How to Work With Deaf or Hard of Hearing Customers and Employees

by Sarah Margolis-Greenbaum

8 min read

As a small business owner, working with a deaf, or a hard of hearing customer or employee requires a certain protocol and etiquette. Each individual will need a different level of care, and your technique and decision-making will determine a positive or negative result.

When it comes to providing communication accessibility, you must determine what kinds of services are needed, contact an agency to provide the services and ensure the settings are arranged to allow for the best provision of these services.

Here is some guidance to help you understand what is involved:

Communication: What is Needed?

You have to ask employees or clients what communication method they prefer. Not all deaf people and hard of hearing people are the same; you cannot assume you know how they can, or prefer to, communicate. For example, some may prefer to use Spoken English and hearing aids, a cochlear implant and/or speech reading, while others may want to use an interpreter. They may interact with you solely through the interpreter or may also choose to use Spoken English. Others may prefer an alternative form of communication, such as speech-to-text services.

If they prefer an interpreter, you need to ask what kind. There are American Sign Language (ASL), Signed English (SEE) and Cued Speech interpreters, as well as interpreters for the deaf/blind. You will need to know which kind is required before contacting the interpreting agency to hire an interpreter.

A person who uses an interpreter may not want an interpreter for all situations. For example, an employee or client who requires an interpreter for a large meeting might prefer a different accommodation for a small meeting, while a person who prefers to use speech to text for a lecture might prefer an interpreter for a workshop when there will be back and forth communication. It is always good to ask.

How to Hire an Interpreter

As soon as you know that you’ll need an interpreter, make arrangements. There are a limited number of skilled interpreters, and you can assume they will be completely booked if you delay. Anything less than a week in advance is questionable for getting a good interpreter.

Certification. Interpreters are required to have certification, and are also bound by a code of ethics. This code will ensure they follow rules of confidentiality. It is important to understand that not all certification is the same, not all interpreters are equally skilled and, occasionally, you will have an interpreter who doesn’t follow the code of ethics. It is important to make sure that you are hiring an interpreter who is properly certified. The vast majority of the time you will not experience problems, but it may happen. If there are problems, you need to report the interpreter to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. This is necessary to protect the deaf client or employee, as well as your business.

Agency or Independent Provider. Your next step is to determine where to hire an interpreter. One way is through an agency. An agency has advantages when it comes to certification, for example, and because the agency will have a number of interpreters on staff, it will be easier to find someone who is available to match your schedule. The negatives are that you may not be able to get an interpreter that works best for the situation, since there may only be a very limited number still available and the best ones may already have been booked. Using an agency will also probably be the most expensive way to hire an interpreter.

Another way to hire an interpreter is directly. Your company may have developed a relationship with an interpreter who fits the requirements of the situation, or you may receive a recommendation to use an interpreter. This can come from another business, or from a deaf/hard of hearing individual. If the interpreter is being used for the deaf/hard of hearing person who recommended them, you will not have to inquire as to the kind of sign language used, since that will match the needs. But, you should still check that the interpreter is certified. A word of caution: if a deaf individual has highly recommended an interpreter, it does not mean that interpreter will work well with another deaf individual. This is because not all deaf people use the same kind of sign language or have the same kind of needs.

Visit the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf website to locate an interpreting agency or certified interpreters in your area.

Unfortunately, a lot of interpreting agencies are pricy because of overhead fees. A company, Linguabee, has managed to drastically cut the cost of overhead fees by allowing you to directly contact interpreters. This bypasses the standard operation of agencies, whereby you contact the agency that then coordinates and schedules the requests. Currently, Linguabee is only available in California, Texas and Arizona.

Rules and Etiquette for Using an Interpreter

The interpreter is only there to facilitate communication, not to answer questions you have about, or for, the deaf person, and not there to convince the deaf person of anything.

With that said, here are some proper rules and etiquette to follow so that you best approach and strategize your relationship and interaction with an interpreter and your client or employee who is deaf:

  • When you are communicating with the deaf person, look at them. Do not look at the interpreter because it is considered rude.
  • If something does not make sense, something may have been misinterpreted. Interpreters often work at a fast pace and are moving between languages that are not identical. Sign languages, particularly ASL, are not the same as coded English. What you say will be approximated to the deaf person and what the person says will be approximated to you. This means there can be errors that are totally innocent. If something doesn’t make sense, you should stop and rephrase, or ask for clarification. It is possible that what you said was interpreted to mean something different, or what the person responded with was interpreted to not exactly match what was meant.
  • This happens whenever there is interpretation fromone language to another. This is also a reason why someone using an interpreter might request speech to text for a lecture; the interpreter may want to make sure to get the exact English meanings, especially if the information is very specific.
  • If a joke you tell doesn’t get laughs, remember it may not translate. This doesn’t mean that the deaf/hard of hearing person doesn’t have a sense of humor or that you did a bad job telling the joke.Likewise, idioms and metaphors will not necessarily translate.

There are also cultural differences that may come out when using an interpreter. 

Settings are Important

A deaf/hard of hearing person will rely on vision, and you need to consider that when setting up a location. You should not have your back to a window or a bright light because this will prevent the deaf person from being able to speech read you or gather other visual information. Likewise, the interpreter should not be positioned so that a bright light is behind them.

A person using an interpreter will need to be seated so that they can see the speaker and the interpreter. In a one-on-one setting, this is simple; it is also typically fairly straightforward in a standard lecture type situation. In that case, the interpreter will be near the speaker and the deaf person will be seated close enough to see the interpreter clearly, as well as being able to see the speaker. Likewise, a person using speech-to-text technology will also need preferential seating to make sure he/she can access the information.

However, when there is a conference table set up for a meeting, the situation can be more complicated. How to handle this will depend on a number of issues. In general, the interpreter may find it best to move around the table, and stand near or behind whomever is speaking, but this may not always be the best solution. Additional issues will include if the deaf/hard of hearing person will also be using information from a hearing aid or cochlear implant. In this kind of a setting, you may want to ask the interpreter and the deaf individual for help with the seating before the meeting begins.

Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • When the program is long or there are multiple speakers, two interpreters may be required. An interpreter can neither interpret solidly hour after hour nor can one interpreter usually handle multiple speakers. An agency can help you decide what is needed.
  • Provide the interpreter with as much information as possible, in advance. This allows the interpreter to be confident in specialized vocabulary, or be aware of issues regarding the level of interpreting required.
  • The interpreter is responsible for interpreting everything. If you say, “Don’t tell the deaf person this, but …” they are required, by their ethical code, to repeat exactly what you said. You should also be aware that, in doing something like this, you are being disrespectful to the deaf employee/client who should be treated as a valid person.

Most interpreters and agencies require a two-hour minimum. Interpreters are professionals and need to travel and prepare. This minimum helps to prevent their services from being devalued and abused.

Hiring an interpreter for a meeting that is supposed to last for only 20 minutes may not be the best use of resources. That doesn’t mean you should deny the request for an interpreter; instead, look at the situation. You may want to make sure that the schedule allows for a better use of resources. For example, if this is for a program and there is a long break between items that would need an interpreter, having two 30-minute discussion sessions requiring an interpreter that are separated by a few hours may not be the best way to set the schedule.

Always remember that deaf and hard of hearing individuals are exactly that. They are individuals and no one service will fit everyone’s needs.

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