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Ethics & Role:

Situational Studies:


Interpreting in a Deaf-Blind Setting
Justin D. Goujon
November 11th, 2000


Deaf-Blind interpreting is increasingly become an area in the field of interpreting that is being called upon. I spent some time working with Deaf-Blind people this past year. In this paper I want to discuss my own experiences, an explanation of the Deaf-Blind community, strategies for working with Deaf-Blind people, and how to get involved in this area. What does Deaf-Blind mean?

Deaf-Blind is a blanket label that is used to describe a group with varying degrees of Deafness and blindness. Below you can see the Coppersmith matrix. It is a quick way to see who fits under the label of Deaf-Blind.

(Insert Graphic Here)

It is important to know what level of sight and hearing a person has when you agree to work with them because of the impact the degree of their loss may have on their communication style.

Major causes of Deaf-blindness

Major causes of Deaf-blindness are Usher’s Syndrome, Maternal Rubella, or a combination of Deafness and other conditions (such as glaucoma or cataracts). Usher’s Syndrome is a hereditary condition caused by a recessive gene. The results of this condition are someone becoming both Deaf and blind. There are two common types of Usher’s Syndrome: Usher’s Type I which causes profound deafness and blindness and Usher’s Type II which causes partial deafness and blindness. These types of Usher’s are caused by different genes in a persons body. The reason it is important for an interpreter to know the difference between type I and type II is the language choice of a Deaf-Blind consumer can be related to which type a person has. People with Type I are more likely to use ASL while people with Type II usually have English as their first language and sign in a more English like way.

Another cause of deaf-blindness is maternal rubella. Many times people born Deaf and blind are born that way because of maternal rubella. (Which is the mother having rubella during her pregnancy and passing it along to her child). Maternal rubella causes a Deaf-Blind person to become “close visioned” or fully blind.

Sometimes a person may be Deaf and become blind from a condition that is not related to that persons Deafness. For instance a person may be Deaf all their lives and later on have cataracts or glaucoma. These conditions would interfere with the way the Deaf person communicated before having these conditions.

There are two important terms to be aware of when working with Deaf-Blind people. The first is “tunnel vision”. Tunnel vision means a person has clear vision in the center but no vision outside of the center. The size of the tunnel varies from person to person and it changes depending on the lighting situation as well.

Close vision is another term someone must be aware of when working with the Deaf-Blind community. Close vision is different from tunnel vision in several important ways. Someone with close vision does not have any blocks in the field of vision, but instead has blurry vision and requires someone to sign from close to them in order for them to understand. Close vision is a loose term, someone with it may require the signer to be within 10 - 12 feet, while others need someone as close as 1 foot.

Communication with Deaf-Blind people

The reason it is important to recognize all the different degrees of Deaf-Blindness is each condition requires a different communication style. For instance, someone with either Type I or Type II Usher’s Syndrome requires someone to sign in a small space in front of his or her face. The person may also require tactile interpreting if their vision loss is in later stages of Usher’s.

If someone has tunnel vision, the interpreting style must again be altered. Most people with tunnel vision can understand signs as long as the lighting overhead is sufficient and the interpreter has dark clothing that matches the background.

People with tunnel vision can often understand a platform interpreter as long as the proper conditions, lighting, clothing, and matching background, are met. However the Deaf-Blind person may not be able to turn around and follow audience members. In this situation, the platform interpreter should state who is speaking in the audience and also include visual information such as people raising their hands and audience reactions in their interpretation.

At the AADB conference they put people that could understand platform interpreters up front and hung up big pieces of black paper behind the interpreters to allow for understanding.

Other Deaf-Blind people may require small group interpreting because of various eye problems such as cataracts that cause poor visual acuity. In this situation a Deaf-Blind person may need to sit in a small group with an interpreter because a platform interpreter is too far away for them to see clearly.

People with close vision require someone to sit close to them and interpret. Again, you have to be careful to wear the right clothing and have the right lighting. I did this for a few people at the AADB conference. It is not too different from regular interpreting, except of the extra considerations you have to have.

Finally, some Deaf-Blind people require tactile interpreting. Which means they need to put their hands over the interpreters hands in order to understand any language.

I did this throughout the week at the AADB conference, and it can be quite a challenge. Below you will find some important tips on how to adjust your signing to fit tactile communication now. Again Smith’s book was very helpful with this area and she provided a list of things to do that I want to share with you.

  1. First of all you have to sign with smaller, slightly slower motions. Be careful not to sign TOO small though. Having someone's hands on your own may make you tempted to sign really small. Be sure you sign big enough to still be clear. You should also sign slightly lower then usual.
  2. Don’t hold the Deaf-Blind person’s fingers, if their hands are slipping off while you are signing, that means you are signing too fast and too big.
  3. If the sign you are making requires you to touch your head be sure to raise up your hands to your head, don't lower your head to your hands. If you do the signs become harder to understand.
  4. Do not switch back and forth between your right and left hand if signing with only one hand. This can become very confusing to the Deaf-Blind person.
  5. Fingerspell slightly slower, but keep a consistent rhythm. This will help keep the finger spelling clear.
  6. Remember communicating tactilely is physically and mentally draining for the Deaf-Blind person and you. Breaks might be needed more often then usual.
  7. Be sure to allow for pauses between thoughts, this greatly increases the Deaf-Blind person’s understanding. Other things you need to know about working with Deaf-Blind people

The book by Theresa Smith was very helpful in establishing some basic guidelines anyone working with Deaf-Blind people should know. I have included these guidelines below.

First, when someone loses their sense of hearing and vision they come to depend more on smells and touching. You should think about this whenever you decide to work with Deaf-Blind people. So strong smells such as cigarettes may be something that really bothers the Deaf-blind person. Check with the individual you are working with. Also be sure to keep yourself clean because you will be working closely with them. Keep your hands clean too! Wash them frequently. I actually worked with one Deaf-blind person at the AADB conference that had this area totally under control. It was funny, she always offered tic tac's for people’s breath and always carried hand wipes for everyone to use. It becomes important to everyone because of the closeness you are working in.

Also some Deaf-blind people like it when you wear some sort of cologne or perfume (in moderation of course!) so they can recognize them. Before I met up with one of the people I worked with I sprayed some Candies for men on, and as soon as she walked into my room she noticed it and said she likes the smell.

If you are not a person that likes to be touched or touch others you will have to really figure out your boundaries. Touch is such an important thing to Deaf-blind people. I think after you work with Deaf-blind people for a while you start to get over people touched, but at first it can be uncomfortable. When I was working with a Deaf-blind senior citizen we would squeeze each others hand just to support each other I guess. It becomes really important to show some contact this way.

Another important thing to do when working with Deaf-Blind people is to offer them choices so they can make their own decisions. This is very important, you do not want to be guiding/interpreting and deciding everything for them because its easier. You really have to provide choices so they can be more in control of their own lives. I went out to eat with a Deaf-Blind person and we went from restaurant to restaurant trying to figure out which one he wanted. You have to explain the menu, the atmosphere etc etc. This is very important to do.

It is important not to treat the Deaf-Blind person like an object. Guiding is different from dragging the Deaf-Blind person around. Do not just grab someone's hand, offer your own and the Deaf-Blind person will take it. This is very important to remember!

You also have to take a lot of time with Deaf-Blind people to make sure everything is clear. Give the reasons why things are happening. If something is starting late explain why to the Deaf-Blind person. Remember you are not only there for language, but also to explain the surroundings!

Guiding Deaf-Blind People

Below I have enclosed some tips for people guiding Deaf-Blind people.

  1. When walking let the Deaf-Blind person take your arm. There are a variety of methods when doing this, find what is comfortable to you and the Deaf person!
  2. Walk at a moderate pace - depending on the individual of course. There is no need to walk REALLY slow unless the person is old and ill. Slow down when you approach obstacles and let the Deaf-Blind person know why you are slowing down.
  3. Another important thing to do is keep the Deaf-Blind person fully updated about the surrounding. Just describe EVERYTHING! Buildings, flowers, where others are, etc etc etc. Unless the Deaf-Blind person does not want to know of course!

Physical Obstacles/Barriers

At the AADB conference if I encountered stairs I would just tell the Deaf-Blind person we were at stairs and then guide their hand over to the railing and let them walk up. For steps up or down in the street slow down a bit and let them know what's coming. For chairs you can just sign “chair” and guide their hand to it. They will figure the rest out. If you encounter a door, tell the Deaf-Blind person and place his or hand on the door after you have already gone through so they can keep it open as they walk by. Things that you need to know about interpreting for Deaf-Blind people

If you are going to interpret for Deaf-Blind people there are some important things you should know before accepting the assignment. First of all, asking about the language of the Deaf-Blind person is important. Will you be tactile interpreting, or signing for a close visioned person.

It’s also important to find out if you are working alone or with a team. Maybe you are working with a CDI in some situations. If you are going alone how will you take breaks if the event is long? There are a lot of things to think about. How is the Deaf-Blind person getting to where you are interpreting for them? Do they need transportation? Is that going to be part of your responsibility. Sometimes it is, and in that situation it is totally acceptable to negotiate the price of gas etc. Others times the Deaf-Blind person can get to the place by themselves or with the assistance of a friend or family member. The point is you have to be sure for each individual.

Once you get to the location its time to figure out the logistics. Where will you be sitting? How about the Deaf-Blind person? Is there enough light in the room? Did the Deaf-Blind person bring a lamp that you have to plug in? I interviewed Jina Porter about logistical problems they have had while working with Deaf-Blind people, and this is what they said.

Jina Porter:

"Most often the logistical problems I have encountered have been with Low Vision Deaf-Blind and trying to arrange the room or ourselves to benefit from the most light. Others time the issue has been the glare of the light off the something in the room. These problems were solved by physically moving, closing or opening blinds. Once there was a problem of everyone not fitting into the room. Deaf-Blind person, hearing person and two interpreters. We had to relocate the meeting to another room that could hold us all comfortable and where we could be set up the way we needed to be."

So there is a lot more to consider logistically when working with Deaf-Blind people. Once you have found a place where everyone can sit and there is sufficient lighting you have to decide how to seat yourself. This depends on you and the Deaf-Blind person you are working with.

At the AADB conference I can think of a bunch of different ways I sat while working with different Deaf-blind people. I remember sitting next to someone signing tactilely with one hand and other times sitting across from someone signing for someone with low vision. This is something you will have to figure out for yourself depending on the situation.

I have already discussed the requirements for someone interpreting for a Deaf-Blind person with low vision or tunnel vision - dark clothing, sufficient lighting, and a background that matches the dark clothing. Now I want to discuss some other things to keep in mind when interpreting tactilely. As I said be sure to keep yourself and the Deaf-Blind person comfortable. Be sure to support your arms and back. If the Deaf-Blind person’s hands are too heavy on you tell him or her. It may mean he or she is getting tired, and it might be time to take a short break. Other things to take note of - always identify the person who is talking. Even if you don’t know the name of the person speaking. I remember just saying a women over there wearing a blue shirt is talking, be sure to give some sort of descriptive statement. etc etc. This way the Deaf-Blind person can keep track of each different person who is speaking and know who feels which way about the subject at hand.

Its also important to realize that when you are interpreting for Deaf-Blind people sometimes you have to edit out some information. The reason for this is all the extra information that must be included in the interpretation - both what we see and hear. This is one thing I did not know while at the conference; some Deaf people told me just to edit some things down and give the major points, otherwise it becomes unclear because of all the extra information.

I think it is very important to work in teams when working with Deaf-Blind people. It becomes necessary to take many more breaks when tactile interpreting then when you just interpret for a Deaf person. My arms and back would just start to hurt with some people that had heavy hands. Take this into consideration when you accept a job, and find out if you will be working with someone else.

Finally, be sure to take care of yourself! Make sure you get breaks when you need them and don’t over do it. Don’t feel bad about having to say no either. In one of my interviews Di talked about trying to establish boundaries as one of the problems she encountered while working with the Deaf-Blind community. Be careful to know what’s too much for you, and act accordingly!

A Deaf-Blind Person’s Perspective

For this project I interviewed Janet, a Deaf-Blind person living in Boston. I asked Janet what she feels are important traits of a person working with Deaf-Blind people. Her response is below:

“The key factor is the interpreter's ability to process complex audio and visual information, absorb and fully understand it in terms my particular perspectives; then express it within a sphere of clarity without losing any of the culturally rich components. It is important that I know the interpreter as well as they know me so that our teamwork is in harmony. Other factors are clear large hand shapes, the ability to take "visually noisy" signing and transform it into "visually/tactually quiet" information. It takes a great deal of work on the part of the Deaf-Blind person who is receiving the language either in close visual range or tactile to conceptualize, (picture) without being able to quite see the language. It takes a lot of concentration, intelligence and patience to work with interpreters, just as it does for interpreters to work with Deaf-Blind people! Mutual respect and teamwork has to be in place in order for success to take place.”

Janet talks about how important it is for the interpreter to be skilled in not only taking the audio, but also the visual information and “understand it in terms of her particular perspectives”. This is a huge task for anyone to undertake. She also talks about how much work it is for the Deaf-Blind person to understand the interpreter which is something important for us to understand. One of the hardest things I think about working with Deaf-Blind people is knowing if they understand or not. You do not get the feedback as much as you do when working with Deaf people. And again, as Janet says, it comes down to being respectful of each other, and being part of a team for the interaction to be considered a success!

I touched upon some of the extra things you might have to do if you are working with a Deaf-Blind person earlier in this paper. (such as transportation) I asked Janet about the transportation issue and she said it really depends on the situation and on how well she knows the interpreter: “When I was working at the State House a few years ago, I would ask to meet my interpreter in front of the State House so that she/he could assist with finding the particular room where a meeting was taking place. So, each assignment requires a different approach. I think Deaf-Blind people need to take responsibility and inquire about the transportation and to be independent and whenever it is possible to meet "half way".”

Again, it really depends on the situation and the person - but its important for you to know the issues that may come up so you can find out what is required of you. Finally, I asked Janet what are some does and do not’s of working with Deaf-Blind people.

Do Not’s!

“Its very important that the db interpreter not assume that they know what communication mode the Deaf-Blind people needs. I have been in many situations where my interpreters assumed I would want PSE because I speak English, however I will, in needed, interrupt the interpreter and ask that they please use ASL. Not to assume that they know what type of lighting is needed, and not to assume that the Deaf-Blind people will need "such and such". Always check things out, especially for a person with Ushers because often our vision is transient, and what might have worked yesterday or this morning, does not work today or this afternoon.”


“Always introduce yourself, check out if the Deaf-Blind people can see you, discuss the lighting situation immediately before "chatting"..(smile) get visually settled, find out what kinds of ingredients the Deaf-Blind people needs/wants to make the experience meaningful. For example, letting the Deaf-Blind people know how many people are present, gender, race, who comes and goes, the layout of the place in terms of where the presenter is standing, what to expect such as there will be "overhead projector", which means the Deaf-Blind people should have that visual information made accessible to them (large print/bold or braille) sometimes interpreters will need to fill out a form that everyone has to fill out that is not in an accessible mode.

For myself, one of the most important pieces of communication that I need is to know what the body language/facial expressions are of the participants. This is extremely vital and necessary for me when I am teaching. This is also an area that I think needs a great deal more work, one that I personally want to see developed and would like to participate in the development of.”

Trust issues

When working with Deaf-Blind people you are not only responsible for effective interpreting, but also for explaining the surroundings and personal safety of the Deaf-Blind consumer. This means the Deaf-Blind person has to put a lot of trust in faith in the interpreter/ssp. This is one question I asked everyone I interviewed for this project. Everyone said that it was important to just get involved with the Deaf-Blind community and build up from there. I really liked Jeanette Ocampo’s answer to the question. She works for the Deaf-Blind Contact Center in Boston, Massachusetts:

“You have to be involved in the process. Have an awareness that this person comes with their own set of world experiences. It is important to communicate, they have the information you need! I take my job seriously and admit when I make mistakes. Love. Respect. Patience. Knowledge. Support. Should I go on?”

"I Don’t do Deaf-Blind"

A lot of people have some apprehension about working with Deaf-Blind people. I know I still feel like the responsibility is so much more great then when I am working with Deaf people. I hope this project has helped give you some more information about Deaf-Blind people. The need for skilled Deaf-Blind interpreters is so great though, so it is important to get involved.

I asked several people I interviewed for words of encouragement for getting involved with the Deaf-Blind people:

Di (an interpreter working for the Interpreter Education Project at NU):

“Go for it. There are lots of workshops these days on Deaf-Blind issues. Take one. Start volunteering for DBCC. Start small, maybe by attending a social event and observing, do some guiding, have conversations with Deaf-Blind people. It is scary at first, but after a while it is extremely rewarding. Remember that Deaf-Blind people are people just like you. I truly believe that my volunteer work with DBCC is part of the reason I'm an interpreter today. “

and finally Jeanette:

“Take a chance! Our community has a lot of experience with new SSP’s. Communicate. DBCC is a great place to get support. Not knowing - that is what is keeping students away. These Deaf-Blind people are just that, PEOPLE! Humans with life experience and stories, jokes, and history. Don’t add obstacles to make it scary. Just do it!”


There are many ways to start to learn the skills needed to work with Deaf-Blind people in real life. Workshops are offered focusing on the Deaf-Blind community, and I know the DBCC offers them for SSP training. There is also a class you can take at University College at night. The best way to learn is just to get involved! We can all start out getting comfortable with Deaf-Blind people as students so when we are working as interpreters we can provide our services to this community!


Remember, there are some of the things to keep in mind when working with Deaf-Blind people. Be sure to know who you are interpreting for, what the expect and their language requirements. Every Deaf-Blind person has their own way to communicate! Be sure to check out for the proper logistics (lighting, seating, etc.)

And finally get involved! Please contact the Deaf-Blind contact center. The e-mail address is They are always looking for people. They would be the best place to contact for information on working with Deaf-Blind people in the Boston area. If you are not from Boston contact a Deaf agency in your area for information on how to get involved!

Proper Citation of this Document

Goujon, Justin. "Situational Study: Deaf-Blind Interpreting." American Sign Language Interpreting Resources, 11 November 2000.