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Sign Language and Oral Interpreter Job Description, Career as a Sign Language and Oral Interpreter, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Varies—see profile

Salary: Median—$16.28 per hour

Employment Outlook: Very good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Sign language and oral interpreters bridge the communication gap between those who can hear and those who cannot. Sign language interpreters use their hands and fingers to translate spoken English into American Sign Language (ASL). These signs are understood by the deaf person, who then signs in return for the interpreter to repeat aloud to the hearing audience. Oral interpreters use silent lip movements to repeat the spoken words. Many deaf or partially deaf people prefer lipreading. Sign language interpreters using the sign-to-voice method may lip-read at the same time. Interpreters must be able to change the mode of communication to fit the needs of the individuals being served.

Interpreters strive to make the communication as clear as possible for both hearing and nonhearing persons. They must convey thoughts and feelings as accurately as possible and never impose their own ideas. Interpreters relay information; they do not initiate or change it.

Sign language interpreters working in schools may use Signed or Manually Coded English, in which the teacher's spoken message is manually spelled out, with a special sign to indicate spaces between words. Sign language interpreters working with adults use American Sign Language, a distinct language. Sometimes finger spelling is used for rarely used names or technical terms.

Interpreters for the deaf work in schools, financial institutions, courts, and hospitals. They may also work for television stations, where they sign spoken messages to the viewing audience. Except for schools, most of these employers hire interpreters on an assignment basis, so interpreters are usually freelance workers.

Education and Training Requirements

The first step toward becoming a sign language interpreter is to acquire fluency in sign language. People with deaf relatives who use sign language usually acquire signing skills at an early age. For those who do not have this opportunity, training sources include colleges, universities, adult education courses, and local agencies serving the deaf. Some courses are more structured than others, and some offer a greater opportunity for interaction with deaf people. It is difficult A sign language interpreter uses American Sign Language to communicate with a deaf mother in a school. She would use finger spelling for technical terms or rarely used names. (Photograph by Kelly A. Quin. Thomson Gale. Reproduced by permission.) to predict how long it will take a student to learn sign language. It is equally important that interpreters possess a high level of skill in English, the other language involved in this process.

Educational programs for interpreters cover a wide variety of subject areas. These include the role of the interpreter and methods of communicating American Sign Language, Manually Coded English, mime, and gesture. Other areas of study may be physical factors involved with interpreting, such as lighting, seating arrangements, and backgrounds. An understanding of linguistic and language development is also important for the interpreter. Those who work in specialized fields should have the knowledge to understand what they are interpreting. For instance, those who work in courts should have a good grasp of legal terms and procedures.

Although interpreters need not be certified to work, employers often specify or prefer certified applicants. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the National Association of the Deaf certify interpreters. Evaluations assess the candidate's skills, knowledge, and attitude. Completing an interpreter's training program cannot guarantee passing this certification evaluation. Standards for the evaluation are high, and students often need field experience before they are able to pass it. There are several thousand certified sign language interpreters in the United States.

Getting the Job

People interested in interpreting for the deaf should get in touch with colleges, universities, local courts, and continuing education programs that offer vocational rehabilitation classes. All are regular users of interpreters. RID also provides job information.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

An interpreter with certification and experience in a specialty such as law or medicine will soon gain the recognition to attract many interpreting jobs. Some interpreters acquire extra skills and then move into advisory positions.

As society increasingly recognizes the needs of all its physically challenged citizens, the demand will increase for qualified interpreters. By law, interpreters must be available to deaf persons in public health centers, courts, schools, and other public agencies.

Working Conditions

Sign language interpreters work in a wide range of interesting environments. They may interpret for a witness in a courtroom or a patient in a doctor's office. They usually work with just one or two deaf people at a time, although interpreters for television viewers may have a large audience with whom they have no personal contact.

Hours may be irregular, but freelance interpreters who have a steady clientele soon develop a regular schedule. Many interpreters work part time and hold other jobs that may or may not be related to their work with the deaf.

Where to Go for More Information

Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
3417 Volta Place NW
Washington, DC, 20007
(202) 337-5220

National Association of the Deaf
8630 Fenton St., Ste. 820
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3876
(301) 587-1789

National Cued Speech Association
23970 Hermitage Rd.
Cleveland, OH 44122-4008
(800) 459-3529

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc.
333 Commerce St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 838-0030

Earnings and Benefits

The annual earnings of sign language and oral interpreters vary widely. Hourly rates for freelance interpreters range from $12 to $40. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly salary for sign language and oral interpreters was $16.28 in 2004. Rates vary with education and experience. Certification by RID usually ensures better pay. Interpreters employed by a public agency, government organization, or school system may receive vacation, health, and retirement benefits. Freelance interpreters must provide their own benefits.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts