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Why Are ASL Interpreters so Hard to Find?

Mother signing (ASL) to her baby.

Did you know that American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the most in-demand languages in the United States? ASL is a necessary means of communication for individuals in the Deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) community, but ASL interpreters can be hard to find.

In 2022, GLOBO took steps to invest in the professional development of ASL interpreting students. Our reasoning for extending this support was based on the fact that the availability of ASL interpreters is severely lacking to serve the needs of the growing Deaf and HoH population. In fact, over 37 million adults report some trouble hearing.  

Read on to learn just how big the ASL interpreter shortage is, the industries affected, and why ASL interpreters can be difficult to source without a language support provider. 

A Closer Look at the Lack of ASL Interpretation

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has basic mandates in place that are meant to ensure language support solutions are available for Deaf individuals. The ADA states that equal language access must be provided by any entity open to the public, and auxiliary aids (such as ASL interpreters) must be used to ensure that communication is reasonably accessible. Lastly, the ADA says that individuals that need these language support services cannot be charged for them. 

Despite these mandates, many public businesses, service organizations, and other agencies do not provide adequate language support for the Deaf and HoH community. In fact, in 2020, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a lawsuit against the White House because there was a lack of ASL interpretation during televised communications associated with COVID-19. 

In 2022, the National Deaf Center (NDC) on Post-Secondary Outcomes stated that the lack of ASL interpretation is currently creating a crisis among college students who are Deaf or HoH. The NDC noted that the need for ASL interpreters in higher education is at an all-time high, but the current shortage is making it difficult to ensure Deaf students have the language support they need. 

In healthcare, one of the most important sectors to offer patients equal access to language support, ASL support is also lacking. A study published in Health Affairs in 2022 found that 59% of addiction treatment facilities and 41% of mental health facilities did not provide ASL support. 

Factors That Affect the Current ASL Interpreter Shortage

With a greater need for ASL interpretation across multiple industries, the true scope of the problem is now well recognized. This realization has led to multiple in-depth analyses and investigations to determine where problems may lie. There are actually a number of factors that affect the lack of qualified ASL interpreters. 

ASL Communication Has Unique Requirements Compared to Other Languages 

ASL is a unique niche in the language support field. Individuals who learn the language are not just learning to speak words in a new tongue; they are learning the non-verbal cues and movements associated with the culture to appropriately communicate the language in a way that supports cultural awareness. This process can take extensive training because many nuances are primarily understood by individuals in the Deaf and HoH communities and not necessarily well-understood by everyone else. 

ASL Has More Stringent Education and Certification Requirements 

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) is available for service providers to find a certified ASL interpreter in different industries, but there are only just over 10,000 certified ASL interpreters in Canada and the United States combined. Compared to other language interpreters, such as in Spanish, for example, this number is extremely low. Data collected by Zippia found there were nearly 20,000 Spanish interpreters employed in the U.S. in 2021. 

The requirements to become a certified ASL interpreter are quite stringent, which is understandable due to the uniqueness of the language. While there are many qualified interpreters, each state may have its own set of qualification requirements to become certified. The RID offers a national interpreter certification (NIC) program, but to take the assessment, applicants must meet the requirement of having a Bachelor's degree or equivalent

Geographical Scarcity of ASL Interpreters and Lacking Broadband Is an Issue 

In some areas, ASL interpreters are especially scarce. For example, in 2017, in Southwest Louisiana, there were only three registered ASL interpreters to offer services to around 800 Deaf people in the area. This can make it exceptionally difficult for a service provider to get access to an in-person interpreter when needed. 

In areas with few in-person ASL interpreters available, working with an interpreter via video-remote interpreting (VRI) is the next best thing. VRI offers visual and audible communication, the only way to effectively provide ASL interpretation remotely. Unfortunately, broadband connectivity infrastructure is not as strong as it should be in some rural locations. This means that service providers may only have access to one or two interpreters; if those professionals are unavailable, they need strong enough internet to rely on VRI. 

Lack of Diversity Among ASL Interpreters Heightens the Shortage 

A lack of diversity among ASL interpreters is also an issue. In the U.S., 87% of ASL interpreters are white, which can cause communication barriers among Deaf and HoH individuals who speak in an ASL dialect related to their culture. For example, a common ASL dialect is Black American Sign Language, which can have slightly different signs for common phrases than standard ASL. 

Because interpreters from certain cultural backgrounds are so difficult to find, service providers must make use of video remote language support services to gain access to a pool of ASL interpreters with more diverse backgrounds. 

Overcome the ASL Interpreter Shortage with Adequate Language Support from GLOBO

At GLOBO, we contract with a steady stream of certified and qualified ASL interpreters, so our clients always have access to the language support they need. Interested in knowing more about our language support solutions like video-remote interpreting, in-person interpretation, and document translation for serving Deaf and HoH communities? Reach out to schedule a live demo


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