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Interpreting with Deaf Audiences

I could feel the air charged with their excitement and anticipation as the small group of thirty children and their teachers approached the museum center. I stood waiting to greet them. Young eyes looked up at me filled with curiosity. The children’s eagerness and enthusiasm engulfed me. I felt myself seeing things the way they do, not only as a child would, but as a child who hears no sounds.

I am an historical interpreter and an interpreter for the deaf at Conner Prairie, a living history museum north of Indianapolis, Indiana. Conner Prairie focuses on life in the early 1800″s. The museum consists of three areas: Prairietown. a re-created 1836 village where costumed staff role play residents living in a small town; the Pioneer Adventure Area, where visitors can do hands-on activities related to 19th century life; and an historic house built by early settler William Conner in 1823.

The staff who work these areas is used to meeting the needs of visitors and finding the best way to reach each individual in order to impart pieces of history to all.

On this day, I was meeting children and teachers from the Indiana School for the Deaf. I would be translating the spoken word into sign as we toured the historic areas. Here is what I saw my fellow interpreters of history do to totally involve the children to the point where many times my presence as an interpreter for the deaf was not needed.

  1. Maintained Constant Eye Contact

Eye contact with the children made them feel a part of what was taking place. In general eye contact establishes a link to the audience. In an interpretive situation it is important to remember to establish eye contact with the audience and speak to them (rather than the interpreter). To maintain this communication link, remember not to turn away from your audience when doing an activity or referring to an object. This is especially important because some of the audience may be reading your lips and so need to see your face at all times. Also, facing the audience provides the greatest volume of your voice for those with some hearing.

  1. Convey Feelings and Meaning Through Body Language and Facial Expressions

People with hearing impairments focus on visual images. When speaking to persons with hearing impairments, body language and facial expressions can communicate meanings without the voice being heard.

  1. Use Writing or Drawing To Communicate

With older students and adults, this is a personal way to communicate on a one-to-one basis.

  1. Add Visual Activities to Their Presentations

When possible, demonstrating how objects are used can replace the need for verbal explanation.

  1. Use Basic Sign Language

Some interpreters used basic sign language. This ranged from as simple as signing a greeting to signing the whole presentation. Staff at Conner Prairie learn basic sign language from a variety of sources. Some have taken classes previously. Some have attended classes offered at the museum and taught by my husband and me. Some have studied books or videos.

In addition to the above considerations, here are some other thoughts to keep in mind when addressing an audience that includes persons with hearing impairments.

  • Enunciate, but do not over-exaggerate, your words. Do not yell.
  • Speak clearly. Slow down slightly. Remember your visitor is most likely an intelligent person.
  • Be patient. Let the visitor help you. Docents share techniques they find successful. Use the visitor’s lead when determining the way he or she feels most comfortable communicating. Not all persons with hearing impairments read lips or use sign language.
  • Make sure your words say the message you really mean. Idioms such as, “What’s wrong, has the cat got your tongue?,” are difficult to understand.
  • Pointing is not considered rude in deaf culture. Pointing to objects, pointing directions or pointing to a person are effective ways to communicate and direct attention.

On the day I toured with the students from the Indiana School for the Deaf, my fellow interpreters demonstrated their communication skills, especially their ability to treat each visitor in a way that made their experience a positive one. I knew a positive, uplifting experience had taken place. How did I know this? The looks on the children’s faces showed that spark to know more about history had been created.

After spending the day with these children, I knew why I love my work as an interpreter of history. The rewards of my job are to see smiles that reach from ear-to-ear, to see the eyes wide with wonder and amazement, and to hear the never-ending questions that the children ask.

Sometimes we don’t see what kind of experience our visitors have had. With good communication and understanding, hopefully we can transcend all cultures, ages, and groups. It takes far more effort, patience, and hard work, but it is all worth it when you can see the faces of smiling children even if when they “hear” with their eyes.

Amanda Park serves as a docent at Conner Prairie in Nobiesville. Indiana.

Park, Amanda. “Interpreting with Deaf Audiences,” The Docent Educator 2.4 (Summer 1993): 14.

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