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Interpreter guide

Written by Sharon Barrey Grassick
Communication Specialist, Western Australia, 2001
Copyright All Rights Reserved

Currently, there are no accredited courses in Australia specific to deafblind interpreting. When a person who is deafblind asks for an interpreter, there is a high probability that the interpreter (for Deaf) will not have any experience in deafblind interpreting. This situation is made more difficult by the fact that there are a number of different and adapted forms of AUSLAN, sign language and fingerspelling that people who are deafblind use. The following are the most commonly used forms:

Visual frame or box signing

Signs are made in a more confined space or box, at upper chest level and between the interpreter’s shoulders. The distance from the client depends on the client’s preference.

Close vision

Same as above, but with the interpreter directly in front of the client and standing very close to them.


The client holds the wrist or wrists of the interpreter to keep the signs within their field of vision and to get information from the interpreter’s movements.

Tactile signing

The client places their hands over the hands of the interpreter to read the signs through touch and movement. (See section 8 below for more information.)

Tactile fingerspelling or deafblind alphabet

The two-hand manual alphabet is adapted to fingerspell letters onto the palm of a client’s hand. There is also a one-hand method, used mostly in the USA.

Short-cut signs

Key signs that can be signed onto the palm of a client’s hand are used as a supplement to tactile fingerspelling. These are generally used in English word order.

The guidelines

Even an interpreter who has had experience with one client who is deafblind, can be unaware of the methods and requirements of other people who are deafblind.

Although many of the principles regarding interpreting for people who are deafblind will be the same as for people who are Deaf, (such as confidentiality and professionalism) it’s essential that interpreters, and booking agents, be made aware of the unique disability of deafblindness, and its implications for interpreting.

The minimum prerequisite to interpreting for a client who is deafblind should be a deafblind awareness course, including a hands-on demonstration of the various communication adaptations used by deafblind people, and sighted guide techniques.

Until specific training in deafblind interpreting is available in Australia, the following guidelines can help make the interpreting situation as effective as possible:

1. Pre-interpreting preparation

  1. The booking agent will be responsible for informing the interpreter of any unique needs of a client who is deafblind, and for organising any special requirements as much as possible. This could include things like arranging for a taxi for the client after the assignment. However, it is essential that interpreters wishing to work with people who are deafblind familiarise themselves with the information contained within these guidelines. A booking agent may organise an assignment well, but it is always possible that unexpected circumstances may mean an interpreter needs to assist a client who is deafblind in areas that are generally not felt to be the responsibility of the interpreter. These could be things like helping a client to get morning tea before taking their own break, or guiding them to a taxi rank after a meeting.
    [Note: It is acceptable for the interpreter to let the client know in an agreed upon way that the formal interpreting role has temporarily finished (for example, signing “interpreting, finished”) before the role changes to providing assistance. When formal interpreting starts again, this can be explained in a similar way (signing “interpreting, now”).]
  2. Arrange to meet the client prior to the assignment to discuss requirements, as described in these guidelines. Fifteen minutes before starting time is standard practice, however, if you are new to the client, you might need more pre-interpreting preparation.

2. Making contact

  1. Always let the client who is deafblind know you are there.
  2. Approach from the front and gradually move to the side to give the client the opportunity to use any residual central or peripheral vision that they have.
  3. Place your hand on the client’s hand or arm and leave it there so that they can easily find you. Avoid tapping which can be startling.
  4. At this point the client may respond by raising a hand to receive tactile fingerspelling, or by placing their hands over yours to read signs tactually. The client may respond by using their preferred method of communication to greet you.
  5. Introduce yourself using the client’s preferred method of communication, which you will have been informed by the booking agent.

3. Communication modes

  1. What is the client’s preferred mode of communication?
  2. What modes of communication are shared by both the client and interpreter in the event of the need to change to another mode? (For example if there is poor lighting, lights are dimmed for a video, or a black out.)
  3. If using tactile fingerspelling, are abbreviations or short-cuts acceptable to the client? If so, what are they?
  4. Work out the rate or speed of interpreting the client prefers.

4. Mobility and access

  1. Learn basic sighted guide techniques, as some clients may need sighted guide in some situations. Sighted guide is when a sighted person accompanies a client who is deafblind to guide them safely to a destination.
  2. Ask if the client will need sighted guide; do not assume they will.
  3. Offer sighted guide by placing your hand on the back of the client’s hand; if the client needs sighted guide they will generally move their hand up your arm to your elbow and grip your arm just above the elbow joint. This grip will position the client a safe half-pace behind you. Alternatively, some clients may prefer resting their arm on your forearm, linking arms, or putting their hand on your shoulder. Ask for, and respect, their preferences.
  4. A client who doesn’t need sighted guide in good lighting or during the day, may need sighted guide at night or in dark or changing light conditions.
  5. Never grab the client’s hand or arm to pull or steer them and never push the client in front of you.
  6. Advise the client of any dangerous obstacles, steps, or narrow passages; does the client have any particular signals for this kind of information?
  7. Avoid interpreting or communicating while walking or using sighted guide as this can be distracting and dangerous; if interpreting is required in transit, stop, communicate, then start walking again when the communication has finished.
  8. Are there any transport needs such as organising a taxi after the session?
  9. Is there wheelchair access, if needed?
  10. Are there any guide dog needs, such as a relief area?
    [Remember that a guide dog is a working animal and isn’t to be distracted, by patting or calling, while in harness.]
  11. Although the above needs should be prearranged by the booking agent, it’s essential that interpreters working with people who are deafblind are aware of these unique issues.

5. Length of assignment and breaks

  1. Two interpreters would be needed, to allow for breaking, if the assignment is for more than one hour.
  2. It is very important to remember that the client may also need a break.
  3. Tactile interpreting can be very tiring both mentally and physically; the interpreter may need to move away from the client to make sure there is a real break, as ‘chatting’ to the client during the break may defeat the purpose of the break. However, let the client know where you will be during the break, if they need to find you.
  4. Remember, deafblindness can be very isolating, ask if the client would prefer to sit with others during breaks.
  5. A general rule is a minimum of five minutes break every twenty minutes for both the interpreter and the client; this may vary with individual preferences and should be agreed upon at the pre-interpreting session.
  6. If there is only one interpreter or the client needs a break, the proceedings must stop until the break is over.

6. Interpreting the environment

  1. Physical and visual information, as well as auditory information, must be interpreted.
  2. Work out what kinds of other information the client would like, to help to create a ‘picture’ of the environment:
    1. layout of room or area?
    2. objects or items in the room?
  3. Location of other participants should be explained, for example you could use the hours on a clock face to show where other people are around them.
  4. Let the client know of any new arrivals, people leaving, or other changes in the physical environment.
  5. Interpret emotional overtones, dynamics, head nods, body postures, etc.
  6. Show who is speaking by naming them, not pointing. If you don’t already know everyone’s names, name tags or a seating chart could help and should be organised by the booking agent, if possible, before the assignment.
  7. Let them know when a question is directed to the client.
  8. When directing the client to an object, such as a water glass, gently place your hand under the hand of the client and move hands together in direction of the glass; when you make contact with the glass, slowly slide your hand away to allow the client to locate glass; do not pick up the object and put it in the client’s hand unless it has been agreed previously that this is acceptable to the client. Your other hand can be used to steady the glass, if necessary.
    Finding a chair can be done in this same way, by guiding one hand to the back of the chair and the other hand to the seat.

7. Special needs

  1. Any of the following special individual needs should be clarified and prearranged by the booking agent, but it is essential that interpreters working with people who are deafblind are aware of unique needs and issues.
  2. How will the client access restroom facilities in an unfamiliar environment?
    Arrangements may need to be made for help to find the facilities.
  1. Are there any medical considerations or food requirements?
  2. Are alternative formats (large print, braille) needed so the client can access information if overheads, whiteboards and handouts are used?

8. Codes and adaptations for tactile interpreting

  1. Individual codes, or cues, may be agreed on to represent various situations, such as fingerspelling ‘hahaha’ when there is laughing, or tapping on the arm to for “Please repeat that”.
  2. So the client can participate in discussions, establish what signal will be used, and whether it will be initiated by client or interpreter, e.g. client signs “ex” as signal for interpreter to say, “Excuse me, I’d like to say something”.
  3. When tactile signing, allow the client to follow your hands – don’t hold onto the client’s hands, or grab the client’s thumbs or fingers.
  4. Signs must be clear and distinct.
  5. Information that would normally be conveyed through facial expression can be conveyed through speed of signing, hand tension, gentle strokes, squeezes, brisk taps, etc.
  6. Put expressions, feelings, and body language into your hands.
  7. Your hands can convey your moods and even your personality!
  8. Nods, shaking the head, and frowns are all forms of facial grammar that can completely change the meaning of identical signs. For example the signs “cake”, “like”, and “you” can mean three different things: “don’t you like cake?” if signed with a frown and shake of the head; “you really like that cake!” if signed with a nod and a smile; or “do you like the cake?”, if signed with raised eyebrows and wide eyes. Facial grammar will need to be supplemented with more tactile information for the client who is deafblind.
  9. Location and placement of signs need to be considered – pointing to something that can’t be seen is meaningless.
  10. Fingerspelling may need to be used more frequently to clarify signs normally dependent upon location and space.
  11. Signs difficult to discriminate between tactually may need to be fingerspelled, like “what” and “today”.
  12. Signs that can generally be differentiated by lipreading will need to be fingerspelled, like “fight” and “competition”.
  13. Enforce breaks, as tactile signing and fingerspelling are mentally and physically tiring for both the client and the interpreter.
  14. Keep your signing low whenever possible to reduce fatigue.
  15. When tactile fingerspelling, establish whether a light or a firmer touch is preferred.

9. Seating

  1. Comfortable seating with good back support is extremely important, to keep any stress on shoulders and backs to a minimum.
  2. Some clients prefer sitting face-to-face with elbows resting on a table; others prefer side by side, or corner to corner. Ask for seating preferences.
  3. Cushions can be placed under elbows for long sessions.
  4. A special interpreting table can be used – a portable, narrow table placed between client and interpreter that can be adjusted to optimum height.

10. Clothing

  1. Good contrast between skin colour and clothing is important, to distinguish signs clearly against the background. The two most acceptable colours for an interpreter with light-coloured skin are black and navy blue.
  2. Tops must be plain with no designs of any sort and without zippers, brooches or shiny buttons. A dark top must completely cover any lighter clothing which might be worn underneath.
  3. For tactile interpreting, pants may be preferable, as skirts and dresses may not allow the interpreter to sit comfortably at the close proximity needed.
  4. Remove all jewellery including rings, bracelets and earrings. This is regardless of the communication style used; when using tactile methods, rings (even ones which feel smooth) can cut and chafe and earrings can be pulled because of close proximity. If the client is relying on residual vision, any jewellery can be visually distracting and may affect the client’s concentration.
  5. Long fingernails can also be a problem; keep nails smooth and trimmed.

11. Lighting

  1. Appropriate lighting can be a critical issue for clients relying on residual vision.
  2. Avoid glare, cluttered backgrounds and spotlights.
  3. Lighting is generally preferred to illuminate the interpreter’s face and hands, but ask what the preference is.
  4. Beware of audio-visual presentations where lights are dimmed or turned off; this can be very distressing for a client who has night-blindness or other eye conditions affected by changes in lighting.
  5. A pre-interpreting session would allow the client to be involved in the seating arrangements and any possible lighting modifications.

12. Breaks and social situations

  1. Discuss expectations regarding breaks at the pre-interpreting session.
  2. The interpreter may be needed to help the client access refreshments or restroom facilities, if necessary, before taking your own break.
  3. During breaks, will the interpreter interpret conversation, or facilitate communication with others? When appropriate and agreed on, the interpreter could introduce the client to others, including people who are Deaf, to extend social contact and provide an opportunity for others to learn to communicate with people who are deafblind.
  4. As noted in section on pre-interpreting preparation, a useful technique to be used in a situation where the interpreter’s role may need to temporarily shift to that of a support person is to indicate when the role changes by simply signing, “interpreting, finished” or similar. Then when the role as interpreter starts again, signing “interpreting now”.
  5. Morning tea or lunch breaks may be good opportunities for the client to discuss issues or share information; but avoid communicating while eating, especially with tactile methods of communication.
  6. When you leave for a break, always let the client know you are leaving; it’s embarrassing to discover you’ve been chatting to an empty chair!
  7. Never leave the client standing in the middle of an open space, or alone in unfamiliar surroundings.
  8. If the interpreter must leave, even for a moment, make sure there is somewhere for the client to sit, or something stationary to have contact with, such as a wall or table.
  9. Always let the client know when you have returned.
  10. Make a conscious effort to say hello and goodbye, as the client may be unaware of people coming and going unless physically approached.

13. Personal hygiene

  1. This sensitive area needs special consideration, from both the point of view of the client and the interpreter, as one-to-one tactile interpreting needs such close proximity and contact.
  2. Smoke, perspiration odour or strong food odours such as garlic or onions, can be particularly distracting for the client or for the interpreter.
  3. Strong perfumes or aftershave should be avoided.
  4. An unscented or lightly scented hand lotion may be applied during breaks to help keep hands from chapping and becoming rough and distracting to the client.
  5. When possible, the interpreter’s and client’s hands should be washed frequently.
  6. Good hygiene, especially keeping hands clean, is extremely important.

14. Remember

  1. All clients are individuals, and individual needs, including interpreting needs, may vary immensely.
  2. Every attempt should be made to go into the interpreting situation with adequate information about the client’s preferences and requirements, and the appropriate communication skills.
  3. If in doubt, ask the client.

15. Code of ethics

  1. The code of ethics followed by AUSLAN interpreters was developed by AUSIT (Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators Inc.) and has been endorsed by NAATI (National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters). This same code of ethics is to be observed by interpreters for people who are deafblind.
  2. A code of practice, or deafblind interpreting guidelines, are needed to clarify the role of the interpreter working with people who are deafblind.