Auslan and Deaf Interpreters

What’s an interpreter’s role?

If you’ve ever tried to speak to someone who doesn’t share your language, you’ve probably been left frustrated.

The communication barriers between Deaf and hearing people are similar to those between people who don't share the same language.

Body language such as head nodding or gestures may be interpreted as an agreement when actually there has been a miscommunication. In the case of treatment options and decision-making, it is imperative that the patient understands the message. Sadly, there are many instances where people have not understood, or undergone procedures they did not understand. This is why where appropriate, booking an interpreter is essential, or for people who don't use an interpreter, taking extra time to write notes, or ask questions to confirm understanding are essential.

A deaf person from Tasmania commented that communication was her number one issue when visiting the hospital.

“Without an interpreter, it’s very hard to get appropriate treatment,” she says.

Sometimes, a doctor might just try one or two words. Sometimes they will talk to another person, and I feel ignored like I’m not even there.

The interpreter provides full access to the communication so that I can get a comprehensive diagnosis.

Are there different types of interpreters?

There is more than one type of interpreter and different ways of engaging them.

All interpreters in Australia are certified by NAATI, the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters. An Auslan-English Interpreter is someone who translates in both directions between English and Auslan facilitating communication between two parties.

A Deaf Interpreter is someone who is Deaf, who works in tandem with an Auslan interpreter who possesses additional specialist language skills. Deaf interpreters are essential in situations where the patient is from overseas, has non-standard language, has a mental health condition or is a young child without fully formed language.

People who are Deafblind, may communicate differently and require an interpreter with specialist knowledge. Auslan or Deaf interpreters can work with a person who is Deafblind, adjusting the delivery of Auslan to suit the visual field of the individual. For people with little or no sight, a form of communication called ‘tactile’ is used whereby the deaf person places their hands over the hands of the interpreter to feel the signs. In all situations, it is always best to ask the patient what their communication preference is, and pass this along to the booking service in your hospital.

Interpreters are able to work remotely and this is called VRI - Video Remote Interpreting. Essentially identical to telehealth, the interpreter connects to the hospital on a tablet or laptop using any convenient video conferencing platform. This is a good option for a hospital or health care setting especially in emergencies, or for regional areas where an interpreter may not be available.

It’s important to remember when you’re working with interpreters that they are part of the team.

Interpreters are impartial and committed to both parties being able to successfully communicate with each other. Like you, they want the best outcome for patients so will be attentive to communication needs from both sides and seek your assistance to make sure communication is accessible.

How do you engage an interpreter?

As a healthcare worker, you can request an Auslan interpreter in the same way you request a spoken language interpreter, typically through your hospital’s Language Services department. Auslan Interpreters are accredited through the same authority as spoken language interpreters, NAATI. Hospitals often make arrangements either directly with interpreters or contracted through agencies. It is a legal requirement to provide interpreters, so there will be a process to follow in your hospital.

Booking an interpreter works differently where a person is consulting with a GP or allied health professional. Outside of the hospital system, the best course of action is to talk to the patient about options for booking an interpreter. Different funding exists for individuals to book their own interpreter directly when attending a GP or allied health professional outside the hospital system.

When you’re booking an interpreter, give them as much context and information about the booking as you can. Remember, Auslan interpreting is not just directly translating your words, it’s turning your message into one the patient can understand and connect with, so the more context and time the interpreter has, the clearer the message will be.

This is especially important if an interpreter is delivering sensitive information or bad news like a significant diagnosis. Having them prepared - both emotionally and to have the proper expressions and signs in mind - is in everyone’s best interests.

And remember, interpreters are bound by a professional code of ethics. Everything they hear and see is confidential - similar to health professionals. Making sure interpreters are prepared is very important and allows them to communicate in a culturally sensitive way.

Interpreters are your ally. Get to know your hospital’s system for booking interpreters and ensure that Deaf people who need an interpreter are given one.

Key messages:

  • It's important to book an interpreter when requested. Interpreters can also work virtually, like telehealth, but this may not suit every situation.
  • Your interpreter booking service can assist to ensure the appropriate interpreter is booked and hospital policies are followed.
  • Wherever possible, brief the interpreter so they can be prepared to deliver your message in the best possible way.

Video remote interpreting is an efficient way of accessing interpreting services. Learn more about how to use it.

(Add disclaimer re: NDIS plans)