Lost in Translation: Unqualified ASL Interpreters Go Unregulated in Mainstream Classrooms Everyday


“She sat up there and waved her arms like she was singing Jingle Bells.” In the Tampa Bay Times, that’s how Rachelle Settambrino, teacher of American Sign Language at the University of South Florida, described Deryln Roberts, the ASL “interpreter” who delivered a message in gibberish to the Deaf community this week on behalf of the Tampa police chief as he reported about the suspected serial killer in Seminole Heights.

This is just the most recent example of unqualified interpreters delivering misinformation in a long list of highly publicized incidences.

In September, Marshall Greene became infamous for misinterpreting two news conferences in Florida about Hurricane Irma. Deaf Floridians, relying on the hurricane coverage, were left frustrated and confused as Greene signed words like pizza, big bear, and monster in a garbled message.

And who can forget the 2013 fake interpreter standing beside former President Barak Obama during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela? Four hours of nonsensical signs aired to millions of viewers, making a mockery of a much beloved language and international hero.

While many in the deaf community were outraged, I want to remind you, that these are just a handful of unqualified interpreters in the public light. What about the many unqualified interpreters who go unseen, who fall below the public radar in our elementary and high school classrooms everyday? Unlike most other states, Florida does not require interpreters to be certified through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, a national nonprofit that seeks to uphold standards, ethics, and professionalism. As a result, unqualified interpreters work with deaf children in the state without legal ramifications.

Florida is one of only five states that has no standard for sign language interpreter qualifications in K-12 programs. Is it any wonder that deaf children’s average reading levels fall far below hearing peers? According to Gallaudet University, research conducted in 2001 showed 18.7% of the US population did not graduate from high school in contrast to 44.4% of individuals with a severe to profound hearing loss. So why the big gap in academic achievement? (Gallaudet.edu/Deaf Demographics)

A strong foundation in a first language is a critical component for a child to develop not only reading skills, but healthy social and emotional skills.

An early and rich language environment is key; however, this is often hindered by two major factors: 90-95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents and 75% of those parents never learn conversational sign language. In addition, sign language models in the academic setting are often under qualified, have poor ASL skills, and go unregulated.

Hearing parents have to make an enormous effort to create language rich environments for their deaf children. First and foremost, it is up to parents. Get creative, label the furniture, act out bedtime stories, and use media to your advantage. Most importantly, learn ASL.

When Micah was little, I made an amateur video connecting written English words with their ASL signs for him to watch on my cell phone. Make flip books or videos for your own kids to enjoy.


If deaf children have little access to language in the home and inadequate access to language in school, how are they expected to rise to their innate potential when they are surrounded by adults who are not fluent in their natural language? It is not auditory deprivation that hinders the development of deaf children, but language deprivation.

Today, most deaf students are mainstreamed in hearing classrooms, and interpreters help facilitate communication. They stand in the gap between the hearing instructors, peers, and deaf students, navigating the communication barriers. ASL interpreters are a vital part of the deaf community and deaf education. If the classroom interpreter is unqualified, the deaf student does not have equal access to the general ed curriculum.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted in order to ensure that students have access to a least restrictive environment. Deaf students are supposedly protected by the law, which states they have the right to the same opportunities to be educated as non-disabled peers. The major hurdle to learning for deaf children; however, is related to language and communication.

Interpreters are the link between the deaf world and the hearing world. If there is a language breakdown, there is a learning breakdown. State lawmakers are not ensuring that deaf students get the education they deserve, because they are turning a blind eye to the unqualified interpreters in the classroom. To address the problem, deaf advocacy groups such as Florida Association of the Deaf (FAD) and Florida Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf have both supported bills that set out to establish a minimum standard that interpreters must meet in order to work in the state. These standards would include a degree from an interpreter training program, quality assurance screenings and hours of interpreter training. Advocates have tried to pass a bill for ten years, which would require interpreters be certified or licensed. In 2016, Florida’s House unanimously passed an ASL Interpreter Bill; however, the bill died in the Senate. Three attempts in the past 10 years have all failed.

Florida has the nation’s third largest population of people with hearing difficulties at 210,779. That is roughly 1.8% of Florida’s population. These residents attend schools, require medical, legal, and social services; however, their right to a qualified ASL interpreter is being ignored.

The events at the Tampa police department only highlight that anyone off the street, regardless of qualifications or skill level is permitted to interpret in the state. Parents can not assume all interpreters in the educational setting are fluent, but who determines which interpreters are qualified? Currently, each district is permitted to set its own standard.

There are over 300 interpreters employed by Florida school districts and neither Florida law nor the State Board of Education establishes a criteria for the qualification of educational interpreters. These individuals facilitate direct instruction for students who are deaf, but they are left unchecked.

I do recognize that there are many highly qualified interpreters, and to the many skilled and professional interpreters serving the Deaf community, I want to express my sincere thanks and appreciation. You are the gatekeepers. Through you, every word, which is life itself, passes. With that power, comes enormous responsibility, and you know it. You serve ethically, and without you, we’d be lost.

As a parent of a deaf son, I sincerely thank you. You play an enormous role in the lives of deaf children. You are in their classrooms, on their playgrounds, in their doctor’s offices, in their places of worship, and at their summer camps. You are giving our children access to this incredibly huge, wonderful, confusing, overwhelming, and wondrous world. You are making what is crooked, straight; What is unknown, known. It is a life-giving, sacrificial work, and you are helping to shape our children into the adults they will become. You do your jobs masterfully with integrity, joy, and professionalism. You are passionate about your work, compassionate with our children, and dedicated to your craft. Thank you! You know who you are. I feel fortunate, because many of you have worked with my son.

Interpreters know better than most, that an interpreter bill not only protects deaf children, but it upholds the integrity of a lofty profession– a profession I highly respect and admire. Phony, unqualified interpreters do a huge disservice to the interpreting field, but tragically they also hinder the development of deaf children. Unqualified interpreters deny deaf children their civil right to equal access to education and education in a least restrictive environment. Safeguards must be put in place to protect deaf children in the classroom from phony interpreters.



5 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: Unqualified ASL Interpreters Go Unregulated in Mainstream Classrooms Everyday

  1. Another great article Beth. You are so right!!! Breaks my heart to hear this profession, so important to the development of our non hearing kids, are not regulated or checked. Micah was blessed to have you as his mom ❤️

    Sent from my iPad



  2. I think you should put a quote on “interpreter”. One doesn’t call an unqualified interpreter as interpreter. Since they’re unqualified, quotes on interpreter should be there. Sorry to say that they’re not interpreters at all without licenses, certifications and whatever else we require of them to be able to get the job.


  3. I could not agree with you more. I’m a former k12 interpreter and current certified interpreter who is currently doing doctoral work on how policy affects practice for these interpreters. What really jumped out at me in your article is in the title: “unregulated.” This is the term we need to start using when talking about interpreters in k12 schools. That is a powerful, attention-getting, and completely accurate characterization of this population.

    How can federal law (IDEA) require Interpreters in schools then leave them entirely unregulated? If IDEA doesn’t require them to be qualified (it’s not in the language of the law unlike all other elected services) then states have no mandate. The Cogswell Macy Act (HR1120) may as yet be our best option for closing the IDEA loophole.

    It’s easy (and an easy excuse for policy makers) to get caught up in debating qualified vs highly-qualified vs certified vs licensed etc. But I suspect that we cannot meaningfully attack that problem until educational interpreters are regulated, just as you suggest.


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