Sign Language Interpreters in Your Library: What You Need to Know

by Kathy MacMillan,NIC, M.L.S.

library sign thCAWD7QJOProgramming and special events are a key part of public library services, and providing interpretation services for those events is a key part of effective library service to deaf patrons.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that state and local government agencies and public accommodations provide effective communication for deaf people.  Under Title II of this law, storytimes, library board meetings, book club meetings, and other open events should all be made accessible upon request.  Interpreters may also be requested for other events such as job interviews and staff meetings.

Aside from the legal obligation to provide accessibility, making these events open to deaf patrons is integral to the public library’s mission of providing equal access for all.

In many libraries, however, access is limited by lack of clear policies and staff discomfort with procedures for obtaining and working with interpreters.  Many librarians want to provide interpreters, but they simply don’t know where to start.  Here’s your get-started guide.

Advertising Accessibility

Your library should have a policy in place about how far in advance deaf patrons should request an interpreter.  Two weeks is fairly standard; one week should be the minimum.  American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters work in a variety of settings, and most areas have a lot more interpreting work available than there are interpreters to do it.  The more lead time you have to find an interpreter, the more likely you are to be able to fill the patron’s request.  All publicity materials should carry a note about this policy, as well as clear contact information about where to request interpreters.  (Consider providing an email address as well as a phone number when giving this contact information; though most deaf people have access to TTY or video relay service to use the telephone, nearly all use email to communicate.)

The wording of this policy can encompass multiple special needs.  Here’s an example:

“To request sign language interpretation or other accommodation for special needs for any program, please contact Jane Doe at least 2 weeks before the program date. (123-555-5555 or”

Some libraries provide interpreted programs on a regular basis, whether a patron requests it or not.  This is a wonderful way to welcome deaf patrons, and, with a growing number of hearing parents signing with their hearing children, it is sure to earn you points in the hearing community as well.  If you decide to go this route, it’s a good idea to poll members of your local deaf community to make sure your regularly-scheduled interpreted program doesn’t conflict with other deaf community events.  In this case, you would definitely want to advertise that the program is going to be interpreted, but be careful of the language you use:

YES: “ASL interpretation will be provided.”

NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!: “This program will be signed for the hearing impaired.”

If you do decide to try providing interpreters at a regularly scheduled program, don’t be surprised if you don’t attract a huge number of deaf people right away.  Deaf people traditionally have not been avid library users, simply because, in many cases, libraries have not provided much for them.  The best way to build a following in the deaf community is through word of mouth – or, in this case, word of hand.  Contact your local association of the deaf or school for the deaf and get the word out.

Hiring Interpreters

The easiest way to hire interpreters is to contract with an interpreting agency.  You provide the agency with all the relevant information about the event that needs interpreting, and the agency locates an interpreter from their pool to fill the assignment.  Of course, such convenience has a price – expect to pay an agency fee in addition to the interpreter’s fee.

Many libraries prefer to contract directly with freelance interpreters.  You can build up your list of freelancers in your area by asking deaf contacts in your community for recommended names, or by searching the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf database at (click on “Find an Interpreter” in the menu on the left hand side of the page).  The benefit of contracting directly with freelancers is that it saves money; the major drawback, however, is that you may spend a lot of time on the phone trying to find an available interpreter.

Standard interpreter fees vary depending upon the nature of the assignment and your location, but expect to pay at least $35-$55 per hour for freelancers, and more if you are working through an agency.  A two-hour minimum charge is standard throughout the industry, as is a 24 to 48 hour cancellation requirement.  Be aware that more than one interpreter may be required for assignments over two hours or for certain special situations such as panel discussions or working with deaf-blind clients.

Though national certification (from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), or the RID-NAD National Interpreter Certification program) is certainly desirable, it is not absolutely necessary for most of the interpreting needs faced by libraries.  If you are working with a reputable agency, you can rest assured that the interpreter has passed the agency’s in-house screening.  If you work directly with freelancers, hiring only certified interpreters is safest.  Either way, be sure to solicit and pay attention to feedback from deaf clients about the interpreter’s performance.

When you call to contract an interpreter, have the following information ready:

  • the date and time of the assignment
  • the setting (toddler storytime, board meeting, job interview, etc)
  • length of the assignment
  • number of deaf and hearing people who will attend
  • contact person’s name and phone number
  • directions and parking instructions
  • as much information as possible about the content of the assignment, including presenter outlines, agenda, programs, and whether any visual aids such as videos will be used

A word about paying for interpreting services: though the cost may sometimes seem steep, you must remember that interpreters have highly specialized skills and training.  Think of the cost of the interpreter not as the cost of providing accessibility for one patron or a small group, but rather the cost of providing equal access to all.  Since your hearing patrons don’t require interpreters, you’re paying nothing for their accessibility, and the amount paid for interpreting services is minimal when it is divided by the total number of patrons, hearing and deaf, whom you are serving.

Working with an Interpreter

The interpreter’s job is to facilitate communication between hearing people and deaf people.  That means the often-used term “interpreter for the deaf” is only half-right; after all, if everyone in the room were deaf, there probably wouldn’t be a need for an interpreter.  The deaf and hearing participants are the active communicators, and the interpreter is the link that connects them.  This is the most important thing to remember when communicating through an interpreter: speak and look directly to the deaf person or people, and treat them with the same respect you afford to other guests in your library.  Follow the tips below to make the communication run even more smoothly:

 Before the interpreted event:

  • Provide as much information as possible to the interpreter.  The more information you can provide in advance, the better a job the interpreter will be able to do.  Because American Sign Language depends heavily on context, the more the interpreter understands in advance about what is going on, the more easily the communication will flow.  Providing outlines, agendas, etc. when booking the interpreter is ideal, but if that’s not possible, plan to provide at least an overview of the interpreted event when the interpreter arrives (usually 15 to 20 minutes before the start time).
  • Think about sight and sound: Your deaf attendees need to be able to see the interpreter, and the interpreter needs to be able to hear anyone who is speaking.  Work with the interpreter to find the best place to stand or sit, and make sure that other people won’t be walking in between the interpreter and the deaf folks.  Ideally, the interpreter will be lighted from above (not behind), and will be placed against a neutral background.  (Having the interpreter stand against a window or patterned wall, for example, would cause a huge visual distraction.) 
  • Let the interpreter know if you are planning to use visual aids, especially if you will need to dim the lights for any reason.  If you are using a video, check to see if it is captioned.  If it is not, make sure you let the interpreter look it over before the program.

 During the interpreted event:

  • Speak at a normal pace and volume.  The interpreter will let you know if you need to repeat anything or speak up.
  • When asking questions of the audience, remember that the interpreter will always be interpreting slightly behind the presenter.  This is because of the way the interpreting process works: the interpreter must hear the English message, process it, and then put it out in ASL.  To be fair to the deaf members of the audience, allow an extra few beats before calling on someone to answer your question.
  • If you are using any visual aids, such as a PowerPoint presentation, transparencies, or even storytime props, allow time for the deaf folks to absorb the visual information.  Hearing people can look at a screen and listen to a presenter at the same time; deaf people cannot look at the screen and watch the interpreter at the same time.  When showing a visual aid, show it without speaking for a moment, then launch into your discussion. 
  • When speaking to a deaf person, speak directly to him or her.  In other words, don’t turn to the interpreter and say, “Tell him I said…”  Doing so is rude and distracting to both the interpreter and the deaf person, and can actually cause more confusion.
  • Though it may be tempting, don’t use the interpreter as a volunteer, aide or object of attention.  Most interpreters find it very difficult and awkward to participate while trying to convey what is going on to the deaf person.
  • In a setting such as a meeting or discussion group, work out a visual way to establish turn-taking.  This could be something as simple as having the current speaker hold a ball or paperweight.  This provides a visual cue to let the deaf people know who is speaking, and also puts deaf and hearing people on equal ground when trying to get a word in edgewise.
  • When providing an interpreter for a children’s program, consider giving a brief explanation of the interpreter’s role at the beginning of the program, to defuse questions from eager participants: “Miss Kathy is our sign language interpreter today.  When we say something in English, she will interpret it into American Sign Language for our deaf friends.  When our deaf friends sign something, Miss Kathy will say it in English for us.”  And don’t worry about the kids in your story time being too distracted by the interpreter – odds are, they will be fascinated by the novelty for the first five minutes, then forget about it and move on.
  • Remember that the interpreter’s job is to say everything that is signed, and sign everything that is spoken.  In other words, if you don’t want it interpreted, don’t say it where the interpreter can hear you! 

After the interpreted event:

  • Ask the interpreter for feedback on how you can make interpreted events go more smoothly in the future.  Also let the interpreter know if you have any concerns about how the event went.
  • Ask for feedback from the deaf attendees.  Understandably, many deaf people might be hesitant to tell you about problems with an interpreter through that very interpreter, so provide them with a contact name and email address where they can send feedback.
  • Give yourself a hand!  Remember that you have not only made the library more accessible, you have provided a great example of accessible communication for all the attendees of your event!

Kathy MacMillan is a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter who has worked in libraries for over fifteen years.  Find out more about her interpreting services and programs and workshops for libraries at

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