Challenges affecting the Deaf and Interpreter Communities

Challenges affecting the Deaf and Interpreter Communities.doc

The purpose of this position paper is to educate the public including key stakeholders such as;- all levels of government  policymakers, consumers, interpreters, interpreting trainers, service providers, and others about the key issues and challenges affecting the Deaf and interpreter communities, and to provide recommendations to address these issues and challenges.

The Issues

The key issues/challenges that impact Canadian Deaf1 and hard of hearing citizens who use signed language-spoken language interpreting services include:

  1. A critical shortage of qualified interpreters2
  2. The impact of video relay service3 providers operating in Canada
  3. Business practices that reduce access for Deaf and hard of hearing citizens
  4. A lack of standards related to the quality of interpreting required across a variety of settings, including educational, community, medical, and legal settings
  5. The recruitment, retention and on-going professional development of qualified interpreters
  6. A lack of education about how to use interpreting services effectively

The Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) Position

Collaborative and Coordinated Response

There is an urgent need for collaborative and targeted action to develop a coordinated response to the serious issues highlighted in this paper about the provision of interpreting services used by Deaf and hard of hearing children, youth and adults, and hearing people with whom they interact.

The following stakeholders need to work together to find solutions to these crucial issues:

  • Service providers
  • Interpreter education programs
  • Provincial and federal governments
  • Interpreter referral agencies
  • National and provincial organizations representing interpreters and Deaf and hard of hearing consumers.

The objectives of the collaboration should be:

  • To expand Deaf and ASL/LSQ Studies programs in Canada to increase the pool of potential interpreting students
  • To increase the pool of certified interpreters in Canada
  • To establish effective ways to schedule interpreting services; explore the use of technology and other tools to maximize coverage in each region across the country
  • To establish national and provincial mentorship programs to strengthen the skills of interpreters and retain them in the field
  • To monitor the impact of video relay services on community-based interpreting, including recruitment, retention, work incentives, etc.
  • To encourage interpreters to engage in ethical and sensitive business practices
  • To establish mechanisms to enforce standards and best practices for interpreting in educational, community, medical and legal settings (e.g., professional designation, protected title, regulated profession) 

The Rationale for CHS’s Position

Discrimination in any form closes the door to equal opportunity, a fundamental right of Canadian citizenship and democracy itself. Culturally Deaf, oral deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing Canadians have the right to fair and equitable treatment, to participate equally in the workplace, and to communicate fully and freely with businesses, non-profit organizations and government. It is the position of CHS that the public, private, voluntary and not-for-profit sectors be responsible for ensuring discrimination-free environments.  When qualified interpreters are not available for assignments, Deaf and hard of hearing people experience differentiated treatment that has potentially life-threatening or economic consequences (such as in medical, employment or educational contexts). 

1.  Shortage of Interpreters 

The shortage of interpreters is not a new issue (as cited in McLaughin, 2010).  However, increasingly, interpreting service providers, school districts, private organizations, VRS service providers and government agencies are competing for the same pool of interpreters.  It is not uncommon for consumers to have to reschedule appointments in order to access an interpreter, to accept services provided by under qualified or unqualified interpreters, and/or simply to go without interpreters.  The supply of qualified interpreters has not kept up with North American demands. 

At present, there are five Canadian college and/or university-based programs that educate interpreters.  Each of these programs graduates a small number of interpreters (between six and 13 people). In some provinces the programs operate on a cohort model, graduating interpreters only every two to three years. Upon graduation, some interpreters are ready for entry-level work4 that is closely supervised by peer mentors; few are ready for more complex, independent assignments that represent the majority of the work. Programs such as CHS’s Ontario Interpreting Services (OIS) Interpreter Internship Program are useful in addressing the gap between graduation and readiness to practice as a competent interpreter.

Data from interpreting service providers reveal that the number of freelance interpreters is decreasing while the demand for services is increasing, and that agencies and organizations recruiting staff interpreters find it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies. These same agencies report increases in the rate of “no fill” appointments, meaning the number of appointments where the service provider was unable to secure an interpreter for a client.

The lack of interpreters seriously impacts Deaf and hard of hearing people in obtaining and maintaining jobs, in accessing education, healthcare and legal services, and in their safety and interactions of daily life.

2.  Impact of Video Relay Services (VRS)

In recent years, there has been a major shift in employment opportunities for signed language-spoken language interpreters. The provision of video relay services by U.S. vendors in major cities across Canada has attracted interpreters by offering competitive wages and benefits, and stable working conditions.  As a result, interpreter referral agencies report that the number of freelance and staff interpreters providing services has decreased. 

These U.S. companies provide service to American consumers.  When Canadian VRS is established, it is likely that more Canadian interpreters will choose to work for VRS, reducing the pool even further. 

3.  Business Practices

The demand for interpreting services has also created economic and business practice issues in some communities.  Deaf people have cited examples where some interpreters are requesting fees in excess of the suggested fee grids within the community, or are cancelling previously booked assignments in order to take more lucrative paying assignments.  There have also been reports that interpreters are requesting fees be paid up front.  These situations can result in people being reluctant to use interpreters on a regular basis or simply being unable to pay for interpreting services. At a systemic level, these practices can breed an environment of mistrust between consumers and interpreters, and create professional disputes among interpreters.

These unethical business practices violate the Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Professional Conduct, published by the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC).  AVLIC has a Dispute Resolution Process which can help to address these complaints in a professional manner, however many consumers are not aware of the process.  Interpreters are often reluctant to address these issues with colleagues.  Finally, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that some interpreters choose not to be members of their national professional body and therefore are not accountable to AVLIC for their actions. 

4.  Standards of Practice in Educational, Community, Medical and Legal Settings

AVLIC is the national professional body that represents signed language-spoken language interpreters.  At this time there are some 600 interpreters who hold membership; however, it is estimated there are another 400 people who are practicing as interpreters, some of whom possess formal training, and many more of whom do not possess any qualifications.  At present, no provinces have licensure and protection of title (similar to social workers), so that any person can purport to be an interpreter.  This market disharmony creates situations where consumers can and are subject to interpreting services provided by practitioners who do not possess the requisite skills to function as a competent interpreter.

Educational Settings

One of the major employers of interpreters across Canada has been the Kindergarten to Grade 12 education system and post-secondary institutions.  While urban centres tend to fare better than rural districts, it is very challenging for these employers to attract and retain qualified interpreters.  Some of the issues that prevent qualified interpreters from applying to these positions relate to job classification, working conditions, salary and benefits, and risk of overuse syndrome injuries.  This often leaves school districts in the position of hiring an untrained and/or unqualified candidate.  The consequences of inadequate interpretation have been documented (Russell and McLeod, 2008; Schick et all, 2006, 2008; Winston, 2004) and range from the Deaf or hard of hearing student not being able to access the academic content in the classroom, to creating a cycle of educational gaps and failures, to social isolation, the development of mental health concerns, and preventing access to post-secondary programs due to inadequate education in the formative years.

At the post-secondary level, students experience situations where they must defer their studies until interpreters can be secured, or they have to accept an alternate communication support that does not provide them with full access (e.g. note taking services).  Post-secondary institutions have also found themselves in the position of hiring interpreters who are not qualified for the setting, adopting a philosophy that “someone is better than no one”.  However, when it comes to meaningful access, an unqualified interpreter does not provide it.

As Deaf and hard of hearing students pursue diverse and advanced fields of post-secondary study (e.g. medicine, law, vet medicine, engineering) the need for teams of highly qualified interpreters has also increased.

Community Setting

Community-based interpreting also faces a number of challenges.  Some interpreter referral agencies have internal screening tools or tests to verify that an interpreter can provide an adequate level of interpreting skills for community-based assignments, while other agencies do not use formal measures to determine interpreting skill.  This inconsistency in verifying the skills can result in misinterpretation, inappropriate services, and further discrimination. 

Medical Settings

Specialized training is necessary for interpreting in medical settings.  The shortage of interpreters who possess specialized training, coupled with the general shortage of interpreters, result in the need to schedule medical appointments to accommodate interpreter availability or in a practice of writing notes between patient and healthcare provider.  Both of these are undesirable, and in violation of the Supreme Court decision [Eldridge v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1997] 3. S.C.R. 624]. They can lead to worsened medical conditions that were not managed in their early stages, or misunderstanding, misdiagnosis and mistreatment.

Legal Settings

There are few interpreters in Canada who possess the specialized training to work in legal and courtroom settings.  In a 2009 survey conducted by Robertson, Russell and Shaw (2012), interpreters in Canada reported that they chose not to work in legal settings because the consequences of errors are grave and they lacked any specialized training to deal with the legal terminology, protocols and processes. In some jurisdictions, police services and courts rely on staff members who may only have limited signed language proficiency to interpret for interactions involving Deaf citizens.  In other regions, Deaf people can access experienced and/or certified interpreters; however, given the shortage of interpreters, they may have their proceedings delayed in order to accommodate the scheduling of interpreters.

5.  Recruitment, Retention, and Professional Development of Interpreters

A number of factors influence the recruitment, retention and on-going professional development of qualified interpreters.  Becoming a qualified interpreter involves a long period of education, often anywhere from four to six years.  Such a commitment to learning American Sign Language or la langue des signes québécoise and the complex interpretation strategies can result in significant financial obligations.  Upon graduation, salaries may be such that interpreters cannot see their way out of debt for several years. Interpreter Education Programs in Canada have all experienced times when there are fewer applicants to the program and when more recruitment efforts must be made.

Once working, the demands of the job can create stress and burn-out causing interpreters to leave the field, often within the first five years of practice.  Woodcock and Fisher (2009) published a study that shows a disturbing picture of interpreters who are injured and are at risk of injury, by virtue of working in unsafe conditions.  Across all domains of work – community, freelance, educational, and medical – interpreter salaries and a lack of benefits can lead to significant job dissatisfaction (Janzen and Russell, 2004). 

While there is acknowledgment in the AVLIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Professional Conduct for the requirement of interpreters to engage in on-going professional development, this is another unregulated feature within the profession.  Our Canadian workforce is also challenged by a growing number of working interpreters approaching retirement in the next five to eight years.  Once this pool of interpreters retires there will be a serious void in the experience level; many of these interpreters have interpreted for 30 - 35 years.  This level of experience is not easily replaced.

6.  Consumer Education

One of the pressing issues that impacts Deaf and hard of hearing consumers is a lack of training for Deaf and hard of hearing children and youth on how to use interpreting services effectively in accessing services in legal, medical, post-secondary and other community-based settings.  Youth who may not have had access to communication support in the Kindergarten to Grade 12 school system, may be completely unaware of their rights to be accommodated, and/or not know how to use an interpreter effectively to access services in the community.  Consumer education is also needed for hearing people who need to communicate with a Deaf or hard of hearing person via interpreting services.  Such training would pave the way for a smooth transition between supports provided to children and youth, and adult community-based interpreting services. 

In addition, educating the public about interpreter qualifications, the responsibilities of organizations to be accessible, and the protocols for working with an interpreter would reduce frustrations and ultimately human rights complaints.

In conclusion, this position paper is designed to heighten public awareness and lead to better understanding and informed decisions in addressing and finding solutions to the issues and challenges facing the Deaf and interpreter communities in Canada.

Relevant Resources

The Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC), the Canadian Association of the Deaf (CAD), and Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf (CCSD) [2010]:  AVLIC, CAD and CCSD have entered into a joint agreement that recognizes the primacy of CAD and CCSD to advance the political, cultural, language, economic, social and educational rights and interests of Deaf people in Canada, and recognizes AVLIC’s primacy to advance the profession, rights and interests of sign language interpreters.

AVLIC Position Paper: Interpreting Legal Discourse and Working in Legal Settings, July 2012

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [2007]

Canada and 141 other Member States and the European Community signed this landmark new convention, which entered into force in May 2008. The treaty aims to eradicate discrimination against persons with disabilities in all areas of life including education, health services, and access to justice. The Convention requires States Parties to recognize and promote signed languages, facilitate the learning of signed language and promote the linguistic identity of the deaf community in the education system.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [1982]:  The Charter is a bill of rights entrenched in the Constitution of Canada. The Charter protects the political and civil rights of all Canadians, and supersedes all provincial human rights codes. 

Canadian Human Rights Act [1985]:  This Act extends the laws of Canada to uphold the principle that “all individuals should have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have and to have their needs accommodated...without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on...disability."

Eldridge v. British Columbia (Attorney General) [1997]:  The Court ruled that it is the responsibility of governments to provide sign language interpreting.  While Eldridge dealt specifically with the right to sign language interpreting in the health care system, the principles set out apply more generally to services provided by government, or provided by non-government organizations carrying out specific government objectives.

Canadian Association of the Deaf, et. al. v. Her Majesty the Queen [2006]:  This most recent Federal Court of Canada decision requires that all Federal Government programs, offices and services provide sign language interpreting services "upon request."  The ruling makes explicit the right of access to government. 

Ontario Human Rights Code [1990]:  The Code protects Ontarians from discrimination based on disability or other characteristics (e.g. race, ancestry, family status, sexual orientation, etc.) and calls for a "climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person so that each person feels a part of the community and able to contribute fully to the development and well-being of the community and the Province".

Ontario Human Rights Commission's Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate [2000]:  The Ontario Human Rights Code explicitly states that everyone has the right to be free from discrimination. The Policy and Guidelines outline the details and give practical measures for workplaces, public transit, health and education services, restaurants, shops, and housing to provide Ontarians with disabilities equal treatment and barrier-free access.

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act [2005]:  Passed unanimously in the Ontario Legislature, this Act commits the government of Ontario to create, implement, and enforce standards of accessibility with respect to goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises for the 16 per cent of Ontarians with disabilities, including people who are culturally Deaf, oral deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing.


For more information please contact The Canadian Hearing Society. 

Phone: 1-866-518-0000, TTY: 1-877-215-9530, E-mail:, Website:

References are available upon request.

Position Paper approved by the CHS Board of Directors: March 2, 2013

1. The uppercase Deaf denotes individuals, who in addition to having a significant inability to hear, function by choice as members of the Deaf community, subscribing to the unique cultural norms, values and traditions of that group. When the word deaf appears in lowercase, it denotes an individual who has a significant audiological loss, regardless of their cultural or group identity. For a complete discussion of this concept, please refer to Markowicz, H, and J Woodward. 1978. "Language and the Maintenance of Ethnic Boundaries in the Deaf Community." Communication and Cognition. 2:29-38.

2. For the purpose of this paper “interpreters” and “interpreting services” refer to signed languages-spoken language interpreting, such as American Sign Language (ASL)-English and la langue des signes québécoise (LSQ)-français.

3. A video relay service (VRS) is a video telecommunication service that allows Deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate via interpreters in real time over videophones and similar technologies with people who can hear.  VRS is a newer form of telecommunication service to the Deaf and hard of hearing community, which began in Canada in the late 1980s using a simpler technology and was known as Relay Services.

4. Entry level interpreting refers to situations where the work involves interpreting for two people or small groups, where the content is not highly complex or technical, and the pace of the information can be negotiated with the participants.  The work is often predictable and preparation can be done prior to the assignment.