Interpreting and working with Deaf-Blind people

David Bar-Tzur

Created 7/26/2000, links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

(1) Meeting and negotiating needs
(2) Communication
(3) Guiding
(4) Interpreting

(1) Meeting and negotiating needs1

Since this is something that will affect all four of these categories and should be taken care of before any of them can begin, let's talk about cleanliness. Because Deaf-Blind people have lessened hearing and sight, they depend more on their other senses, which includes smell. One should try to avoid either too much natural body odor or too much artificial odors. This means one should bathe well, take care of oral and axillary (arm pit) odor, and avoid strongly perfumed products. One should also wash one's hands frequently to avoid passing one's own germs on to Deaf-Blind people, or from one Deaf-Blind person to another.

When you first meet, touch the person's shoulder to let them know you are there, if they are standing. If they are seated, touch the back of the hand, and when they raise it, slide your hand underneath theirs.

Don't tap back or arm, since they won't know which way to turn.

Be flexible with your communication method, your client may be new or have special needs. We will discuss communication options in (2) Communication.

State your business first, then chat.

Be aware that the Deaf-Blind person may need you to guide them to the bathroom, help them with lunch if there is such a break in the middle of the assignment, guide them to meet people they need to speak with, and take them back to a place where they will be picked up. This will be discussed in more depth in (3) Guiding, but discuss which of these needs you will need to meet with your client. Even a casual conversation (not an interpreted event) may lead to a need for some of these things.

If you need to leave, explain why and when you will be back. Tell the person when you are back. Identify yourself each time you meet, that way there will be no confusion or embarrassment. Use your name sign, if it is known to the Deaf-Blind person.

Think of everything you say as a promise - "I'll be right back", "I'll see you at 8:00", "I'll tell Joe what you said."

Respect their privacy. Don't ask personal questions (when did you become d-b, are you lonely, why did you divorce) and don't pass on private information, even if it was not gained as part of the interpreting process and is therefore not covered by the Code of Ethics.

(2) Communication2

Communication options: POP (print in palm), tactile, CV (close vision), distant signing, tracking, limited space/tunnel vision, tactile fingerspelling, sim-com if the person still has some residual hearing, among others. When would you use which? How would you tell which to use? See Resources for working with Deaf-Blind people - Access/Communication methods/Interpreting for more information.

Begin slowly with a new person until they are used to you and you see how best to communicate. If you are in a hurry, tell the Deaf-Blind person right away and arrange a time to speak with them later.

The lighting you are in should be bright without glare. Don't face the Deaf-Blind person into the sun or major light source. If you are Hearing, hard-of-hearing Deaf-Blind people may need you at their better ear and to sit away from noise.

If the person uses both hands to receive ASL, it's best to sit facing with knees interlaced. If one-handed, 45-90 degrees is best.

Sign with energy and clarity, despite feeling restricted, but don't be wild.

Don't duck head to make signs like MOTHER, since it will obscure the difference between signs that differ only in location, such as MOTHER, FATHER, and FINE. Hunching also makes your signing space smaller.

Remember the Deaf-Blind person can't see head nods, head shakes, q and whq questions and other grammatical markers. This information must be added by additional signs, such as FOR~SURE, DOUBTFUL, QUESTION-MARK, and so on.

For tactile signing, don't switch dominance (switching from left-handed signing to right-handed signing or vice versa) although it is natural in ASL.

If you are continuously spelling, pause slightly between words. If you are signing, pause slightly before fingerspelling a word and slightly afterwards to check for comprehension.

If the Deaf-Blind person uses sight to read signs, watch their eyes to see if you are going outside their receptive sign space.

When the Deaf-Blind person puts out their hand, they are requesting (back-channel) feedback, respond with YES, OH-I-SEE, WHAT-CAN-I-SAY, and so on.

Touch is especially important for Deaf-Blind people. It is their link with the world. It can show you are nervous, withdrawn, friendly, tired, or bored. You may be uncomfortable "holding hands" during pauses, but it is best to wait for the Deaf-Blind person to break contact. It keeps that link and makes it easier for the Deaf-Blind person to get your attention.

Later, when you know the person better, touch will also include an occasional squeeze, stroke, pat on the back, walking close, or a hug of greeting and farewell. Try to think of ways to communicate through touch to make up for smiles and frowns. (Pat hand, #HA-HA, ILY"interlocked".)

Don't tease by poking, tickling, or jostling, even though your intentions are friendly. We can see things like that coming and are startled when we don't.

If the person's hands are heavy, it may mean they are tired or having difficulty understanding. Be aware of a need for a break in the conversation or interpretation.

If the Deaf-Blind person starts a private conversation that you sense they may not want to share with others, remind or inform them if other people may be watching. (They may have forgotten or the people may have shown up after you first began chatting.)

If someone interrupts your conversation, tell the person what is happening and interpret or allow access to the conversation. Don't leave a Deaf-Blind person waiting during a lengthy conversation.

If a hearing person is busy with a Deaf-Blind person, another hearing person can say hello to the first Hearing person who can respond without looking away. When a Deaf person is busy with a Deaf-Blind person, they must break their eye contact and therefore their concentration. It's better to wait until the Deaf-Blind person is free to look your way. With two Deaf-Blind people chatting, it is even more of an interruption and you definitely should wait until there is a lull in the conversation.

Help other people who are new to the Deaf-Blind world learn to communicate with them. Don't be surprised if people, even Deaf people, are reluctant to communicate with them tactily.

All deaf people like an interpreter with the right attitude - someone who is flexible and there to make communication go smoothly, not a machine. This is even more important for the Deaf-Blind.

Be careful that clothing is dark unless you have a dark complexion. Many Deaf-Blind people are even more sensitive to bright colors than a sighted Deaf person. Take off rings or bracelets, and keep fingernails trim. Don't wear strong perfumes or colognes.

Some Deaf and most Hearing people feel awkward or uncomfortable communicating with a Deaf-Blind person. Try to be calm, friendly and flexible. Your mood will set the tone for others.

Communication, stimulation and companionship are essential to human beings. It is a two-way street. Enjoy the conversation, shows warmth and joy of life, teach, see life through a different perspective.

(3) Guiding3

Let the Deaf-Blind person take your arm just above the elbow. Don't push them ahead of you or take their elbow. Some people prefer to put their hand on top of the guide's hand or on their shoulder. Start with the most common method but follow the Deaf-Blind person's preference if it is different. Natural body movement will tell the Deaf-Blind person if you are turning, etc.

Let them use the hand rail on the stairs. They may have poor balance.

Pause before going up or down stairs. Bring the person's hand to the handrail. The railing plus your movement will tell them whether the stairs are ascending or descending. Make sure they have a firm hold if they have poor balance. Others prefer to put their hand on your shoulder and have you take the stairs one at a time slightly ahead of them.

If you will use an escalator or elevator, tell them shortly before you will be getting on. For an escalator, tell them you are now ready to get on it, step on first and allow them to take the stair behind. Close to the end, they will feel the stairs leveling off and get off smoothly with you.

For doors, the guide should enter first, holding the door for the Deaf-Blind person. If you have a choice, pick a door that opens to your left. Hold the door open with your left hand while leading with your right. Make sure they have a hold of the door or their body is holding it before you let go of the door.

In narrow spaces or crowded areas, bring your elbow or guiding hand behind you to show them that they need to be behind you rather than side by side. You can also put their hand onto your shoulder. If they have a cane, you may need to make sure the tip doesn't hit anyone. You can do this by grasping it somewhere on the shank and gently directing it away from a possible problem.

When entering a vehicle, place the person's hand on the door handle if the door is closed. If it is open, or for those you feel would prefer that you open the door for them, place one of their hands on the roof just above the arch of the door and the other on the top corner of the door. You might also place their hand first on the seat so that they have some idea how high or low it is.

When seating a Deaf-Blind person, place their hand on back of the seat or arm of chair. Guiding them so that their leg touches the seat. For booths, place their hand on the table edge and slide it in the direction you wish them to go. If a number of people will be seated, ask them what seating arrangement they would like. Be prepared to interpret or copy sign for people that are seated at a distance from your client. This is also assumed when you simply go out with a Deaf-Blind person casually. For fixed seating, such as you would find in an auditorium, lead them into the row and place their hand on the arm rest and sit down. You may need to guide them from behind while in the row, so that you will be seated on the proper side of them for communication. For a stool or non-standard seat, describe it and then place their hand on it to allow them to size up the situation.

Let Deaf-Blind people decide activities for themselves. Let them solve problems that come up if time permits. Give options.

Plan ahead what you will do together. Much preparation may be necessary. Avoid last minute changes. If it can't be avoided, talk it over with the Deaf-Blind person and make it a joint decision.

If as you guide you need to pause and it becomes lengthy, say why you are stopped - traffic light, waiting in line, elevator, and so on.

If the Deaf-Blind person is blocking someone's way, you can gently move them to one side and if it's an urgent need you can always move the person first and explain why they needed to move afterwards.

Some people like to talk while they are walking, if you need to pay attention to something for a moment, just squeeze their hand or hold up an index finger to show this. Let them know when they can resume talking. It's better not to talk while on the stairs or crossing the street.

If you hang up their coat or cane, be sure to tell them where you put it.

Never abandon a Deaf-Blind person in unfamiliar surroundings.

Always tell the person where you're going and when you will be back. If the person is not sitting, it is best to lead them to something secured to the floor or a wall so they can hold on to it or touch it from time to time to keep their bearings.

Deaf-Blind people are not necessarily fragile, they can walk far or help us carry things. Use common sense. Don't forget that a feeling of independence is important to everyone. Allow for such a need.

Let the Deaf-Blind person enjoy the environment tactily. Let them know of their surroundings which they may wish to explore.

In a cafeteria or other food line, indicate where the tray, napkin and utensils are. They may ask you to get them or get them themselves. Show them the guide rail for the trays. If there is a menu posted, begin to tell them their options, especially if there is a line of people waiting, for the smoothest service.

Tell the Deaf-Blind person where things are on the table and on their plate ("your peas are at 3 o'clock"). Say who's sitting at the table if there are a large group of Deaf-Blind people. They may state a preference before they are seated. Let them know if you move anything.

Offer help if it seems appropriate. The person may be tired of always asking. But offer, before you do anything other than the basics, such as cutting their meat.

If you need to lead them to the bathroom, find someone of the same sex (who knows sign) if possible so that they can enter and the guide can explain the layout. If you are both men, ask if they want to sit or stand after they enter the bathroom, then lead them to the appropriate place. When they are done, lead them to the sink, then show them where the soap is, the towel or dryer, and the trash container. You can hold onto their wrist if their hands have not yet been washed.

See Resources for working with Deaf-Blind people - Access/Communication methods/Interpreting for more information.

See Guiding a blind person for excellent illustrations of every aspect of guiding. It's meant for hearing blind people, but you will get the idea.

(4) Interpreting4

Review (2) Communication since it all applies to interpreting too.

Describe the environment: tell the Deaf-Blind person how many people are in the area, what the room/area looks like, who is there if you know names, what people are doing if anything is noteworthy. Determine a comfortable seating arrangement. Some possibilities are: side by side but at a slight angle, facing one another with legs interlaced, or facing but not interlaced. Follow the consumer's preference, but don't do anything that might tier you and lead to injury. To identify a person who is speaking: (1) give the name-sign if they have one and it is known to you, (2) spell the name, (3) identify the most noticeable visual characteristics (man, fancy suit; woman, Indian dress.) This will help the Deaf-Blind person get a feel for who the person is if the speak a number of times. After the meeting, the Deaf-Blind person might wish to speak with one of the participants because of their remarks. Some Deaf-Blind people receive two-handed and some one-handed. If you need the client to use both hands because you are using classifiers or other complex hand movements, gently tap the person's inactive hand and they will bring it up into the signing space.

Deaf-Blind interpreting can be more tiring than usually; work with a team mate if possible. Some people use the arms of chairs, a table, or other surface to rest their elbows on (it's best if it's padded) either when they are actually interpreting or in between times. If you sit at a common table to interpret, sitting directly across from one another can lead to discomfort, especially for tactile fingerspelling. It is also possible to slowly lower your hands into your lap, allowing the Deaf-Blind person's hands to follow, so that you both can rest when it's possible. If you interpreting from ASL to English, you need a team mate to be close to indicate things that are happening in the environment (people are nodding their heads, there is a hand up, and so on) or to ask for clarification. If you don't have a team mate, sit far enough away to see what is being said, but close enough for feedback.

Body language, facial expression (as well as vocal intonation which should be considered in any accurate interpretation) usually conveys a lot of information; you need to state it explicitly. Especially since the Deaf-Blind person will not have access to this information as a Deaf person could. Non-manual markers: HE DRIVE'th'. -> HE DRIVE CARELESS. Add reactions of people: PERSON LOOK PUZZLED. If the person is signing with strong emotion, show it with your signing but reinforce it with a side comment: INFORM-you, WOMAN RED HAT MAD, CRAZY-FOR. SHE SAY´┐Ż If a person is teasing or sarcastic, you will need to say that explicitly, and so on. You may be relaying other people's signing. It's nice to copy their signing as closely as possible to give the Deaf-Blind person a feel for the speaker, but you may need to paraphrase what is said because of speed, communication preference (ASL or PSE), or a need for tactile clarity.

Tactile communication is generally slower, so you may need to edit, summarize and pick out the main points. Let the consumer know when this is necessary and explain why (speed, several people speaking at the same time, lack of experience in the topic discussed, and so on). Recap info after the fact if you felt rushed during the interpretation. Even if you didn't feel rushed, ask the client if they had any questions about the communication that has ended. They may feel that they can't stop you in the middle of it because there was too much information coming in. If you are in a one-to-one situation or one that you can control the pace, make sure to do so, because it may take more time to understand things tactily.

For more information, see Resources for working with Deaf-Blind people - Access/Communication methods/Interpreting.

Image credits

1. From (Interpreter Education Project for New England) which is no longer extant.

2. "Patrick Dowdy and Robert Smithdas using the Tadoma Method." Photographer: Robert Barrett.

3. Vision Impairments' Resource Network.

4. From (Sizuoka morosya tomonokai), which is no longer extant.