American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting has a diversity problem. Nationwide, 85% of interpreters identify as white and just 15% identify as a racial or ethnic minority. This demographic makeup stands in stark contrast to the broader U.S. population, which according to the 2020 Census, is 61.6% white. From barriers due to differences in dialects to issues of implicit trust, a lack of diversity among ASL interpreters poses major challenges within increasingly diverse Deaf communities.
Here are just three reasons why diversity matters in ASL interpreting:
1. There are different dialects of ASL.
If you’ve ever tried to communicate with someone who speaks a different dialect of English, you know how difficult it can be to reach an understanding. The same is true for dialects of ASL.
Some dialects, such as Black American Sign Language (BASL), developed from historical circumstances. In this case, it was racial segregation of Deaf schools in the South. Others, such as Puerto Rican Sign Language, merged American and Spanish sign languages to create a new dialect.
Like spoken languages, ASL changes and evolves to reflect local, regional, and cultural differences. Those differences can mean ASL users struggle to communicate with someone who signs a different dialect.
Understanding how deaf people communicate within their community is an essential part of meeting their language needs—regardless of whether they know standard ASL. Interpreters who belong to these ethnic and regional communities will be better equipped to assist deaf people speak specific dialects.
2. ASL interpreter diversity builds trust in Deaf communities.
Beyond differences in dialects, deaf people who identify as racial or ethnic minorities experience discrimination due to their background. Like their hearing counterparts, this can make it difficult to trust people in positions of authority.
Unfortunately, fields such as legal and medical have a long history racial discrimination in the U.S.A. White ASL interpreters in those settings may not understand the cultural hurdles involved in building mutual trust. Working with an interpreter with mutual understanding of cultural experience with those systems can help build trust and ensure deaf people feel heard.
3. Diverse interpreters inspire future interpreters.
Access to higher education and certification costs are two of the biggest barriers for minority interpreters—whether they’re hearing or deaf.
Before a future interpreter can get to those practical considerations though, they must first consider interpreting as a chosen field. Visibility within different communities has an impact on that choice. If you’ve never met an interpreter who looks like you, it’s harder to envision that as a career path.
At the same time, an increase in visibility can alert the general public to the needs of these communities and even lead to more funding to address financial barriers. Certified Deaf interpreters such as Marla Berkowitz have highlighted the challenges of navigating a hearing-centric world. And Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, a deaf African American university professor, is working to preserve the unique signs and culture of BASL.
While training, recruiting, and hiring ASL interpreters from diverse backgrounds takes time, diversifying staff should be a major goal of organizations that work with deaf communities. Efforts toward inclusion will not only improve communication and outcomes, but can reduce inequality and increase visibility.
Does your organization have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program that includes ASL interpreters? Let us know in the comments!