Virtual ASL Interpreters: 5 Tips for Using Technology to Improve Accessibility

ASL interpreter
(Image credit: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay)

Linnae Janky knows firsthand the importance of having American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters available at school events. 

“I have a child who can hear, and at my child's school, I was thrilled to see that they spotlighted the interpreter,” says Janky,  the American Sign Language Department Chair for Proximity Learning.

Having a clearly visible ASL interpreter allowed Janky and other deaf parents to understand the information that was being presented to them at the event. However, this doesn’t always happen at school events. 

There is a national shortage of ASL interpreters, particularly in rural parts of the country. Fueling this further is the fact that ASL teachers are increasingly difficult to find for many universities, however, technology can help with both shortages. Proximity Learning recently partnered with Gallaudet University to live stream ASL interpreters into classrooms. 

Janky, who is also the Learning and Development Specialist of Instruction, and the Vice Principal for Proximity Learning, recently spoke with Tech & Learning  through an ASL interpreter to share tips for successfully utilizing a remote ASL interpreter at school events. 

1. The Needs of Students Should Dictate the Hiring of Virtual ASL Interpreters  

Before live-streaming a virtual ASL interpreter to an event, school leaders should consider the individual needs of students in their district. 

“Are they able to see the interpreter?” Janky says. “Is the student able to participate in the communication? You want to make sure it is both ways, so I say 'receptively and expressively,' so that they are equally included in the conversation.” 

Additionally, organizers should take into account how the child will be participating in the event, Janky says. “Will the individuals receiving the service be on site, or will they also be remote watching too?” 

2. Make Sure Your Tech is Up to The Task  

ASL interpreters who are participating in events virtually should ensure they have high-quality cameras and good lighting with limited backlighting, Janky says. They should also wear clothes that contrast with their skin tone and their backgrounds to make it easier to tell what they are signing. 

“You want a contrasting color from your skin tone and the background [without] any busy or competing clothing patterns because you're having to watch that interpreter and the language as the backdrop,” she says. 

3. Provide Your ASL Interpreter with Lesson Plans Ahead of Time  

When working with an ASL interpreter in the classroom it’s important that information about each lesson and lecture is provided to them ahead of time, in addition to any key vocabulary or terms that the teacher would like emphasized. 

“The word interpretation is different than translation, it’s an interpretation of the message, it is not a word-for-word translation,” Janky says. “So having that background information prior is essential to making that content accessible and clear for those students who are receiving services.” 

4. Pause to Let All Students Catch Up  

If you’re interacting with students and a virtual ASL interpreter is present in your class, Janky says to make sure to pause regularly so that all students can participate. “There is a little bit of lag time with technology,” Janky says. ”Also, interpretation is not instantaneous, there is sometimes a one- to five-second delay.” 

Pausing after asking questions will give those students who are relying on an ASL interpreter time to communicate their thoughts on the lesson or to ask questions. 

5. Verify Any ASL Interpreter Has the Necessary Skills  

When hiring a virtual or in-person ASL interpreter, school leaders should make sure a potential candidate has scored high enough on the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment (EIPA). 

“It rates interpreters on their signing ability and assigns a level,” Janky says. “Every state has specific criteria and minimum requirements for the EIPA. It is on a scale from one to five, one state may say 3.0 is acceptable as a minimum standard for entry. Others may have 3.5.” 

However, these scores are linked to certain grade levels, so someone who scores a 3.5 rating for elementary school may not be able to provide ASL interpretation for a high school event. 

“When hiring, I would always ask, ‘What is your EIPA score? And at what level?'", says Janky. "And if they tell you less than 3, they're probably not qualified for the job.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.