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When Is Sign Language Interpreting Required By Law?

By Alison at Accredited Language
Updated on Monday, September 15, 2014
Category: Government, Interpreting, Medicine

sign language interpretingSign language interpreting helps deaf and hard of hearing (formerly known as “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. The ADA requires that the communication needs of hard of hearing and deaf 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 hard of hearing and deaf 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 hard of hearing 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, hard of hearing defendants in a legal proceeding must be provided with an interpreter.

The ADA even covers the hospitality industry. For example, hotels must meet hard of hearing communication needs by providing a teletypewriter — the device hard of hearing 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 hard of hearing 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 hard of hearing 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.

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

  1. Dinorah Says:


    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:

    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:

    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?

  13. Linda Says:

    It is important to provide language interpreters, and the services they offer deaf individuals (of which my late aunt was) is so very much appreciated. I witnessed first hand how difficult it is to navigate through a “hearing” world, and the kindness others showed my late aunt was a testament to the inherent need to help others.

    @James, you’re being a little cheeky…

  14. Joan Says:

    Under the ADA if a company employs 15 employees they are required by law to pay for effective communication which in many cases means an Interpreter.

  15. Cathy Says:

    It really isn’t fair to the private medical practice. We hire the interpretor to the tune of about 150.00 per visit. Medicare only reimburses avg. of about 50.00 for the patient’s office visit. So see, we are already in the red $100.00. No one takes this into account as they think family practitioners make millions. The insurance companies should deem this a billable service.

  16. Rich Says:

    Please give me insight as to how ADA applies to churches with regard to deaf and hard of hearing persons. Thanks.

  17. Rich Says:

    Please help me understand the requirements of ADA upon church gatherings. Thank you so much.

  18. Kate Says:

    Cathy, I totally agree. We are a very small mental health practice and we lose $122 for each session with a deaf client. I think that the insurance company should pay for the interpreting so we could focus on the treatment. I can’t afford to lose that money in my small practice.

  19. Suzy Says:

    I don’t know about the law in connection with church and ADA but JW.ORG has the bible in excellent ASL for free without even requiring you to register. It also has bible dramas with deaf actors all signed in ASL! It has a lot of different sign languages all for free but I watch in ASL. You should check it out.

  20. Donna-Jean Says:

    Anyone know about a Real Estate office with approx. 60 agents? Does there need to be an interpreter? Located in California

  21. Stan Says:

    I have a conference set up Friday. i have a request for a sign interpreter but do not have the budget for it. Am i required to provide someone to sign?

  22. Maricella Says:

    Would someone please direct me on the laws regarding church interpreters and it’s Deaf members?

  23. Steve Says:

    What about sports teams and organizations? I’m the president of a local baseball league. Are we required by law to provide an interpreter for the children who need them? Do we need one for every child? If so, what is going to happen is we are going to have to raise fees and then other will be paying for the service for those that need it.

  24. Linda King Says:

    A company with 15 or more employees fall under Title I “Employment” of the ADA which means that companies cannot discriminate due to a disability during the hiring process and are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees.
    Providing ASL interpreters for services falls under Title III of the ADA “Public Accommodation.” It doesn’t matter if a doctor’s office has 1 employee or 20 employees, they are required under ADA to provide a sign language interpreter as a public accommodation. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to. When theyprovide this service, using a certified interpreter, they have done their part to be sure and can have an expectation that the patient was provided effective communication and understood their health issues. Once the doctor and patient come to know one another, a bond starts to form and it is a non essential office visit, then maybe they can agree to another form of communication but until that happens a doctor should think of it as not only a tool to use with a patient but as sort of an insurance. Specialist most definitely need certified interpreters. With a non certified interpreter you can’t have any expectation of effective communication. How many deaf patients does any 1 doctor have that they will go broke paying for an interpreter which is a tax write off. Always remember, you may not have a disability now so you don’t need that handicap placard, that ramp, that clear aisle, that interpreter, but that could change in an instant. I don’t need any accommodations, I’m thankful for that, but I know people who do and I see them struggle and I see all those barriers they try to cross every day so I wil defend their right to equal access, and if it cost a doctor a little more money so be it sorry my sympathy is with the person that has to fight the world for the accommodation.

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