“Your Request Cannot be Filled”
The Shortage of ASL/English Interpreters in the U.S.
By Laurie R. Shaffer, Dan Hoffman, and Karen O’Hicks
Any quick Google search on the topic of American Sign Language (ASL)/English interpreter service pulls up headlines of stories that reveal a scarcity of interpreters. This scarcity is a long-standing and continuing problem across all corners of our country. Why is this? Simply put, the number of interpreters is not commensurate with the need for service.
While most statistics are based on hearing loss, not language use, a reasonable estimate is that over six million Deaf people live in the U.S. and use ASL as their primary language. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act aim to create a more equivalent lived experience for all members of society. These laws have opened doors, and with every door that opens, the demand for interpreters rises. Many institutions of higher learning, and even high schools, are offering American Sign Language classes. Shouldn’t this create more interpreters? Yes and no.
ASL is a complex and rich language that takes years to master, and it may surprise people that it is not simply English vocabulary presented manually. Signs are accompanied by many other linguistic components found elsewhere on the body. For example, raising your eyebrows and tilting your head forward is asking a “yes/no” question. Puffing your cheeks while you sign “slow” adds a modifier to show that something was REALLY slow. As with any second language, most learners can develop basic conversational skills, but few become fully fluent. It is imperative that interpreters have full fluency in both ASL and English.
Another factor to consider is that Deaf people are as varied as the rest of America – they comprise a multitude of races, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. They have different levels of education, employment, and economic status. When people with disparate experiences and ways of viewing the world come together to interact, conversations can be very complex. No one interpreter is suitable for every situation.
The chart (Figure 1) shows one New Hampshire agency that arranges interpreting services for various assignments. Comparatively speaking, they are quite successful at filling requests for interpreter service. Note that there are 100 to 400 requests unfilled. That means 400 interactions with doctors, teachers, and employers that did not happen. This deficit has a real impact on the daily lives of Deaf people.
The bottom line is that demand clearly surpasses supply. As more Deaf people obtain higher degrees and enter all levels of society and employment, the requests for service increase and often require specialized expertise. At the same time, it appears that the number of available interpreters has plateaued.
How can this problem be overcome?
Most solutions involve technology. In the future, we may see the use of holographic communication – three-dimensional projection suitable for ASL. Currently, there is increased use of Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) – an interpreting service provided virtually. This service links interpreters from across the country with those seeking service, maximizing the availability of interpreters. However, there are drawbacks to VRI service such as the impact on authentic human connection that serves a vital role in communication.
One option that is not technology-based is offering high quality ASL instruction across the school curriculum, starting as early as elementary school. Taking ASL classes throughout primary and secondary school would mean students could enter a training program for interpreting with language fluency and be better prepared to enter the field upon graduation.
In a perfect world, everyone in the U.S. would learn ASL, eliminating the need for interpreters. In the meantime, creative solutions are needed to increase the number of interpreters as soon as possible. The shortage of interpreters is real, and the consequences are significant for Deaf people and for the rest of society. Without interpretation, we are hindered from interacting with and learning from this rich linguistic and cultural minority.
Institute on Disability. (2014). Annual disability statistics compendium. The Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics, Institute on Disability. https://disabilitycompendium.org/
Ball, C. (2017). The history of American Sign Language interpreting. Revue Internationale d’Études en Langues Modernes Appliquées, 10(Special), 115–124.
Hickey, S., & Leske, H. (2021, April 22). American Sign Language interpreting: The size and state of the market. Nimdza/Research/Interpreting. https://www.nimdzi.com/asl-interpreting/