illegal vs. legal rules for sign language interpreting
By: Alison On: August 17, 2016 In: Government, Interpreting, Medical Comments: 4

Sign language interpreting helps deaf and hard of hearing people communicate, and in the United States, it is often legally required.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 established a series of measures to prohibit instances of discrimination because of a person’s disability. The ADA requires that the communication needs of hard of hearing and deaf persons are met, and this frequently demands the use of an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.

Sign Language Interpreting & Discrimination Law

The ADA very clearly states the need for proper communication with hard of hearing and deaf individuals.

Specifically, the ADA states:

“No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.”

Additionally, discrimination includes:

“…a failure to take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services…”

The ADA definition of “auxiliary aids and services” includes “qualified interpreters or other effective methods of making aurally delivered materials available to individuals with hearing impairments.”

Therefore, any place of public accommodation is required to provide sign language interpreters or other effective means of communication for hard of hearing individuals. Depending on the situation, other effective means of communication may include assistive listening devices.

Where Sign Language Interpreting Is Required

One extremely important area covered by the ADA is the medical field, where sign language interpreting services are often required. Hospitals, for instance, must provide an appropriate means of communication to any patients, family members or hospital visitors who may be hearing impaired. This is applicable in all hospital areas, from the emergency room to the gift shop.

In some cases, the ADA specifies that an effective form of communication may consist simply of a written note, but if a conversation is more complicated — such as explaining a patient’s symptoms or a medical procedure — a qualified ASL interpreter may be necessary.

The ADA extends beyond medical settings and also covers areas like the legal, education, law enforcement and employment systems.

If a company is interviewing a deaf individual, for instance, they are required to provide sign language interpreting. Similarly, hard of hearing defendants in a legal proceeding must be provided with an interpreter.

The ADA even covers the hospitality industry. For example, hotels must meet hard of hearing communication needs by providing a teletypewriter — the device hard of hearing persons need in order to use a telephone — to guest rooms upon request, and they must also have a teletypewriter available at the front desk.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

According to ADA standards, it is usually up to the institution in question to provide — and pay for — any necessary sign language interpreting. If an institution does not comply by providing ASL interpreting to meet the needs of a hard of hearing individual, it may suffer serious penalties.

In a 2008 disability discrimination and punitive damages case, a deaf woman successfully sued a New Jersey doctor who refused to provide her with a sign language interpreter after she asked for one on multiple occasions. The jury agreed that this qualified as discrimination and ruled unanimously in favor of a $400,000 award.

Wal-Mart has also been faced with disability discrimination complaints. In 2000, the mega retailer settled a case for $135,500, brought by two deaf individuals who had applied for jobs at a Wal-Mart in Tucson, Arizona. The lawsuit was brought under the ADA.

As part of the settlement, Wal-Mart agreed to provide sign language interpreting to both individuals during their training and orientation, as well as during any scheduled meetings and work evaluations.

It’s All About Effective Communication

The key phrase used by the ADA when it comes to deaf and hard of hearing individuals is “effective communication.” Whatever is necessary to ensure effective communication is required, by law, to be done.

Although the details of what “effective communication” entails may be hazy in some cases, there’s no doubt that ultimately sign language interpreting is the most straightforward way for institutions to fulfill their obligations under the ADA.


    • Annette Suh
    • November 16, 2016
    • Reply

    My non-profit hosts classes, and we’ve been asked to foot the bill for a sign-language interpreter for a class. Are we required by law to pay for the interpreters?

      • Chelsea
      • November 16, 2016
      • Reply

      Hi Annette,
      You may find this article helpful in determining whether or not you are obligated to pay for the interpreters: https://adata.org/learn-about-ada. It provides a fuller look at the ADA and what it entails.

    • Dorinda
    • November 17, 2016
    • Reply

    My daughter is deaf/hearing impaired. She had an interpreter in school for the past two years, but she retired. I was told that an interpreter was not needed in school since I do not sign with her at. Is this true? Is there a law that requires an interpreter for a child who is deaf/hearing impaired in a school setting?

    • Jenny
    • November 28, 2016
    • Reply

    My son is nonverbal Autistic and relies on sign language as his main mode of communication. Does he have rights to sign language interpreting services during school and speech therapy sessions? He has not a hearing impairment, but has little to no speech.

Leave reply:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *