Tips for Working with the Deaf or Hearing Impaired


Tips for Working with the Deaf or Hearing Impaired

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By Allison Streepey, B.A., CRS, PLS

Thirty-six million people, approximately 17%, in the United States are suffering from hearing loss. It is expected that this population will increase rapidly because more people are developing high-frequency hearing loss due to exposure to loud noise, new unexplained deafness, trauma, and disease, along with hearing loss due to aging. At some point in your career, the chances are good that you, your attorney, and staff will need to develop some skills on working with those who cannot hear well.1,2

In the legal profession, clear communication and complete understanding between attorney and client are crucial to every transaction. Careful consideration needs to be used when deaf or hearing impaired persons need legal counsel, as many people with hearing loss do not use hearing aids.1

The purpose of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, as amended with ADA Amendments Act of 2008, Chapter 126, is to assure equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities.3

One way to assure equality of representation is to use interpreters for the deaf. Deaf persons have a legal right to have an interpreter for legal issues. In working with deaf and hearing impaired persons, you may need interpreters with various specialties for the range of legal settings. There are interpreters who specialize in sign language, speech-reading (lip-reading), or speech-to-type interpreting, such as C-Print Captioning or Communication Access Real Time Translation (CART) Services. You may need a combination of these services for litigation.

If you need to find legal interpreters, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc., (RID) website is a good place to start. RID is a non-profit organization with national membership aimed towards better communication between persons who are deaf and those who hear. They have a searchable database of interpreter professionals and standardized practice documents, so you will know what to expect when hiring an interpreter.4

The ADA requires that “qualified interpreters” are used for legal matters. Qualified means that they have the appropriate training, specialized vocabulary, and knowledge. Many states have statutes that define what qualifications are required.5

RID interpreters are bound by the National Association of The Deaf/Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (NAD-RID) Code of Professional Conduct. This code requires specific ethical and behavioral conduct towards equal communication between the deaf and hearing persons. The NAD-RID Code has strict rules of confidentiality, professionalism, and respect for all persons, as well as accurate interpretation.6

The RID website has a Standard Practice Paper on Interpreting in Legal Settings.7 This standardized practice paper explains in detail about the interpreter-attorney-client relationship, as well as the interpreter-court relationship. This is a good document to review before hiring an interpreter. This paper explains how interpreters work within the legal process, including attorney-client conferences, depositions, witness interviews, and in the courtroom. The paper describes how a team of interpreters are needed to assure accuracy because of the complexity of legal work. Legal interpreters must first determine any potential conflicts of interest and are not allowed to take an active role in any assignment. In court, the interpreters are limited in their participation in proceedings. Typically, there are two sworn court interpreters (proceedings interpreters) and a third interpreter at the counsel table. The interpreter at the counsel table works with the attorney and client, as well as monitors the two sworn court interpreters for accuracy.

If you need an interpreter for a trial, the first place to start is to call your local court for a list of qualified interpreters for legal matters. If your local court does not have a list, check the RID website.4 For federal courts, you can find interpreters via the National Court Interpreter Database (NCID) Gateway.8

In your law office, you may need some tips for communicating with persons with hearing loss. Although some may seem obvious, it would be good for you, your attorney, and staff to review these before client meetings.

Tips for Communicating with Persons with Hearing Loss

  • Get the person’s attention before you speak by waving or tapping them on the shoulder or arm. In a large room, if the person is a distance away, flick a light switch.
  • Face the person. Make sure the light is on your face for people who lip-read (speech-read). Try not to stand in front of a bright window or distracting background.
  • Speak up but do not shout. Shouting distorts your voice. It also distorts your facial movements for people who lip-read (speech-read).
  • Speak slowly and clearly.
  • Use body language to enhance your meaning.
  • Cut down background noise by turning off radios, TVs, running water, etc. Close a door or window to shut out sound from outside the room.
  • Do not hide your mouth with your hand or an object. Do not chew gum or try to talk with anything else in your mouth.
  • Rephrase rather than repeat a misunderstood sentence.
  • Ask the person to repeat it if full understanding is essential.
  • If an interpreter is being used, speak to the individual and not to the interpreter. The interpreter will not take part in the conversation other than to translate your words exactly.
  • If no interpreter is available, use a pencil and paper. Be sure to write down all important information to make certain it is understood.
  • BE PATIENT!!! It is as hard and frustrating for them as it is for you.9

As legal professionals, we are bound by ethics and service to others. Treat people with the same courtesy and respect as you would like to be treated. It is important to eliminate the possibility of discrimination due to deafness, impairment, or any other disability.


1. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutions on Health
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
3. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended with ADA Amendments Act of 2008
4. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
5. National Association of The Deaf – Communication Access in State and Local Courts
6. National Association of The Deaf – Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (NAD-RID) Code of Professional Conduct
7. NAD-RID Standard Practice Paper on Interpreting in Legal Settings
8. National Court Interpreter Database (NCID) Gateway
9. Tips and Resources are used by special permission of National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) grant H133G090162, Beyond Hearing Aids: Training Resources to Improve the Capacity of Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals Serving Consumers Who Are Hearing impaired or Late Deafened, Steve Boone, PhD, Principal Investigator.

© 2013. Originally posted on the NALS website

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