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Winter 2001 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Dressed to Distress?

By Tara Potterveld, MA, IC/TC, CI and CT, California, and Marylouise Lambert, BA, OTC, California
Copyright VIEWS, Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Reprinted with permission.

"I am a Deaf person who has Usher's Syndrome. I went to a low vision clinic at a prominent research university to have my eyes checked. A fair skinned interpreter showed up wearing a shirt that was pink on one side and yellow on the other. Needless to say, I could not see the interpreter's hands against this minimally contrasting background. By the time my driver ran to the car to get a black jacket for the interpreter to wear, we were twenty minutes late starting the appointment."

This Deaf consumer was justified in her distress, yet interpreters are not the kind of people who go out of their way to make the lives of Deaf and Deaf-Blind persons miserable. The interpreters we know are caring, conscientious professionals who strive to do a good job in every assignment. Although most Deaf people have good eyesight and can tolerate a variety of clothing colors, we should always be aware that low vision and Deaf-Blind people require special accommodations.

The Helen Keller National Center in New York estimates that there are 10,000 Deaf-Blind children from birth to age 21 and 40,000 adults. Some studies estimate there are 700,000 individuals, including elderly people with age related disorders, who lose their vision and hearing. The National Technical Assistance Consortium for Children and Young Adults Who are Deaf-Blind estimates there are 12,000 children and youth who are Deaf-Blind. With numbers this high, all interpreters should be prepared to encounter Deaf-Blind consumers in the course of their work.

Unfortunately, not all interpreters have the pleasure of being guided by the wonderful mentor Virginia Hughes, who wisely taught interpreters the value of wearing solid colors that contrasted with their skin. Virginia's contention was that, as interpreters, we should make it easy for Deaf people to read our signs. Beginning in the 1970's, interpreters at California State University at Northridge were required to carry solid colored smocks to wear over their street clothes. There is still value in carrying a contrasting garment to each assignment. Too often good interpreters show up to work dressed inappropriately for low vision Deaf clients.

One of the authors of this article was called by an agency at the request of a consumer. The author knew from prior experience that this consumer is a person with low vision. The assignment was an event at a "center for the Blind." When accepting the job, the interpreter asked the agency to be sure to tell the team interpreter that the Deaf consumer had difficulty seeing and needed the interpreters to wear clothing that contrasted with their skin. A week before the event, the Deaf consumer called the agency to remind them to tell the interpreters to wear appropriate clothing to improve visibility. The day of the event, the team interpreter showed up wearing a dark shirt with a flesh colored jumper over it. The Deaf consumer asked if the interpreter "could remove her vest." Unfortunately, since it was a jumper, not a vest, removing it would have left her working in her shirt and stockings. Luckily, she wore the same size as the other interpreter and was able to borrow a dark jacket for the assignment. This interpreter, a fine professional with good skills, felt terrible. The agency had, in this instance, not told her that the consumer had limited vision. Although the name of the organization for this assignment should have given the interpreter a clue, many interpreters have not had experience working with Deaf-Blind people.

The range of vision among the Deaf-Blind community varies greatly. Some people are completely without vision and don't care if the interpreter wears polka dots and stripes. But many Deaf-Blind people have limited vision. The spectrum of differences is broad. Some people with Usher's Syndrome have tunnel vision and can only see the interpreter when the interpreter is seated directly in front of the consumer. Good lighting and contrasting clothing are vital to communication as is the interpreter's utilization of a smaller signing space.

Other consumers with blurred vision may prefer to have the interpreter quite close. A leader in the Deaf-Blind community mentioned that she, with optic nerve damage, likes to have the interpreters wear soft solid colors such as medium blue or green. A Deaf-Blind consumer who is coordinator of interpreting services at a community college states that, "Deaf consumers have a number of common and low incidence vision conditions which cause them distress when interpreters unknowingly wear 'inappropriate' clothing for an assignment. Individuals with conditions such as, but not limited to, epilepsy and Attention Deficit Disorder, can also be adversely affected by interpreter's clothing."

Theresa B. Smith in her book, Guidelines: Practical Tips for Working and Socializing with Deaf-Blind People, recommends "...if your skin is very dark, you'll want a top that offers as much contrast as possible and at the same time reflects as little light as possible. A soft cotton top that is medium to light gray color is generally a good choice. A `not too bright' yellow is good ... If you have very light colored skin, tops that are black or navy blue are absolutely the best choice for people with retinitis pigmentosa ... People with optic atrophy, rubella, or cataracts often prefer a brighter color such as aqua blue, emerald green, or even dark pink." (p. 113) Smith also notes that the clothing fabric should be non-reflective, soft rather than shiny, and that "touchy-feely clothes that are tactually beautiful are always nice." (p. 109) When interpreting for consumers regularly, it is helpful to ask what clothing colors they prefer the interpreter to wear.

A Deaf-Blind professional who uses interpreters regularly and works with Deaf people who have partial vision asked that we also include the following guidelines in this article:

  1. Please do not use scented products. "I rely on my sense of smell to capture clues about my environment. When interpreters use perfume, cologne, or scented hair products, I feel disoriented." Because tactile interpreting requires that the Deaf consumer and the interpreter sit in very close proximity, smoking any time prior to the assignment should be avoided and good personal hygiene is an absolute must.
  2. Please keep your fingernails short and smooth. "I prefer the interpreters not to use fingernail polish as even clear polish reflects light."
  3. "Because of reflected glint and glare, which is distracting, I appreciate when interpreters remove body piercings and other jewelry when working with me. Unfortunately, even shirt buttons in strong light can flash bits of light to my brain, making it hard to concentrate on the signing."
  4. Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Germs and diseases are easily spread through contact.

In accepting an assignment, whose responsibility is it to ensure that a low vision Deaf or Deaf-Blind consumer's needs are met? We wonder if interpreting agencies could put a note in their database or filing system indicating the special accommodations required by each of their clients. One author of this article, after interpreting an assignment for a Deaf consumer with whom she had never previously worked, called the agency that had sent her to see if they knew that the consumer had limited vision. The director of the agency was surprised. "I have sent interpreters to this person's appointments for three years and you are the first one to mention that there are special circumstances. Thank you."

We are proud to be in a profession where our colleagues put so much effort into developing and enhancing their skills. We appreciate the dedication and hard work of all interpreters. Those fine skills are of little use, however, when an interpreter arrives at an assignment wearing clothing, jewelry, or nail polish that make it impossible for the Deaf person to take full advantage of the interpretation.

The responsibility for ensuring that a consumer's interpreting needs are appropriately served belongs to the agency, the interpreter, and the consumer. If each of these participants assumes responsibility for making the interpreting environment the very best possible for the consumer, these special accommodations are more likely to be discussed and implemented and true professional service rendered.

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Last Revision: September 3, 2003