Skip to main content

Why Hearing Children Should Not Be Used as Sign Language Interpreters

Carola has worked for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.


As a disability advocate and writer who monitors news about the deaf, I see that police, school personnel, hospital staff, and other medical care professionals tend to rely on the hearing children of deaf family members to act as sign language interpreters.

In some cases, deaf parents may rely on their hearing children to be interpreters at the bank, in the store, at a doctor's offices, and in other situations. According to Divine, an online community for and by people with a disability, this practice can be embarrassing and harmful for hearing children.

Some signing deaf community members find this practice unacceptable and demand access to certified sign language interpreters. Some have launched lawsuits, claiming that the lack of access to qualified sign language interpreters violated their rights to effective communication as stipulated in human rights laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act in the USA.

There is little information about how hearing children are impacted by having to act as sign language interpreters. However, several studies have been done on how children are affected by acting as foreign language interpreters with family members and professionals such as research published in theInternational Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare.

Based on various studies and the stories of hearing children with deaf family members, here are some reasons why hearing children should not be sign language interpreters.

Reasons Why Kids Who Sign Should Not be Used as Interpreters

Children are not impartial

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) code of professional conduct mandates that sign interpreters do not take sides. A young girl who witnessed her mother being beaten by her father, for example, will be stressed, upset, and angry with her father. She would not be able to be an impartial sign language interpreter for her mother and a police officer taking a report.

Children may edit or not share vital information

Children may use their interpreting role to control what information is shared with their parents, potentially creating a power imbalance in the family. When children are expected to interpret bad news, they might try to protect the parents by not sharing or changing information.

Hearing children may also have a personal stake in the situation that influences their interpreting, such as a desire to keep her family from looking bad in the eyes of others. Kids may also not interpret conversations to avoid being held accountable for their own bad behavior.

In a domestic violence case, children may be afraid that their fathers will go to jail, and their families will break up if they interpret the situations accurately.

Children do not understand the code of ethics or conduct for professional interpreters

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) in the USA and other professional organizations of sign language interpreters have standards and a code of conduct.

Interpreters must be able to:

  • Be impartial and interpret everything that is said faithfully
  • Maintain confidentiality about the assignment
  • Have the skills and knowledge needed for an interpreting situation
  • Conduct themselves in a professional manner

Children lack the maturity and training to be placed into sign language interpreting roles. Sign language interpreters are highly trained professionals who have learned special techniques to convey messages faithfully and accurately.

Children may not keep information confidential

Interpreters are bound by a code of professional conduct to keep everything that is said and happens during their assignments confidential. Children are usually unaware of these requirements. They may share sensitive information with family, relatives, or friends.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

The interpreting experience can have a negative impact on children

The interpreting process may stir up negative emotions such as fear or worry in child interpreters. Children may feel guilty about knowing inside information and are afraid that something bad will happen to them and/or their families.

Children may also feel overwhelmed when they are asked to interpret upsetting news or feel embarrassed when professionals expect them to ask sensitive questions. For example, a deaf boy should not be interpreting a medical diagnosis or discussions on funeral arrangements for a family member.


Children lack knowledge of appropriate vocabulary or technical terms

Children often do not have the high level of English skills needed for many interpreting situations. For example, The JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, says that children under the age of 12 do not have the vocabulary or understanding of medical terminology needed to accurately translate medical information.

Relying on child interpreters can have a negative impact on deaf participants

When police, school officials, or medical professionals depend on a child as an interpreter, the process can have serious repercussions on a deaf person needing interpreter services. For example, a deaf person may not understand his doctor’s diagnosis. They may miss or misunderstand important information such as treatment options and medication.

A child interpreting a policeman's questions may cause an inaccurate police record to go on file. A child may edit or omit information to share their version of what is being said, causing serious consequences for the deaf person.

What To Do When a Deaf Person Requests an Interpreter

There is a shortage of professional sign language interpreters, and interpreters often need to be booked weeks or months in advance. Some state agencies that serve deaf or hard of hearing people have emergency interpreting services or information about similar services available in the community.

Local interpreting agencies and deaf associations may also have this information. For example, the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf in the US has an extensive list of interpreters and agencies on their website.

Example of VRS services

Use video relay services

When a live interpreter is not available, video relay services (VRS) can be utilized. Various VRS companies connect interpreters with hearing and deaf parties via the Internet or specialized equipment such as a videophone. The interpreter views the deaf consumer on a screen and voices what the deaf person is signing. The interpreter then interprets what the hearing person says. The deaf person watches the interpreter and responds to the hearing person in sign language. Many service providers such as hospitals have 24/7 access to VRS.

Finding Out More: Cultural Sensitivity Training

Deaf associations, government agencies, and other groups can provide information about sign language services. Some educate professionals such as police, the legal profession, and medical personnel about booking and communicating via sign language interpreters.

For example, a deaf sensitivity training video for police officers encourages officers to call for a certified sign language interpreter when deaf people request this service. Police departments can prepare officers to deal with deaf and hard of hearing people through training and providing them with information explaining how to contact an interpreting service provider and/or access video relay services.

The video below contains a section on using children as sign language interpreters. It is presented by a signing deaf person with a voiceover.

Concluding Thoughts

Using children as interpreters can be harmful to both them and the deaf people involved. Kids cannot be relied upon to be mature, accurate, impartial, or to keep information confidential. Certified sign language interpreters should be used, especially in serious medical or legal matters.


Deaf parents' children should never be used as interpreters, News Leader, Kathy Hughes

Using children as informal interpreters in pediatric consultations, Emerald Insight
Use of Children as Interpreters, JAMA, American Medical Association
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Doctors using children as interpreters for their parents is "child abuse," Australian National University

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Carola Finch

Related Articles