Educational Interpreting for a Neurodiverse Child

Child using tactile sign language.  Photo courtesy of

Child using tactile sign language. Photo courtesy of

Last year, I worked as an interpreter for a young student with CHARGE Syndrome.  While the student was in a program for children with special needs, she was the only student in the school with CHARGE.  CHARGE can cause deafness and blindness, as well as physical and cognitive complications.  In Alex’s case (whose name has been changed), she has cognitive delays (congruent with learners who are deaf-blind), has blurred vision in part of her visual field, balance issues, low musculature, pain from constipation, some repetitive behavioral tendencies, and self-stimulating physicality—similar to those observed in children with autism. These behaviors may include clapping, tooth grinding, and tense jumping.  This job was not what interpreters are trained as in terms of “typical interpreting.” As such, the work constantly generated questions and challenges for me about my role and daily practice.  Like many educational interpreting jobs, issues arose about the meaning of true inclusion, as these issues were all the more heightened by physical disability and neurodiversity. Continue reading

Inhale, Exhale, Sign: Accommodating Yoga for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Photo by Jennifer Wilkinson

Photo by Jennifer Wilkinson

I wholeheartedly encourage everyone in the world to try yoga – I practice regularly up to five or six times a week. It has changed my life — helped me be a better mother, gotten me through rough patches in my life, brought me better health, more energy, and a sense of inner well- being.

A few months ago, I suggested to a deaf friend that she come to yoga with me. She immediately responded, “Well, I would love to… but I can’t. I’m deaf. How will I follow the class?” I said, “What do you mean, you CAN’T? Of course you CAN. Just show up to class. I’ll be there by your side, and I guarantee you will feel comfortable.”

Thankfully, she agreed.

Continue reading

In the News: SignTalk Foundation / CODAs of Color featured on NY 1 Today

NY1Featured today on Time Warner/NY1 — CODAs of Color, a workshop sponsored by SignTalk Foundation and developed and led by Celeste Owens, NAD V, NIC, provides children of Deaf adults with an introduction and access to the field of sign language interpreting. To see the 2-minute news clip, go to

SignTalk Foundation is Pleased to Sponsor ‘CODAs of Color,’ an Innovative Workshop Series

CODA PhotoMany of us see a need and wonder how to do more — to affect something or someone in a positive way.  The SignTalk Foundation recently sponsored a six-week program, “A Basic Introduction to Professional Sign Language Interpreting,” for adult and young adult CODAs of Color, led by Nationally Certified Interpreter, Celeste Owens, NAD V, NIC.

The purpose and goal of this program was to introduce, share and enlighten CODAs of Color to the field of professional sign language interpreting.  The sessions covered skills required in a variety of interpreting environments, the Code of Professional Conduct and its application in various settings, panel discussions with certified/qualified interpreters who shared their background and experiences, and a session in which members of the SignTalk staff discussed opportunities available to professional interpreters.

As a professional interpreter and CODA of Color herself, Celeste has been a long-time advocate and supporter of the Deaf Community in NYC — particularly the Black-Deaf community. SignTalk is extremely pleased to have partnered with Celeste and provide a grant in support of this six-week workshop series. The feedback from the students has been overwhelmingly positive and we wish them success in the future.

To see the 2-minute news clip featured on Time Warner/NY1 — CODAs of Color, go to

Captioning is a win for everyone

CCCaptioned content is mushrooming! YouTube and Google have long recognized the value of captioning, not only to reach the Deaf and hard of hearing, but for general hearing audiences in different countries, as well as non-English speakers in the US. They have developed an easy to use captioning technology for YouTube posters to add captioning capabilities to their content. As YouTube’s technology can translate into ten languages, its focus is to bridge the gap between languages rather than on the Deaf and hard of hearing community—still, it’s a win for us! YouTube has enabled automatic captioning for 135 million videos, more than tripling the number of captioned videos since 2011.

In 1993, Congress ruled that captioning capabilities must be installed on all analog TVs with screens large than 13 inches. Since then, the law has

been updated to include digital TVs, as well as tablets and phones with much smaller screens. And yet, when a Deaf education teacher wanted to show a PBS movie “Homefront and Warfront: World War II”  to her class, she discovered that the movie was not captioned. When she wrote to PBS to inquire as to why they failed to make a historical feature accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing students, PBS responded that this particular content fell outside the timeframe required by the FCC.

The National Association of the Deaf, the country’s leading organization that monitors captions, has sued both Netflix and Amazon because popular content, including the 50th anniversary showing of “The Wizard of Oz” had not been captioned.  The courts ruled in favor of Netflix saying that Netflix doesn’t actually have to comply with ADA laws because it isn’t connected to a physical space.  Even though they won the suit, Netflix has plans to caption everything, and Amazon currently captions all its Prime content and intends to caption 100% of its digital content.  Again, though their focus is not specifically to accommodate the Deaf and hard of hearing communities, but rather to make viewing of Netflix and Amazon stations available in bars and restaurants, this too is a win for us.

Anyone who has watched automatically captioned YouTube videos can give you examples of captioning gone awry, but we trust that, as technology tends to do, this will improve with time. Currently the FCC requires video clips aired on TV to be captioned with 30 days. As of July 2017, captioning will be required within 12 hours.  As for “Homefront and Warfront: World War II” as of this writing, it has still not been captioned.

We Need Recreational Signers

abc1280x960Upon first encountering people communicating in sign language, many hearing people may exclaim enthusiastically, “Oh, ASL is such a beautiful language!” Basically, asking “Can I join?”  Interpreters may roll their eyes – after all, speaking in ASL is our profession.

But welcoming potential signers will go a long way in opening up communication between Deaf people and the rest of the hearing population. This is a good thing.

  • Interpreters don’t have a monopoly on communication. We aren’t going to lose our jobs if teachers, lawyers, nurses, mechanics, and baristas decide to take an ASL class. Not everyone wants to be an interpreter even if they do want to become youTube stars by interpreting Bruno Mars songs.
  • Hearing signers open up communication. We’ve all seen Rebecca King order her frappuccino from Katie Wyble via the Evolution Screen at the St. Augustine, FL Starbucks. What made that interaction possible, along with technology, was hearing signers, not interpreters. Ms. Wyble is one of a handful of signers at that Starbucks.  Ms. Wyble was smitten the first time she saw ASL, so she studied it for 4 years.  Her studies helped her do her job well and made Ms. King’s day. St. Augustine has a huge signing community as the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind is located there. The large signing community makes it easy for Starbucks to hire signing baristas.
  • Native ASL users live among us. ASL differs from other foreign languages in that many non-English speakers may understand sufficient English with which to communicate and may improve their English skills with time. (I took 2 years of high school Russian and have never said more than da or niet to any native user.) But often ASL is the only language accessible to native users. Therefore, ASL students may have the opportunity to interact with Deaf people in their own neighborhood.
  • ASL feels accessible to hearing Americans. Unlike other foreign languages, ASL doesn’t threaten English speaking Americans, either because we code it in English or because it’s a manual language. Whatever the case, Americans are willing to take ASL and practice it almost immediately, by approaching complete strangers and awkwardly signing, “H-I. My name is A-M-B-E-R.”
  • Signing students have exposure to Deaf culture.   Hearing people who become ASL signers will naturally learn much about Deaf culture and to  appreciate the Deaf accent. As more people include Deaf people among their community of friends and acquaintances, there will be more acceptance and fewer acts of discrimination, like this one.

So, the next time an eager, potential signer tells you ASL is beautiful, invite them in. A warm response–It is a beautiful language! Learn it!–will go a long way in creating an abundance of recreational signers.

Starbucks and the Evolution Screen

starbucksevolutionWhile much of America is obsessing over the meaning (or lack thereof) of Starbucks’ red cup, some of us are focused on Starbucks for a more unifying reason — the great communication leap forward.

Rebecca King, a Deaf Starbucks patron, pulled up to her local St. Augustine, Florida Starbucks’ drive-thru window expecting the usual struggles communicating through a kiosk. She was shocked–and ecstatic–when a signing employee appeared on an Evolution Screen.

This is the first known Starbucks to install an Evolution Screen, in which an interpreter communicates with the driver on the screen if they haven’t responded within a certain amount of time.

Be one of the 6 million plus people to view Ms. King easily ordering her Frappuccino in sign language.

The St. Augustine Starbucks employs a handful of signers as the town hosts a large Deaf and signing community, as well as the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.  ASL is offered at many of the local high schools and colleges.

Not all Starbucks are as accommodating as St. Augustine’s. In 2013, two New York City Starbucks made Deaf News Today and The New York Times by refusing to serve Deaf customers, making fun of the Deaf accent, and even calling the police to remove Deaf patrons. The Deaf patrons sued Starbucks. Starbucks responded quickly in print and video reiterating that all customers, including Deaf customers, should feel welcome and enjoy the Starbucks Experience.

Indeed, what happened in New York City seems to be an anomaly. Starbucks has a history of hiring Deaf employees in many of their stores, from South Korea to Santa Monica, CA. Starbucks is an active participant in RIT’s Coop Program, which offers internships to Deaf college students and hires many of them. According to this video, there are 5 Deaf employees at the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, WA and Starbucks actively meets all of their communication needs.

Of course, an Evolution Screen isn’t practical for all fast food restaurants, nor do all restaurants have easy access to signing employees. To help facilitate communication, Starbucks also stocks picture cards so any customer can point to the drink of their choice and size without a struggle.

We hope other restaurants and coffee shops will follow suit and install drive-thru touch screens, making it easier for everyone to place accurate orders.

Great job, Starbucks. I raise my red cup to you.

The Power of the Educational Interpreter by Amber Ceffalio

The Power of the Educational Interpreter

Let’s talk about your power as an educational interpreter. “I only facilitate communication,” you say, hiding behind your hands. “I don’t have any real power.” Be honest.  Next time admit, “I facilitate communication and impact, for better or worse, all situations I interpret.” One example of what comes after the ‘and’ is what we’ll discuss today.

The Situation

As an educational interpreter you have duties outside of classroom interpreting which include interpreting impromptu meetings between students and non-signing staff. Today, you’ve just been asked to escort a student to the Senior Advisor’s office so she can ask for her money back as she decided not to go to prom.

The Background

You’ve known this student for 3 ½ years now.  You know she’s never been in trouble, is very polite to adults, and tends to be shy. You also know the Senior Advisor and that she works well with the teenagers in the building including the deaf students.  You also know that the Deaf Services office has a good working relationship with the  Senior Advisor office. The meeting should take 5 minutes and be painless.

Your Power

Super Terp!

Super Terp!

Yet, have you considered that you could create tension in this situation? One goal of the Deaf Services office is for the seniors to be more independent.  Is now the time you’ll let your student advocate for herself?  Will you let the student struggle to ask for her money back, or will you lead the narrative? Will you nurture the relationship between the Deaf Services office and the Senior Advisor office, or will you Deaf Pride the place down? Will you voice aggressively? Passively? What kind of comments will you make to your deaf student while the senior advisor is processing her request? How about after you leave the office? These are the questions you should be considering on your walk to the Senior Advisor’s office.

What Happens

The deaf student leads you into the Senior Advisor’s office.  She signs, “Hi.”  Then she smiles and looks at you and looks at the senior advisor and she shrugs nervously and signs very small and very fast, “money. I-don’t know. Whatever.” And not ‘whatever’ with and attitude, but ‘whatever’ like, “nevermind.  I want to leave.”  Then she turns bright red.

Option #1–Lead

You voice, “Hi.  Its great to see you again.  Um, I hate to ask, but could I have the money for prom back because it turns out I can’t go. Is that ok?” You’ve stayed true to your student’s voice and intent but you added a lot of words and basically took over the entire conversation. Is that right or wrong? The senior advisor happily processes the refund because the student asked politely and she had a pleasant interaction with you.  The senior advisor has also had one more positive interaction with your office. You created a great outcome.  Just consider the expense.  Your student is no more independent now than when she walked into the office.

Option #2–Interpret literally

You voice, “Hi, um can I get my money back. Or, I don’t know. Whatever.” You’ve stayed true to the student’s words and perhaps her voice and intent. But, the senior advisor is unnecessarily confused.  Even the toughest kids have enter her office with courtesy and provide explanations for their requests. Your student will still get her money back, but the senior advisor will be left with a bad taste in her mouth.  She will be wondering why this deaf student was rude today when she never had been before.  Or, she’ll assume all the diva interpreters in the Deaf Services office are too big for their britches. You awkwardly forced your power onto a deaf student who didn’t want it, put your student in a bad light,  and broke down communication avenues between offices.

Option #3–Prep with your student

On your walk to the Senior Advisor office you ask your student why she is going to the office. (Who cares if you already know.  Ask anyhow.  You’ll be surprised what you learn.) Next ask your student if she wants to ask herself or if she wants you to interpret. Again, you may be surprised. You walk into the Senior Advisor office with your student and she sign, “Hi.”  She looks at you and looks at the senior advisor and then continues, “I can’t go to prom.  Can I get my money back?” This is the sweet and polite student your senior advisor knows. Of course she can get her money back and of course she loves working with the Deaf Services office.


Obviously, there are more than three ways this scenario could have played out. My point is: you impact the result of the interaction.  For good or bad, you’re part of the equation. Use your power to facilitate communication, yes! But don’t ignore the side effects of that power. Harness your power for a positive outcome.

Additional Readings: 

Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents

What is the Role of the Educational Interpreter?

You’re Not A Teacher

not a teacher

You Are Not a Teacher

By Amber Ceffalio, NIC

Last time we discussed the vast array of interpreting models an educational interpreter toggles through each day. Now, let’s discuss what an educational interpreter does not do.

You are not a teacher.

Yes, you’ll take on minor roles in which you impart information. Your student, for example, might ask you–not wanting to ask the teacher–if the next step in the math problem is to divide. OK, go ahead and answer their question.

Confirming for the student that they’re on the right path is different than big picture teaching. Here is where the roles of teaching and interpreting diverge.

A Teacher’s Role

Teachers have responsibilities that interpreters don’t have. Teachers walk into their classroom each day with specific information they wish to impart. Teachers prepare, teach, and assess the students’ understanding of that lesson. Teachers may adjust their lessons based on their assessment of a students’ comprehension.

On top of that, teachers enforce the rules of the school and are held accountable to the school administration.

An Interpreter’s Role

terp in classroomInterpreters interpret the teacher’s lesson. The interpreter assesses the Deaf students’ understanding of the interpretation, which is subtly, but vitally, different from the teacher assessing the students’ understanding of content.

Ideally the interpreter will be familiar with the content and know the teacher’s goals. But, an interpreter walks into the classroom with less preparation and less responsibility than the teacher.

Outside of interpreting, freelance interpreters aren’t accountable to the school administration. Yes, the interpreter is another adult in the room and needs to behave as such. Yes, the interpreter is a mandated reporter and the health and well-being of a student trumps the Professional Code of Conduct. But, the contracted interpreter isn’t necessarily mindful of the bureaucratic process of handing out bathroom passes while the teacher is. However, one must keep in mind that interpreters employed by the school district need to follow school district rules and protocol.

Complementing the Teaching Process

Interpreters can enhance or hinder the teaching and learning process.

1. First, the interpreter needs to be prepared for class. That may mean the interpreter is reading (or re-reading) To Kill A Mockingbird with the English class. It may mean that the interpreter is researching online what the chemical makeup of sugar looks like so she can interpret the information visually. This is baseline work.

2. Second, the interpreter has some information the teacher doesn’t have. How the interpreter uses this information will either be beneficial or detrimental to the teaching process. Because the interpreter is always looking at the student in order to assess if the student understood the interpretation, the interpreter sometimes catches information the teacher doesn’t.

For example, I was interpreting in a contained math classroom. The teacher was trying to teach a specific concept that was needed to understand future concepts. Frustrated because she’d been trying to get this information across in multiple ways, the teacher asked, “Do you get it now?” Frustrated because she’d been trying to understand but couldn’t, the student nodded. But, when the teacher turned to write the new lesson on the board, the student made a face that told me she didn’t understand the material at all.

What are my options? I’m part of the educational team, but I’m not the teacher. The teacher took the student at her word but not understanding to content now will hurt her later. I felt that the student was almost there and if the material was told one more time in a slightly different way, the student would get it. Yet, I’m not the teacher. I don’t want to be the teacher. And, I don’t want to undermine the teacher.

My solution was to sim-com, “Maybe I didn’t interpret that clearly. Did you mean that XYZ = ZYX?” With that, the teacher looked at me, looked at the student, understood exactly what was happening and said, “Yes, XYZ = ZYX and here is why…”.

lightbulbBoth the teacher and I saw the light bulb click on in the student’s brain.

Problems Come Up

That particular situation worked out because I approached the problem as if I was the weakest link in the educational chain. It also worked because the teacher didn’t have an ego to get around. We both shared a common goal.

Yet, we interpreters have a little bit of diva in us. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought, “I know more than this teacher.” We all have our hands up now.)

There are times I’ve crossed the line. The teacher usually points out these times with a sigh or an, “Ok, and getting back to my point…”.

Don’t take over the classroom. Defer to the teacher. She’s the one in charge and she’s the one who will ultimately answer to the school principal.


Let’s crowd source educational interpreting. I illustrated one solution to one situation. I’m curious what other interpreters have done. In the comments, please tell us what you’ve done when you’ve noticed a student didn’t understand content but the teacher was moving on with the lesson. Let us know as much information about your situation as you can without compromising confidentiality. Was it was a mainstream or a contained classroom? What grade level? Did you have a rapport with the teacher? The more tools we share with each other, the better we’ll all be as educational interpreters.

Terps Up! Amber

Educational Interpreters: Who We Are and What We Do

Educational Interpreters: Who We Are and What We Do

educational interpreter

by Amber Ceffalio, NIC

Before the start of each school year, NYC educational interpreters gather to review interpreting policies and procedures. Beth Prevor, Director of the Office of Sign Language Interpreting Services, mentioned during the meeting that she likes to give us educational interpreters, “the freedom to do what we do.”  She added, “And that turns out to be a lot more than just interpreting.”

This column will explore what “a lot more than just interpreting” actually means.

Even though we do “a lot more than just interpreting”, most of the work we do is within our interpreting models. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that an educational interpreter will use all of the models in any given day.

Let’s take a short walk through how an interpreter might use our models. Obviously, there are many more ways each model might be employed.

Helper: Interpreter acts as a tutor, either formally or informally.

What is an interpreter

Conduit: Interpreter voices everything the deaf student signs, even if the deaf student doesn’t want you to.

Communication Facilitator: Interpreter understands the goal of the student and expresses it in such a way that the teacher understands what the student needs, even though the student didn’t know how to express their own needs.

Bilingual-Bicultural: Interpreter provides mainstream teachers with materials including information on how to set up closed captions.

Ally: Interpreter escorts the deaf student to the front office and helps the student ask for a special request.  The interpreter ends up being more than an interpreter as she leads her student’s questions.

Educational Team: Interpreters have access to information that teachers don’t have and it’s their responsibility to share that information with the appropriate people.

These are snapshots of situations when it’s ethically responsible to employ the various interpreting models. Educational interpreters don’t have the luxury of simply being a Communication Facilitator. Educational interpreters need to deftly and ethically toggle between the models to provide appropriate interpreting services in any given situation.

Other parts of “a lot more than just interpreting” land outside of our models. We are language models, for example.  We share information necessary information with teachers.  We are a confidants and sometimes informants.

What we do as educational interpreters is difficult to discuss in hypothetical generalizations. So, this column will open each week with a situation. We will use the situation to explore what we do, why we do it, and what options we have to make better informed decisions.

This isn’t, though, us laying down the educational interpreting law.  We want you to participate. Please, leave your thoughts in the comments.  What would you do in a given situation and why? We’d like a healthy and respectful discussion on educational interpreting.

Do you have a situation you’d like to discuss? Email me at We’ll remove identifying characteristics in order to keep identities confidential.  Yet we’ll make the situation specific enough so we can agree on the parameters.

Happy terping! Amber

To learn more about Amber click here and here.

Amber Ceffalio

Amber Ceffalio, NIC Writer & Interpreter

Click here for more information on sign language interpreter models.

More on classroom interpreting here.