation process for interpreters in the local sign language

In some countries, there may not be standards for sign language fluency. In that case, it is best to ask Deaf-led disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) for their recommended interpreters.

As an additional resource, you also can reach out to the Regional Representative for the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) for your region to learn if they have awareness of interpreters’ organizations in your country.

Including an Interpreter at an Event

At a public event, a sign language interpreter translates from the local spoken language to the local signed language to ensure that people who are deaf can access the same information as everyone else. In interactive forums where members of the public are invited to ask questions or make comments, a sign language interpreter can also interpret from the local sign language to the local spoken language so that deaf signing people, too, can have the same opportunity to ask questions or make comments. Below are some guidelines to ensure that Deaf participants receive the best quality interpretation.

  • Make sure that the interpreter is at the same level as the speaker

Having the interpreter at the same level as the speaker makes it easier for Deaf persons to see the expressions of both the speaker and the sign language interpreter. If the speaker is seated at a table, the interpreter should be seated. If the speaker is standing on a stage, the interpreter should be standing on the stage near them.

  • If the event is more than one hour, hire two interpreters

Providing sign language interpretation can be physically and mentally tiring for interpreters. It is important to make sure they have breaks—both for the health and well-being of the interpreters and also to ensure they can continue to provide good quality service for their Deaf clients. If the event is long, two interpreters will typically trade places every 15 to 30 minutes.

  • Provide a list of acronyms, names, and jargon to the interpreter(s) before the event

Many government institutions and organizations use acronyms for common terms. Sharing a list of these acronyms with the interpreter before the event makes it easier for them to sign and increases the accuracy of interpretation. For example, if the organization uses “D&G” as an abbreviation for “democracy and governance,” the interpreter might hear “DNG.” Ensuring the interpreter is familiar with any relevant acronyms helps the audience to understand the message. Provide the interpreter with the names of everyone who is expected to present and other key personnel. Interpreters may need to spell out each person’s name letter by letter. Having a list of names of those likely to be introduced will enable them to spell each name correctly. If people at the event are likely to use specialized terminology, it can be helpful to provide interpreters with a list of terms or with basic materials about the topic using relevant terminology. For example, if the discussion is on public policy regarding education, then interpreters may wish to see a list of terminology used by educators and education policy makers.

  • Make sure there is enough light to see the interpreter

If the speakers and interpreter are on a stage, make sure the interpreter is standing in the light alongside the speaker. If it becomes necessary to turn off the lights–for example, to show a video clip–then discuss with the interpreter the best solution for ensuring that participants can still see them.

  • Make sure that the interpreter is not in front of a light source

Alternatively, interpreters should also not be in front of a light source because it can be too bright for people to watch them for the entire duration of the event. If the interpreter is in front of a window, make sure the curtains are closed.

  • When answering a question from a person who is deaf, speak to the person, not the interpreter

If the event provides the option for attendees to ask questions and a question is received from someone who is deaf, be sure to look at and address the person who is deaf while you are speaking.

Creating Media Content

Content that you create for government communications should also be accessible to persons who are deaf. This means filming interpreters when they are present at an event or including interpretation for other media, such as TV spots. First, follow the guidelines in the previous section to select an interpreter. Then, decide if the interpreter will be included as an inset (small picture on the screen) or alongside the speaker. When filming, note the following guidelines:

  • Avoid zooming in on an interpreter’s hands or face

You should be able to see the interpreter’s entire upper body. This generally means from approximately the belly button up to about 30 centimeters above their head, and another 30 centimeters to the left and right past each shoulder. Most signs are performed in the region in front of the torso and face or slightly above the head or off to either side. Face, hand, and arm movements are essential for sign language. Nearly all signs use both hands and arms. Meanwhile, some grammatical markings are shown via specific facial expressions and the posture of the shoulders. Never hide the face or hands of the interpreter by zooming into only the hands.

  • Use a simple background

It is preferable to have the interpreter stand in front of a simple background without patterns or bright colors. This makes it easier to see the hands and face and limits distractions.

  • Ask the interpreter not to wear jewelry and to wear simple clothing

Jewelry can be distracting or can hide some of the movements used by the sign language interpreter. Simple, solid colored clothing — preferably a light color if the interpreter has dark skin and a dark color if the interpreter has light skin — helps Deaf persons to see the interpreter’s movements clearly. If your country has highly trained, professionally certified sign language interpreters, then these requirements will be routine for them.