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Working with an ASL Interpreter

What is an Interpreter?

An interpreter is a professional who provides the communication link between individuals who are hearing and deaf, hard of hearing or deaf-blind .

For people who use American Sign Language (ASL), the interpreter translates or interprets spoken language into ASL.  They also translate or interpret the ASL into spoken language.

Other types of interpreting are available. Oral interpreters silently form words on the lips to provide communication to individuals who utilize lipreading as the main mode of communication. Deaf-blind individuals also need interpreters who are highly skilled and specialized in deaf-blind forms of communication.

As with any language, years of training and practical use are needed to develop fluency in ASL. Most interpreters have several years of interpreter training.

An interpreter is not merely an individual with signing skills. A "signer" is not an interpreter and should not be used in interpreting situations.

Why are Interpreters Needed?

All individuals deserve the opportunity to fully comprehend conversations, lectures, interviews, legal proceedings and any other situations in which they participate. Equal access is also required by federal and state laws.

When an individual's hearing loss makes it difficult or impossible to understand another person's speech, an interpreter can bridge the gap. For individuals who use ASL or use additional forms of communication other than spoken language, interpreters can bridge the gap.

Communication barriers goes both ways between hearing individuals and individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind.  Interpreters bridge the gap for hearing people who have little or no sign language training or have difficulty understanding a person's speech.

The Interpreter's Role

Interpreters translate messages, including intonation and emphasis, into a form of sign such as ASL that would be best understood by the consumer(s).

After passing a rigorous written and performance examination, interpreters can become nationally certified through Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). The national certification is accepted by the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) in assigning the Sign Language Interpreter license to those working in the state. This license is required for all sign language interpreters regardless of whether the service is provided in person or via video remote interpreting (VRI). Wisconsin offers the Wisconsin Interpreting and Transliterating Assessment (WITA) for interpreters who are still developing their skills. Those who pass the WITA to the required level may apply for a provisional (temporary) license from DSPS to work as a sign language interpreter in limited settings.

Licensed interpreters are required to follow the RID Code of Professional Conduct which includes seven tenets.

  • Adhering to standards of confidential communication.
  • Possessing the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation.
  • Conducting themselves in a manner appropriate to the specific interpreting situation.
  • Demonstrating respect for consumers.
  • Demonstrating respect for colleagues, interns, and students of the profession.
  • Maintaining ethical business practices.
  • Engaging in professional development.

Interpreters should not act or be expected to act as social workers, psychologists or counselors. If these services are needed, ODHH can assist you in locating the appropriate one.


Interpreters are expected to be confidential with all information related to private communications. Wisconsin's statutes specify that when an interpreter is used for legally privileged communication, the interpreter is also covered by the privilege and is prevented from disclosing the communication. Conversations between lawyer and client or doctor and patient are examples of privileged communications.

How to use an Interpreter

  • Relax. Talk at your normal speed; the interpreter will be several words behind you.
  • Avoid positioning the interpreter in front of a bright light or window.  Glare and shadows make lip movements and sign language difficult to see.
  • Speak directly to the person who is deaf, hard of hearing or deaf-blind. There is no need to instruct the interpreter to tell something to the person. In other words, speak as you would to any individual and leave the rest to the interpreter.
  • Use all the facial expressions and gestures you normally use - they show your interest and improve understanding. The person will look at both you and the interpreter.
  • Remember that hearing loss does not affect intelligence. People who are deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind have the same feelings and needs as you. Interpreters are trained to bridge the gap between different languages regardless of the education or sophistication of the communicators.

How to Arrange for an Interpreter

Interpreting agencies schedule and coordinate services at least 48 hours in advance. It is recommended to request interpreting services as soon as an appointment is made with an individual who needs this accommodation. When requesting an interpreter, please provide the agency with the person's name, time and location of appointment, and the general purpose of the appointment (medical, legal, personal, etc). Try to schedule as accurately as possible. Cancellations should be reported promptly to the agency.

If a consumer requests a specific interpreter, the scheduling agency will try to accommodate the request. In all cases, the scheduling agency attempts to secure an interpreter having the general or specialized skills necessary to best serve each deaf, hard of hearing or deaf-blind individual's needs.

It is possible to schedule a freelance interpreter independently. The Wisconsin's Freelance List for American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters (PDF) is allows hiring entities to contact listed interpreters directly. The cost of interpreting by a freelance interpreter is set by that individual.

Last revised January 8, 2018