The first thing to wither in a failing economy are the rights of the minority individual.  I’ll give you a real world example that will set the ominous tone to come for the rest of us.

Law requires Federal and State agencies to provide interpreters for the Deaf.  That, unfortunately, doesn’t mean “competent” interpreters for the Deaf.  Actually, hospitals and doctors and the police and the fire department and many other businesses are also required by law to provide interpreters, but for the sake of this sad example, we’ll stick to the State and Federal level.

Having an interpreter to help the Deaf interact with a government agency is a matter of equal access under the law — but that doesn’t mean an interpreter is present even though one is required.

In the winnowing of State and Federal budgets, a silent move is afoot to defraud the rights of the Deaf in spite of the ADA — the Americans with Disabilities Act — by providing interpreters that are not certified, or even basically qualified, in order to save money, but to still be technically “in compliance” with, the tenets of the ADA.

Uncertified interpreters cost a third as much per hour as a certified interpreter and there’s a reason for that:  No formal training, no evaluation of skills, no Code of Ethics mandate and so on… that means anyone who signs — or thinks they can sign — can label themselves an “interpreter” and get hired because there are no prerequisites or conditions.

When the bottom line takes priority over basic competence — the withering begins. 

There is miscommunication between the Deaf and Hearing. 

Everybody loses because nobody wants to pay for a proper interpreter.

Imagine this discussion — I promise you we aren’t far away from its ridiculous ending — and the only way for the ending to change is for the Deaf to stand up right now for their rights under the ADA and cause as much trouble as possible to kill the withering of their basic rights:

AGENCY:  Sorry.  We can’t afford $80 an hour for a certified interpreter.  So we’re going with a $20 an hour non-certified interpreter and we’re limiting the time you can have the interpreter to one hour.

DEAF:  If my interpreter is non-certified, how do I know they are qualified to understand me and vice versa?  Most staff meetings last three hours.  I can only attend for an hour, then?

AGENCY:  We can’t afford a proper interpreter so you’ll get what we get you.  No, you’ll stay for the full three hour meeting and after your interpreter leaves, you’ll just sit there and nod your head and pretend to understand.

(A month passes…)

AGENCY:  You know the economy isn’t getting any better.  We can’t afford a $30 an hour interpreter anymore, so we’re going to the local community college and paying a first semester ASL student minimum wage to be your interpreter.  We can’t pay for interpreters in staff meetings anymore, too, so we’ll assign a high school intern to sit next to you to type on a computer what we’re all saying.

DEAF:  A first year ASL student isn’t able to interpret in real time.  They really only know colors and numbers and maybe a lot of FingerSpelling if they have a really bad teacher.  I would rather not attend the staff meetings from now on than be left out.

(Two weeks pass…)

AGENCY:  The economy is even worse!  We don’t have the funds for a minimum wage interpreter, so we’re using my granddaughter instead.  She’s five.  She’s learning FingerSpelling on Sesame Street and she works for cookies.  Please stop sleeping in our staff meetings.

DEAF:  I quit.

AGENCY:  We won’t miss you.

(A year later…)

NEW DEAF:  Thanks for hiring me, but I don’t understand my interpreter.  Now that the economy is better, can we hire certified interpreters from now on?

AGENCY:  What?!  Give her a chance!  My granddaughter is almost able to FingerSpell “disability” now!  She was trained by the best:  Big Bird and the Cookie Monster!


  1. I can actually see that reality happening, David, and it makes me sad. It’s amazing the things on which the government is willing to spend money but then get stingy when it comes to the people who really need help.

  2. It is happening right now as we type, Gordon, and has been for the last 8 months or so.
    We’re actually in the “non-certified” interpreter part of my skit — and my fear is the ASL beginner student interpreter will not be far behind!
    So first they’ll cut the rights of the Deaf. Then other minorities will begin to feel the pain of going backward on rights and earned responsibilities and equal access — and everything will slowly be taken away “because of the economy” and not “because we’re bad and rotten people looking for an excuse to diminish you.”
    Civil Rights and Equal Status under the law are in grave jeopardy — and I don’t think we have enough brave people around anymore to stop it.

  3. What a sad skit, David. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in that humor. Can anything be done? Or is this a crisis that is appreciated?

  4. That’s a good point, Anne. The powers certainly find the money to pay for certified interpreters and so it does become more about money than quality. The economic crisis becomes an excuse for cutting services instead of extending the stretch defeating the discrimination.

Comments are closed.