Qualified Sign Language Interpreters in Texas Courts by Cheryl Sloan

Qualified Sign Language Interpreters in Texas Courts

In the 1925 case of Terry v. State of Alabama, the decision handed down was that it would be impossible for a deaf defendant to comprehend the legal charges and accusations against him or her without an interpreter present to facilitate communication of the legal proceedings.[1] Since that ruling, numerous changes have been made and laws enacted for equal access of communication in the courts today for deaf and hard of hearing clients.  One such law is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA stipulates who is qualified to interpret in court and provides a concise definition of an interpreter. For a vast majority of Texas courts, especially in rural areas, hiring a qualified sign language interpreter for a proceeding that involves a deaf or hard of hearing client tends to be a difficult and frustrating process. Many courts’ staff do not have the resources or the ability to identify and contract qualified sign language interpreters with the appropriate training, knowledge and experience for the complex task of court interpreting. Also, staffs do not have the linguistic or cultural knowledge of deaf or hard of hearing clients to make qualification assessments of what type of interpreting services those individuals need. Therefore, to assist courts and staff members in alleviating the stress of hiring a qualified sign language interpreter, this article will focus on the ADA definition of a “qualified interpreter,” what is American Sign Language and using a Certified Deaf Interpreter.


Who is a qualified interpreter?


The Department of Justice has defined the meaning of a qualified interpreter as one “who is able to interpret effectively, accurately and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.”[2] To do so, a court interpreter is one that is highly skilled and has extensive training, experience and supervision while working in a plethora of legal and court settings.  In Texas courts, a “qualified interpreter” means an interpreter who holds the Court Interpreter Certification (CIC) from the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services – Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services or a Specialist Certificate: Legal (SC:L) from the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).[3]


The first prerequisite for an interpreter to obtain the CIC, he or she is required to have a valid general certification from the Texas Board of Evaluation of Interpreters, or a certificate from RID or the National Association of the Deaf. This certification verifies that the interpreter’s skills have been tested and have met or exceeded the minimum requirements to hold that level of certification. For the second prerequisite of the CIC, the interpreter must obtain a minimum of 120 hours of approved classroom instruction with the emphasis of courtroom interpreting, or 120 hours of actual practice mentored by a certified court interpreter, or a combination of both. This training emphasis includes: criminal law process, civil litigation, legal terminology and ethical practices for court interpreters.  Once court certification is obtained, interpreters are required to earn twenty hours of court-related studies within a five year period, pay an annual fee to renew that certification, maintain their general certification and be in good standing with the Board for Evaluation of Interpreters.[4]  


Effective March 15, 2011, the ADA expanded the definition of a qualified interpreter in regards for “effective communication.” The definition states that public accommodations cannot require the deaf or hard of hearing person to rely on an accompanying adult, companion, or child to facilitate communication with the exception of imminent threat or safety to the person or where no interpreter is available.[5] Court interpreting is a complex process that requires linguistic, cognitive and technical skills which many family members, companions and children do not possess. In addition, court interpreting requires highly skilled and trained interpreters because of the significant consequences to the deaf and hard of hearing client involved in the event of failed communication. 


What is American Sign Language?


American Sign Language (ASL) is a distinct and separate language from spoken English. It is just as distinct as Farsi, Arabic or Portuguese is from English. ASL is a highly developed language that contains all the fundamental features with its own grammar, syntax and cultural complexities that affect the way the language is used among deaf people. American Sign Language is the native language of many North American deaf and hard of hearing individuals.[6]


American Sign Language incorporates not only signs, but it also uses facial features such as eyebrow motion, lip-mouth movements and body orientation as part of the grammatical system. Also, ASL incorporates the use of space near the signer to describe places and people that are not present.  For individuals not familiar with these features of ASL, a grave misunderstanding can occur. One example occurs when judges and lawyers ask ASL interpreters not to use facial grammar and body movements which are a necessary part of the language. Such requests have been made by courts as these movements are deemed as distracting to other individuals in the courtroom. Ordering the ASL interpreter not to use all the aspects of the language will distort information and cause facts to be lost.[7]  It is imperative to remember that ASL is not simply English on the hands.


It should also be noted that no one form of sign language is universal. Different sign languages are used in different countries. For example, Mexican Sign Language is different from ASL, and not all deaf Latinos will understand ASL. Furthermore, ASL has regional accents and dialects. Just as certain English words are spoken differently in various parts of the country, ASL has regional variations as well. Interpretation between English and ASL requires an interpreter who is bi-lingual and bi-cultural of both communities in order for the interpretation to be effective.[8]


Using a Certified Deaf Interpreter


When the court is notified that a sign language interpreter is needed, the ASL interpreter will be the first professional to assess the deaf or hard of hearing person communication needs. If communication is not established between the interpreter and the deaf or hard of hearing individual, a certified deaf interpreter (CDI) may be required. A CDI is an individual that is deaf or hard of hearing themselves and often times work as a team with a hearing sign language interpreter. A deaf interpreter is a specialist with a vast knowledge of deafness and deaf culture which many ASL interpreters do not possess.[9]


Professional sign language interpreters are tested and certified using the most commonly standardized signs used among deaf and hard of hearing individuals in America. However, there are some deaf and hard of hearing clients that use a unique idiosyncratic or individualistic form of sign language different from the standardized signs. This means there is neither a base language of English or ASL that the interpreter can establish communication with. Therefore, in order for communication to be effective, and thus ensure the accuracy of the record, the court may be informed of the need to engage the services of a CDI, who possesses the necessary education, training and specialized skills to ensure the effectiveness of communication.  As stated previously, the CDI will work with the certified hearing interpreter as part of a team. The interpreting process resembles that of a relay operation. The interpreter who can hear will interpret in ASL the spoken information or question to the deaf interpreter. The deaf interpreter will then sign, mime, gesture, use pictures, drawings or other necessary props to convey the information or question to the deaf client. In response the interpreting process will be reversed.


Reasons for the need of a deaf interpreter vary in each case. After the assessment has been made, it has been found that the deaf or hard of hearing person:

  • Uses idiosyncratic, nonstandard signs or gestures, commonly referred to as “home signs,” that are unique to the family only;
  • Uses a foreign sign language;
  • Uses signs particular to a given region, ethnicity, or age group;
  • Relies on uniquely deaf experiences that are unfamiliar to the hearing interpreter;
  • Has no language foundation because of inadequate education;
  • Is dealing with mental health issues;
  • Is a juvenile;
  • Is experiencing problems caused by drug abuse; or
  • Has delayed language.


This interpreting process requires time to ensure communication is clear and comprehended.  The court should allow a period of two or three times longer than what is required for a noninterpreted proceeding.[10]


In Texas court rooms today, judges are confronted with language and cultural differences often and cannot be expected to know or to be an expert for each language. Courts that recognize the importance of hiring the services of a qualified ASL interpreter and seeking their advice on how best to communicate with the deaf person will preserve the fairness and integrity of the court proceedings for all who are involved. 


For a complete list of Texas certified court interpreters, access http://www.dars.state.tx.us/dhhs/beiterpsearch.shtml. For interpreters holding the RID legal certificate, the SC:L, access http://www.rid.org/.   Likewise, for additional assistance and recommendations when working with ASL and/or CDI interpreters, access a copy of A Bench Card for Judges at https://www.yourhonor.com/judicial-resources/Bench-Cards.


[1]   Terry v. State, 21 Ala. App. 100,105 So. 386,387 (1925).

[2]   28C.F.R. §35.104.

[3] TEX CR.CODE ANN.§ 38.31 (g)(2) and Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 21.003.

[4]   Texas Board for Evaluation of Interpreters.   

[5]   28C.F.R. §36.303 (c)(ii)(2)(3)(i)(ii)(4). 

[6]   National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

[7] Hewitt, W. (1995).  Court Interpretation: Model Guides for Policy and Practice in the State Courts. Williamsburg, VA:    

    National Center for State Courts.

[8]National Association of the Deaf. http://www.nad.org.

[9]   Certified Deaf Interpreter.  (1997). Standard Practice Papers. Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Retrieved from      


[10]             Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc., 1997.