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Working with American Sign Language Interpreters in Mediation

As mediators we listen for the words being said, words not being said, how those words are said[MOU1] , and the body language that goes with those words. All of this input provides us with the information necessary to determine power dynamics, next questions to be asked, as well as attitudes, and feelings. The assumptions that we make are based on our own cultural standards of behaviour.

Many of us have taken cultural diversity trainings to be aware of some of the differences and misunderstandings that affect how we do our job, which can have significant impacts on the participants involved. We may have worked with spoked language interpreters during our mediations and have an understanding of that process. But, one cultural group that is often left out of those diversity workshops is the Deaf community. Sign Language interpreters used in mediation have a different process that many mediators have not experienced.

In January 2003, published a complete paper on Considerations for Mediating with People who are Culturally Deaf. This paper clearly explains Deaf culture and steps mediators can take to make the process as smooth as possible for everyone involved. I would like to add some important considerations when working with Sign Language interpreters:

1.      American Sign Language (ASL) is not English. It is an language in and of itself with its own grammar and syntax. There is very little relation to spoken English.

2.      Sign Language is not universal. If your clients are Deaf and from another country, even an English-speaking country, you cannot assume they will know ASL. Please ask before hiring an ASL/English interpreter.

3.      When hiring an interpreter from an agency, please request an interpreter with experience in mediation. The language and goals of mediation are unique. You and your clients will be better served with an interpreter who has experience in that setting.

4.      Make time to meet with the interpreter prior to the mediation to brief them on the background of the mediation, any information you have on the parties, what is the primary dispute that brings the parties to mediation, and any previous sessions that have occurred whether you were involved or not. Because the interpreter is working as a language and cultural bridge, all of this background information is important to insure an accurate and faithful interpretation.

5.      The interpreters are hired for both the Deaf and English-speaking participants. They are not advocates for either side.

It is important to remember that ASL is a visual and very expressive language. Facial expressions and body language are integral parts of the grammar. Often mediators not familiar with the language can easily misunderstand wild movements and overt facial expressions as angry or hostile. Especially in emotional situations, recounting stories in ASL can look exaggerated to the untrained eye. Rely on the interpreters. Ask clarifying questions to check assumptions. Debrief with the interpreters after the session if there are still questions regarding what you saw and what you understood those actions to mean.

The interpreters are all held to a high ethical standard of confidentiality and professionalism. While they cannot comment on their assumptions or thoughts of what a person meant to say, they can advise you on the dynamics of the language and culture that would aid you in making your own conclusions.

In the end, use these tips as a starting point to learn more about a cultural group you might have never thought of before. Open your practice up to a whole community that can benefit from mediation where trained mediators take into account power dynamics and can provide a safe place for a group that has been marginalized in every aspect of society.


Michelle Eades

Michelle Eades has her MA in Conflict Analysis and Management as well as a BA in Sociology. Her education is a result of her passion to show people what we have in common rather than the differences conflict promotes. She has been a Registered Sign Language interpreter is both Canada… MORE >

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