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When Is Sign Language Interpreting Required By Law?

By Alison at Accredited Language
Updated on Monday, May 6, 2013
Category: Government, Interpreting, Medicine



sign language interpretingSign language interpreting helps deaf and hearing-impaired people communicate, and in the United States, it is often legally required.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 established a series of measures to prohibit instances of discrimination because of a person’s disability, including hearing impairment. The ADA requires that the communication needs of hearing-impaired persons are met, and this frequently demands the use of an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.

Sign Language Interpreting & Discrimination Law

The ADA very clearly states the need for proper communication with hearing-impaired individuals.

Specifically, the ADA states:

“No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.”

Additionally, discrimination includes:

“…a failure to take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services…”

The ADA definition of “auxiliary aids and services” includes “qualified interpreters or other effective methods of making aurally delivered materials available to individuals with hearing impairments.”

Therefore, any place of public accommodation is required to provide sign language interpreters or other effective means of communication for hearing-impaired individuals. Depending on the situation, other effective means of communication may include assistive listening devices.

Where Sign Language Interpreting Is Required

One extremely important area covered by the ADA is the medical field, where sign language interpreting services are often required. Hospitals, for instance, must provide an appropriate means of communication to any patients, family members or hospital visitors who may be hearing impaired. This is applicable in all hospital areas, from the emergency room to the gift shop.

In some cases, the ADA specifies that an effective form of communication may consist simply of a written note, but if a conversation is more complicated — such as explaining a patient’s symptoms or a medical procedure — a qualified ASL interpreter may be necessary.

The ADA extends beyond medical settings and also covers areas like the legal, education, law enforcement and employment systems.

If a company is interviewing a deaf individual, for instance, they are required to provide sign language interpreting. Similarly, hearing-impaired defendants in a legal proceeding must be provided with an interpreter.

The ADA even covers the hospitality industry. For example, hotels must meet hearing-impaired communication needs by providing a teletypewriter — the device hearing-impaired persons need in order to use a telephone — to guest rooms upon request, and they must also have a teletypewriter available at the front desk.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

According to ADA standards, it is usually up to the institution in question to provide — and pay for — any necessary sign language interpreting. If an institution does not comply by providing ASL interpreting to meet the needs of a hearing-impaired individual, it may suffer serious penalties.

In a 2008 disability discrimination and punitive damages case, a deaf woman successfully sued a New Jersey doctor who refused to provide her with a sign language interpreter after she asked for one on multiple occasions. The jury agreed that this qualified as discrimination and ruled unanimously in favor of a $400,000 award.

Wal-Mart has also been faced with disability discrimination complaints. In 2000, the mega retailer settled a case for $135,500, brought by two deaf individuals who had applied for jobs at a Wal-Mart in Tucson, Arizona. The lawsuit was brought under the ADA.

As part of the settlement, Wal-Mart agreed to provide sign language interpreting to both individuals during their training and orientation, as well as during any scheduled meetings and work evaluations.

It’s All About Effective Communication

The key phrase used by the ADA when it comes to deaf and hearing-impaired individuals is “effective communication.” Whatever is necessary to ensure effective communication is required, by law, to be done.

Although the details of what “effective communication” entails may be hazy in some cases, there’s no doubt that ultimately sign language interpreting is the most straightforward way for institutions to fulfill their obligations under the ADA.



12 Responses to “When Is Sign Language Interpreting Required By Law?”

  1. Dinorah Says:

    Hi,

    You don’t mention in what instances sign language interpretation is necessary in education. If a hearin-impaired person is taking an elective, staff development workshop from an organization associated with a public university, is bearing the cost of hiring an interpreter the responsibiliy of the org?

    Thank you very much!

  2. Diane at Accredited Language Says:

    @Dinorah: Colleges often have a deaf services department — you may want to check with the school your workshop is associated with. Responsibilities may vary.

  3. rhonda clark Says:

    aaron tanner is my son he is in the state hospital in indianapolis larue carter and has filed a complainet with the ada for noncompliance in accessing interpreter they get a few hours a day and some days none due to funding my son has cp/deaf /bi polar ther are 4 to 5 other there that are scared and lonley
    please pray for them all that god will give the hospital the understanding of this violation and that the department of justice makes sure they do it right
    thank you and may god bless you all

  4. Amanda Says:

    I am trying to understand the sign-langauge interpreting law. Does the business person that pays for the interpreter get their money back per by the government??

  5. Rick Says:

    Amanda, you are funny.

  6. Billy Says:

    Rhonda,
    You might refrain from telling everyone on the internet about your child’s personal medical problems. Keep in mind that if you demand interpreter services be available 24 hours a day at Larue Carter… Larue Carter might not be there at all someday. God bless.
    Rick Cartman

  7. Mike Says:

    Does this law to provide interpreter apply to private clubs and/or mtg groups? Professional women’s mtg group?

  8. knorman Says:

    Hi Mike,

    Keep in mind that the law does not say you have to provide an interpreter (though this is sometimes the best option). In order to not discriminate because of a disability, you do need to make everything equally accessible to deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

    However, this applies to a place of public accommodation. Private groups may have different requirements, so you should check with a lawyer to find out what is necessary in your specific situation.

    Good luck!

    Kaytie at Accredited Language

  9. rhonda Says:

    Rick…..Laura carter is a state hospital
    An now the have a contract to provide services for the deaf
    Due to my sons determination not to be isolated
    With a mental illness,in a hospital setting
    Unless you think guesses is the best to provide
    Therapy and medication because coloring
    And paceing was not helping the clients
    I was there visiting…a lot….saw all the deaf clients and it was very sad
    They appreciated.the victory.sorry you feel the way you do
    But when you can’t read and write its scary
    Just a thought

  10. Josh M. Says:

    Amanda:
    To answer your question, a business may recoup fees paid to interpreter through a tax write off, or in case of a medical facility, medicare reimburses a portion of the costs from last I understand. However, I am not certain of the impact under Obamacare will have on this.

  11. Jamie H Says:

    Are fianancial institutions required to provide sign language interpreters? When and when not required?

  12. James Says:

    Are comedy clubs required to provide sign language interpreters?

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