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American Sign Language Interpreting During the Age of COVID-19

In the United States, nearly 35 million adults ages 18 and older live with some form of hearing disabilities. Unfortunately, the recent coronavirus outbreak has created additional communication barriers for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

According to the National Association of the Deaf, the widespread use of opaque masks has blocked some people's ability to read lips. Individuals with residual hearing issues may not comprehend the muffled speech of mask wearers. Some can't discern other people's intentions because masks hide facial expressions and other essential communication cues.

Although organizations must abide by state and federal health mandates to keep their community safe, they still have a legal responsibility to serve individuals with communication disabilities. In this article, you'll learn the best standards and practices to serve people in the deaf community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ADA Requires Entities to Provide Accommodations for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn't absolve covered entities from providing reasonable accommodations for deaf or hard-of-hearing people under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This law mandates that organizations must provide equal access to all individuals with disabilities.

There are two ADA statutes that businesses must comply with under the law:


1. Title II: State and Local Government Services

This federal statute applies to services provided by state and local government entities.  Subtitle A protects qualified individuals with disabilities. It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in services, programs, and other activities.

Title II extends the discrimination prohibition established under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  It is now amended to all activities these government entities provide, regardless of whether or not they receive federal financial assistance.


2. Title III: Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities

This section prohibits discrimination based on disability in businesses that include public accommodations. These companies must fall into one of the ADA's listed categories, including restaurants, movie theaters, schools, daycare centers, recreation areas, and doctors' offices. 

Others include newly constructed and altered places of public accommodation. Commercial facilities (privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, and office buildings) must also comply with standards established by the ADA.

These places must provide auxiliary services and aids to provide equal access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.  You'll learn more about these services in the following section.


Offer Interpreters as an Auxiliary Aid to Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Individuals

Organizations should strive to provide auxiliary services, like deaf interpreters, to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. These seasoned professionals should be fluent in both English and American Sign Language.

What is American Sign Language?

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, American Sign Language is a complete, natural language that is distinct from modern English.

It has linguistic properties identical to spoken languages; however, its grammar differs from English. Individuals express ASL using hand movements and facial expressions. It is the primary language used by Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing. Many hearing people also use ASL.

ASL contains the same fundamental properties of all languages. It has rules for pronunciation, word formation, and word order. Like other languages, ASL users have ways of signaling functions, such as asking a question rather than a statement.

English speakers ask questions by raising their vocal pitch and changing the word order. Individuals using ASL tilt their bodies forward, raise their eyebrows, and widen their eyes when asking a question.

Just like other languages, ASL has regional accents and dialects, just like English does. It contains regional variations in pronunciation, slang, and signing. ASL is not a universal language for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. Different countries have their own sign languages. 


What are Deaf Interpreters?

Deaf interpreters (DI) have a broad-based knowledge about the deaf community and culture. They are also bound by a Code of Professional Conduct. Most DIs are also deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. They have received specialized training in ethical standards and the role of an interpreter. A qualified interpreter is someone who can interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially. They can accomplish this receptively by understanding what the person with the disability has communicated. They can also accomplish this expressively by using specialized vocabulary to convey that information back to the person.

These interpreters have mastered the use of mime, gestures, props, drawings, and home signs. Additionally, they can match the sentence structure and language development to interpret for the deaf person.

Most qualified professionals have received certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. This national certifying body requires deaf interpreters to pass a written examination and performance test. Once they earn certification, they become a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI).

What is video remote interpreting?

Another option that organizations can consider is video remote interpreting (VRI). It is a category of remote interpretation that allows deaf and hard-of-hearing people to communicate with others using videoconferencing. This strategy can combine face-to-face and phone interpretation. Organizations can turn to VRI when it's not possible to use an on-site interpreter. VRI is useful when:

  • There is a lack of available qualified interpreters, such as at a rural location.
  • A facility needs an interpreter immediately, and there are no professionals available.
  • In person meeting is not safe
  • Visual is required for interpreting, such as for ASL

During VRI, the person who is deaf and the other party can speak with one another as if an interpreter is in the same room. They stream these sessions using videoconferencing.

Video remote interpreting can be done via a three way video call, or through the combination of phone and video. In the case of video and phone interpreting combined, an interpreter at a call center uses a headset to hear what the hearing person says. As the individual speaks, the professional translates what the person says. After the deaf person replies, the interpreter provides the interpretation via a web camera.


Providing Suitable Accommodations for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People During Covid-19

Under the ADA, workplaces have a responsibility to continue providing services to the deaf community. Whenever possible, the National Association of the Deaf recommends that organizations should use clear face shields and masks to facilitate communication. It allows deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to read speech and expressions. Here are some additional ways that agencies can service this population.

1. Offering Accommodations for Deaf Individuals in Workplaces

Workplaces have advised their employers to bring their own masks once their workplace reopened after COVID-19 shutdowns. The NAD explains this advice is problematic because these coverings hinder a deaf person's ability to read lips and understand speech.

If possible, organizations should provide clear masks or face shields to facilitate communication. Employers should also consult with deaf and hard-of-hearing people to create an accessible workplace environment for their workers.

Whenever workplaces hire interpreters, they should provide the appropriate clear mask, face shields, and PPE equipment when they arrive on the job site. It doesn't matter whether they are staff members, contractors, or freelancers.

Some deaf or hard-of-hearing employees may prefer to remote work because of communication barriers. Companies should allow these individuals to request to work from home if clear face shields and masks aren't provided by the employer.  The NAD says workplaces should make an effort to allow these employees to work from home as long as it is an effective option.

If workplaces don't fulfill their deaf employees' requests for reasonable accommodations, these workers can take several legal options. They may file an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.). In the federal sector, employees should follow the agency's protocol for resolving disputes.


2. Providing Accessibility in Educational Settings

Educators should follow NAD recommendations that are compatible with the CDC guidelines. Schools should prioritize the use of clear face shields and masks for all employees and students that communicate with deaf or hard of hearing individuals.

In pre-K-12, this includes all personnel that provides services to students and staff. Additionally, front desk employees and administrators should wear clear plastic face shields or masks to facilitate communication with individuals that are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The NAD encourages teachers of the deaf and interpreters/transliterators to wear clear face coverings that cover the nose and wrap securely around the face to maximize deaf and hard of hearing students learn without communication barriers while being safe. In programs where there is more than one deaf student or deaf school, administrators should consider which type of clear face coverings work best for each student depending on their age and comfort level.

The same quality and level of access should be provided to deaf and hard-of-hearing students, including sign language interpreters, Cued Language Transliterators, CART, captioning, FM systems, video remote interpreting, etc.


3. Ensuring Equal Access in Medical Settings

Hospitals must comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards and are likely to follow the strictest regulations regarding medical-grade masks. These organizations must make every allowance for clear communication that doesn't put the health of others at risk. Whenever possible, healthcare institutions should provide clear plastic shields to American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, Cued Language Transliterators, Support Services Providers (SSPs), and other medical personnel as accommodation.

Under federal law, healthcare organizations have the responsibility to provide an interpreter for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. The NAD says they have received reports that hospitals have asked children (as young as five) to interpret for their parents. Children should not be expected to become interpreters, especially in a medical setting. These actions are illegal.

Federal and state disability laws mandate that interpreters be impartial which prohibits any family members from interpreting, regardless of age or skill. If you need a skilled interpreter for your workplace, you can consider on site or video remote interpreting from one of the Language Network's qualified professionals.


4. Equal Access in Legal Settings

During legal attorney-client meetings, court appearances, and legal consultations, organizations should make every effort to provide a remote option, unless the deaf or hard-of-hearing person has a different request. When appearing in court, all participants should use clear masks or face shields.

The courtroom must not only plan sessions that allow for physical distancing; they should ensure deaf and hard-of-hearing people can fully participate. They should have an unobstructed view of ASL interpreters, Cued Language transliterators, and court reporters. If the person is DeafBlind, then exceptions must be made for physical distancing between these individuals and their interpreters. Each should be provided with the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) by the courts.


5. How Law Enforcement Can Improve Accessibility for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Individuals

Law enforcement officers must provide effective communication with deaf and hard of hearing people, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal laws prohibit the use of relatives to interpret for their family members.

It is never appropriate for officers to ask children to provide interpretation. Police officers should try to talk directly with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person.

When possible, use a clear mask or face shield. Officers can also pull down their masks, as long as both parties are comfortable, and each one abides by appropriate social distancing. It can help the hard-of-hearing or deaf person read lips. Individuals can also use one's own phone or paper writing to communicate. Parties should not share phones, pens, and paper supplies.

These suggestions are appropriate for interactions during limited situations such as traffic stops. For more formal interviews at police stations, organizations should hire a professional sign language interpreter (including Certified Deaf Interpreters) if necessary. Cued Language Transliterators, and professionally rendered captioning services (CART), and video remote interpretation are other options.


Additional Accessibility Tips for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People

According to the ADA, auxiliary services refer to ways to communicate with individuals who have communication disabilities. The federal government and NAD suggest the following methods:

1. Have qualified speech-to-speech transliterators for people with speech disabilities – Transliteration is a prominent interpreting mode where professionals translate between spoken English and a significant representation of English. Often, elements of ASL interpreting and incorporated but overall it uses an English word order.

2. Provide qualified readers for deaf-blind people - For people who deaf-blind, this includes providing a qualified reader; information in large print, Braille, or electronically for use with a computer screen-reading program; or an audio recording of printed information. A "qualified reader" is a person who can read effectively, accurately, and impartially using any necessary specialized vocabulary.

3. Offer trained interpreters for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals - Businesses can provide qualified notetakers to people who are deaf, have hearing losses, or are DeafBlind. They can also offer sign language, oral, cued-in speech, or tactile interpreters.

  • Sign language interpreters is the most traditional form of ASL interpreting. An English and ASL speaking individual can translate between the two parties alone or a third party may be required, who is deaf, to interpret between the speaking individual and the deaf consumer.
  • Cued-in speech is a less commonly used visual access system. In this unique system, interpreters use handshapes situated in different locations near their mouths to represent English phonetic markers.
  • Tactile interpretation is an interpreting method that helps people who are DeafBlind. Interpreters create signs in the person's hand while using other tactile cues to describe the state and the environment.

Other interpretation methods include video real-time captioning, written materials, or printed scripts of stock speeches (such guides of museums or historic places).        

Are you searching for a qualified Certified Deaf Interpreter for your organization? Language Network can help. We have skilled professionals that can assist you onsite or through video conferencing. For more information, contact our offices today.


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