Fake Interpreters in Florida

by Matthew W. Dietz

As Hurricane Irma was charging towards Florida in September 2017, Deaf persons, like everyone else, watched the news, wondering what the hurricane was going to do and whether they should evacuate.  They paid attention to the sign language interpreter.  However, the sign language interpreter was signing gibberish:

“Pizza want you are need be bear monster”

“On that news…need evacuate… pray wait water”



Just two months later, as a serial murderer roamed the streets of Tampa, the police chief held a press conference to announce the arrest of a suspect, and the interpreter waved her arms and signed:

“Fifty-one hours ago, zero 12 22… murder three minutes in 14 weeks ago in old … murder four five 55,000 plead 10 arrest murder bush… three age 24.”

Fake sign language interpreters were once seen as an issue isolated to schizophrenic impostors like Thamsanqa Jantjie, who appeared at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service and waved his hands at hallucinations of angels descending into the packed stadium.

Florida has the nation’s third largest population of people with hearing difficulties at 210,779—roughly 1.8 percent of Florida’s population, according to the 2014 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium.  However, unlike the majority of states, Florida does not have a process for licensing or certifying qualified interpreters.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an interpreter is qualified when he or she can “interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.”  The goal of interpretation is so the person who is Deaf has an equal opportunity for understanding as a person who can hear.  Using an unqualified interpreter is not only dangerous for a Deaf person, or for the Deaf community, the practice is insulting and discriminatory.  This discrimination is called “audism.

In Miami, English-only speakers may be frustrated or insulted when others speak Spanish in front of them.  The frustration or insult is derived from a perceived conscious decision that is made to hide information. Similarly, when a no one bothers to obtain an interpreter for an event or service, a Deaf person believes that the hearing person does not feel they are even worthy enough to receive the same information.  If an interpreter is not present to communicate critical information, the underlying statement is that the lives of the Deaf community are unimportant.  That is why it is discrimination.

Most times, entities do not do their due diligence when requesting a sign language interpreter, so persons who know some signs, took one class in sign language, or are otherwise unqualified, pass themselves off as professionals. Since Florida has no licensing or regulatory requirements for sign language interpreters, even when an entity does its due diligence, many unqualified people will continue to pass themselves off as interpreters.  When it comes to emergency situations like hurricanes or mass murderers on the street, poor-quality interpreting is embarrassing and dangerous.  In a doctor’s office, it will lead to malpractice, and with police—a violation of constitutional rights.

Many people in our community consider themselves culturally Deaf, which means that they share an inherited primary language, American Sign Language (ASL), raise their children using ASL, and socialize with others in the Deaf community.  The United Nations, in the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has recognized the linguistic identity of the Deaf community and encouraged the facilitation of learning sign languages.  However, as with English, the understanding of ASL is not perfect with all Deaf persons and depends on many different factors such as previous educational opportunities.  Furthermore, persons who are Deaf-Blind may need a tactile interpreter. We also need to recognize that ASL is not a word-for-word interpretation of English, and it has its own grammatical construct and uses facial expressions and body language in addition to signs.

Professionally trained interpreters are able to effectively convey information keeping in mind the Deaf client’s ASL proficiency.  Some interpreters also have advanced certifications to interpret in legal or medical environments, which require a deeper understanding of the terminology.  In other circumstances, especially in South Florida where there are a large number of persons that speak different sign languages, a certified deaf interpreter (CDI), is a deaf individual certified to interpret as part of a team with a qualified interpreter to ensure effective communication by breaking down the information even further.

I make sure that every interpreter I use is certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID.org) or is vetted by a trusted and experienced interpreting agency. While providing a certified interpreter is not required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is the best guarantee for basic qualifications. As an added benefit, certified interpreters must adhere to a code of ethics that ensures best practices to ensure effective communication.

Variations of a sign language interpreter licensing bill have failed to get on Florida’s legislative agenda after four separate attempts in the past 12 years.  Obtaining a qualified interpreter should not be a game of chance, placing the lives of the members of the Deaf community at risk. This must stop, and Florida must license and regulate sign language interpreters.