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Guide to Using Sign Language Interpreters

Effective Communication:

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the District of Columbia must provide sign language interpreters upon request to individuals with disabilities when necessary to ensure effective communication. The DC government must provide sign language interpreters at its expense.

Forms of Communication:

Sign language interpreters use their hands, fingers, and facial expression to translate spoken English into American Sign Language (ASL) and other signed languages. Interpreters may also serve clients who use transliterated Signed English (use of ASL signs, structured in English word order), Tactile interpreting (for individuals who are Deaf-Blind), Oral method (use of silent lip movements to repeat the spoken word so that the client can lip read), and Cued Speech modes of communication.  


Availability of Interpreter Services:

DC Government agencies can advise individuals of their willingness to provide interpreter services by stating that “Auxiliary aids and services will be provided upon request.  Please contact [provide name and contact information (e-mail address is preferred)] at least 5 days in advance” and displaying an interpreting symbol on publications, notices, and flyers:

Sign language interpreter symbol


Role of the Interpreter:

An interpreter's role is strictly that of a communication tool. Interpreters sign everything that is said and say everything that is signed. Sign language interpreters must abide by a set of ethical principles set forth by the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). This professional code of conduct2 protects and guides interpreters and those who use their services.  Interpreters must be qualified to interpret what is spoken by the hearing person and what is signed by the deaf person. Many interpreters have certifications that ensure their qualifications.


Requesting Interpreter Services:

  • Agencies should assign someone to handle interpreter service requests and include that individual’s name, phone, and email information in publications, websites, and any outreach material.
  • Sign language interpreters can be arranged through Mayor's Office of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing | Mayor's Office of Community Affairs ( for most agencies for discreet events up to 1 day in length when a participant requests an interpreter. 
  • For ongoing interpreter needs (such as ongoing classes for deaf students, ongoing medical/therapy treatments for deaf patients, or ongoing incarceration of deaf inmates), for agencies with special time-sensitive interpreter needs (such as the Metropolitan Police Department), or for events where interpretation is being offered without a participant request, the agency will need to pay for the interpreter(s). Interpreters should be requested at least 5 days before the event. We will attempt to provide interpreters on shorter notice, but interpreters may not be available.
  • Agencies must fill out the Sign Language Interpreter Request Form and submit the the completed PDF form to ODR by any of the following methods:
Phone: (202) 727-9493
  • The Interpreter Request Form gathers details about the event, the person needing the interpreter, and contact information for the agency/event contact. The request form must be submitted by the agency, rather than directly by the client/participant.
  • Often there is a two-hour minimum requirement for an assignment.  If the duration of the assignment exceeds one hour, then two interpreters will be dispatched at the agreed hourly rate per interpreter. Because the job requires constant mental and physical stamina to provide clear and concise communication, the interpreters must rotate at intervals.
  • If an interpreter has to be cancelled, the interpreter agency will generally charge part or all of the expected fee for the service, unless the cancellation is several days in advance.
  • Rates may be higher during holidays, after hours, or for weekend assignments. Some agencies charge for travel time and parking fees, while others do not if the assignment is in close proximity to the agency.


Working with Sign Language Interpreters: Some Helpful Hints

  • Before the event, whenever possible, share any notes, outlines, handouts, and uncaptioned movies with the interpreters in advance.  Also, share speakers’ names, acronyms, and other specialized terminology that will be used.
  • Line of Sight.  Position the interpreter(s) near the speaker(s). Provide seating for the deaf or hard of hearing individual(s) with a clear line of sight to the interpreter(s).
  • Provide appropriate lighting for the interpreter at all times. If you plan to turn down the lights during the assignment, remember to leave enough lighting on the interpreter.
  • Treat the interpreters as professionals. The interpreter is not a personal assistant for the deaf individual, and should only be asked to facilitate communication.
  • Look and speak directly to the deaf or hard of hearing individual. Look at the person who is deaf or hard of hearing when signing or speaking to them through an interpreter. Do not speak to the interpreter directly.  This may feel awkward at first since the message is coming through the interpreter.
  • Address the deaf or hard of hearing individual directly:
    • Appropriate: “What is your name?”
    • Inappropriate:  “Ask her what her name is?”
  • Sign/speak at the normal tone and pace. The interpreter will tell you if you need to pause or slow down. 
    • In addition, give the interpreter time to finish so that the deaf or hard of hearing person can ask questions or join the discussion.
  • Permit only one person to speak at a time during group discussions. It is difficult for an interpreter to follow several people speaking at once. Ask for a brief pause between speakers to permit the interpreter to finish before the next speaker starts. It can be helpful to ask people to raise their hands and wait to speak after they have been recognized. Also, it is appropriate etiquette for effective communication for each participant to state her or his name before speaking so a deaf-blind individual will know who is talking.
  • Relax. If you are unsure of the appropriate way to proceed in a particular situation, just ask.

Information in this guide is based on the following:

  • California Department of Social Services.Requesting American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters (hard copy).
  • Disability Support Services, Kansas State University. Tips for Effective Communication with Students using Sign Language Interpreters.
  • Mayor’s Office on Disability, City and County of San Francisco, CA. Tips for Using a Sign Language Interpreter:
  • Fair Housing Partners of Washington State, Disability Access Resources for Housing Providers:

1 Images of this and other disability access symbols are available for copying or downloading at the Graphic Artists Guild Disability Access Symbols Website:
2 For more information regarding an interpreter’s professional code of conduct, visit the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Website: