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When is an interpreter required by law

Native Canadian - Canadian - Indigenous Communities - Food for thought

When is an interpreter required by law? The Americans with Disabilities Acts mandates that under many circumstances experienced by Deaf individuals, a Sign Language interpreter must be supplied. In this post, we’ll talk about what those obligations are, and how they can be met. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities against discrimination. It aims to allow them to live lives of equal and equitable quality as abled people. Part of that equity mandates access to “auxiliary aids” as a “public accommodation.” Buildings, businesses, and anywhere else open to the public cannot discriminate against disabled people. In the case of people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, this means that in order to have effective communication, access to notetakers, written materials, or qualified interpreters may be required. 

Effective Communication  

The key word here is “effective” communication. Under many circumstances, interpreters aren’t required; for basic communication, such as buying a coffee, which can be organized via gesturing and even a pen and paper, the ADA doesn’t require that a business provide a translator at their own expense. It’s also possible that accommodation of someone’s needs might place an “undue burden” on the business or public building; in these cases, accommodation to the best of the organization’s ability is all that’s required. 

Required Interpretation 

However, when situations become complex, full awareness and accommodation is a legal requirement. These kinds of circumstances include law enforcement – arrests and interrogations require interpreters, due to the complexity of the communication that happens – as well as doctor’s offices, where complicated medical procedures and outcomes must be explained to the best of a practitioner’s ability. In order for a patient to consent to treatment they have to be fully aware of what they are consenting to, and the best way to ensure that, in compliance with the ADA, is to have a qualified interpreter in real time ensuring everyone is on the same page.   

An Ad Astra interpreter required by law.

Required interpreters must be capable in the specific field of interpretation. While it might be easy to think that someone might use a family member as a translator, under many circumstances this is explicitly prohibited by the ADA. For circumstances that are personal or confidential, for example medical appointments, it may be difficult for a family member to communicate without any opinions of their own.

Interpretation Qualifications  

The ADA defines a qualified interpreter as someone who is capable of translating effectively, accurately, and impartially. They must be both receptive and expressive, which is to say they must communicate effectively with the person with the disability by both understanding what they are trying to say and by having the skills required to relay information back to them. An interpreter – for people with hearing impairments this will probably but not exclusively be Sign Language – will also need to be able to communicate in any specialized language or terminology. For example, a doctor’s office interpreter will need to understand and be able to explain to a patient any medical conditions they are expected to have.    


The ADA carries a lot of weight, and there can be severe consequences for breaching your obligations. Beyond that, states have their own requirements. Failing to provide adequate interpretation in fields where communication is critical, for example, law enforcement can render conversations or interrogations invalid in court; in the medical field it can lead to heavy fines, even if treatment isn’t affected.  

Ultimately, people know their own needs best. It’s always best to ask a person who requires assistance in communication what they’d prefer and provide that. Sign language isn’t the only kind of interpretation that might be required, even among people who are Deaf: real-time captioning, written materials, and oral, cued speech or tactile interpretation are other methods of communication that might be utilized, if necessary. 

While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings, businesses, and other public-facing entities to engage in interpretation for complex communication, communication with the help of a qualified interpreter can increase quality of life for the people who require it.