Working with interpreters

Role of the interpreter

Sign-language interpreting is very much like spoken foreign language, except that it involves the use of gestures or signs. The interpreter has a single responsibility in your class: to facilitate communication between you and your deaf student(s), and between the deaf student(s) and hearing classmates. The interpreter is responsible for interpreting all information as accurately as he or she can, without embellishment or deletion. The interpreter is not a teacher, a tutor or an aide for the deaf student.

Deaf students’ reliance on vision

Deaf students frequently sit in the front row of the classroom in order to see the instructor, the interpreter and the board. The interpreter generally sits facing the deaf student. Keep the visual line of communication open by avoiding walking between them. Sometimes, the interpreter may need to reposition to provide visual access. Be sure to pause to allow the interpreter time to take up the new position.

Deaf or hard-of-hearing students require captioned media. If the program selected is not available in captioned format, please refer to the closed-caption faculty guide for instruction on how to make something closed captioned.

Length and pace of class

Depending on the length and pace of your class, two interpreters may be assigned as a team, switching every 15 to 20 minutes. If you tend to speak rapidly, or have rapid interchanges between yourself and your students, consider asking your interpreter to let you know if the speed becomes a problem.

Complex concepts and obscure terms

Because most interpreters are not content experts, it is helpful for an interpreter to have access to Blackboard, copies of the textbook, course syllabus and handouts in advance, when possible. Many terms, including names and uncommon scientific vocabulary, do not have a sign equivalent and therefore must be finger spelled. Writing new vocabulary words of this kind on the board will greatly aid the interpreter.

Open class discussion

Classes that encourage free-flowing discussion present a special challenge to interpreters. Such classes often exclude the deaf student, not intentionally but because of the quick pace and unstructured interchanges. Multiple simultaneous conversations cannot be interpreted, so allow only one person to speak at a time. The interpreter may let you know that the deaf student has a question or comment, or may remind class members not to speak over each other. When asking a question in a class lecture, wait until the interpreter has completed signing the question before you call on students for an answer. This pause enables deaf students to understand the full question and raise their hands if they wish to participate.

What if an interpreter doesn’t show up?

Clark College coordinates interpreting services for WSU Vancouver. If the interpreter doesn’t show up, have the student immediately notify the Clark interpreter coordinator by email ( The student may also notify the Access Center ( If a replacement cannot be found immediately, there are other options. Each deaf student is assigned a note taker who takes notes throughout the term. The deaf student can access the notes for the portion of class that is not interpreted. The student may also record by phone, and the Access Center will help transcribe the notes.

Discussing sensitive issues with a student who uses an interpreter

Generally, students are comfortable discussing sensitive topics with interpreters. If possible, tell the student that you need to discuss something of a personal nature and that you prefer to communicate face-to-face if she or he feels comfortable using an interpreter. If not, you may communicate in writing using handwritten notes or your office computer, trading the use of your keyboard, laptop or any other media device with typing/texting abilities such as an iPad or smartphone.

Is an interpreter available for office hours, research participation, etc.?

Yes, faculty may independently request an interpreter for WSU-sponsored events, meetings, webinars, study groups, or extracurricular activities held outside of classes. To arrange for these types of events, the professor or student can Request an Interpreter here or using the link located on the Access Center homepage. Because certain accommodations take time to coordinate, please make the request as soon as possible. If a request is made less than two weeks in advance, the Access Center will fill the request, based on availability. However, we will make a good faith effort to fulfill advance requests. In addition to submitting your request form, you may contact the Access Center to discuss your requests.

Communicating your concerns to a student

Because there are fewer channels for communication for deaf students, you need to go the extra mile to make sure deaf students know you are available. They may not be able to catch you after class to discuss a late assignment or leave a voicemail. Consider sending the student an email or giving him or her a note, indicating, for example, that a late assignment is better than no assignment. Since deaf students are almost never without their wireless devices, email is the best way to communicate with them.

Another option is to schedule a meeting with the deaf student or request that the student come to see you during office hours. You or the student can use the “custom request” online form to request that an interpreter be present. This is an especially good idea if you feel the conversation may be sensitive or may need more than a few minutes.

Final thoughts

  • If you would like to speak to the deaf student, the interpreter will interpret your question or comment. Be sure to look at and speak directly to the student, rather than the interpreter.
  • An interpreter can interpret only what can be heard, so please speak clearly.
  • The interpreter is not a participating member of the class. If you have a question for the interpreter, feel free to ask during a non-interpreting time.
  • Interpreters regard all information as confidential. They adhere to a code of professional conduct and follow the FERPA law required by the university.

The interpreter in your class is the best resource for additional information on your use of interpreters. However, do not hesitate to contact the Access Center with any questions at