ASL University: "Provision of Interpreting for Deaf Individuals at Conferences"

Suppose your organization is hosting a conference and a Deaf person registers to participate in that conference.  

That raises a number of questions:

What is required by law when a Deaf or hard of hearing person registers for your conference?

What is considered reasonable accommodations?

Do you need to offer interpreters for any or all sessions that a Deaf or hard of hearing person wants to attend?

Can you limit the interpreted sessions (for example, select a schedule and have all Deaf people attend the same sessions)?


First things first:  Let's clear up a bit of terminology.  For many years well-meaning people and organizations promoted the term "hearing-impaired" as "politically correct." The reality though is that the term "hearing-impaired" is considered inappropriate by most leading Deaf organizations including the venerable National Association of the Deaf.
(Source: Retrieved 2/20/2016).  Instead just use the modern and appropriate phrase, "Deaf and hard of hearing people."  Other good phraseology includes: "Individuals who are Deaf," "The Deaf and hard of hearing community," "Deaf people," and/or "the Deaf."


Another bit of terminology we need to be clear on is "What is a public accommodation?"  This is important since according to The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990):  Entities that are considered "public accommodations" must provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

"Within U.S. law, public accommodations are generally defined as facilities, both public and private, that are used by the public. Examples include retail stores, rental establishments and service establishments, as well as educational institutions, recreational facilities and service centers. (Source:  Retrieved 2/20/2016).  For more information, see:

The next terminology to understand is the term "private club" since private clubs and religious entities are not considered public accommodations.  If your club allows members of the public to join, doesn't limit its total membership, is not overly stringent regarding membership requirements, and doesn't require applicants to be personally recommended, sponsored by or voted on by current members then it is likely that your organization is not going to be considered a private club and will therefore be considered a "public accommodation."
(Source:  Retrieved 2/20/16)

According to U.S. Department of Justice guidelines (See: if your organization is open to the public, even if you have "qualifications" for membership," then it is likely that yes your organization is a public accommodation.


That means yes, you will need to provide reasonable accommodations to Deaf participants in your conference or workshop.

For Deaf and hard of hearing people "reasonable accommodations" are typically considered to consist of an interpreter and/or real-time captioning.  But the word "reasonable" here is important.  For example a bookstore isn't going to need to have on staff someone who can communicate in sign language since it is "reasonable" to instead just use a pencil and paper to write a few messages back and forth in the process of assisting a Deaf customer to find a particular book.

As far as reasonable accommodations provided by organizations hosting conferences -- whether or not an accommodation is (legally) considered reasonable will vary depending on the size and budget of the "organization" (which can be thought of as the "tenant") and to some degree the the owner of the facilities (the "landlord").  If conference income is in the tens of thousands of dollars (and the net is several thousand dollars) then yes, it would be reasonable to pay several hundred of that toward interpreting.  If your incoming conference fees are only netting you $600 and you are looking at a $500 outlay in interpreting fees then "no" -- that is not reasonable.

Or is it?  The Deaf person might feel that the goal of the conference is to educate its members -- not "make money."  To him or her the expense of interpreting is reasonable.  The conference organizers however might feel that the goal (or "a" goal) is indeed to make money so as to further the goals of the organization the remainder of the year and to have a cushion for next year's conference.

It ends up coming down to two things:
1.  Case law:  What has been decided in the courts previously.
2.  How will the judge who hears your case interpret the existing guidelines and case law in regard to your situation?

At best when asking for advice on "what to do" you are going to get opinions.  Whichever opinion that most accurately predicts what a judge is going to decide -- is the opinion "closest" to being right. 

MY opinion? 
You should avoid the potential of a lawsuit by using the following tips:

1.  COMMUNICATE:   Immediately open up a dialog with any Deaf registrants as to what types of accommodations they typically use when attending meetings.  Present a list of potential accommodations and ask the Deaf participant to rank the options on a scale including such markers as "useless" "better than nothing" "minimally acceptable" "good" and "preferred."   Also ask for "other" suggested accommodations.

2.  EXPLAIN:  Share (via personal and personalized communication) with Deaf participants your dilemma.  You are thrilled to have them participate and (not "but")  the cost to your organization is really hard to manage and that every dollar that goes toward interpreting is a dollar that is not available to directly help support the mission of your organization.

3.  INVITE:  Invite the Deaf participant to join your conference's organizing board to help develop approaches to go beyond accommodating to instead "fostering wild success" -- on a budget.  People support that which they help build. If needed call the Deaf person via dialing 711 on your phone and then giving the (relay interpreter) operator the Deaf person's phone number (video phone).

4.  CANVAS:  Canvas your existing membership to ascertain if there are members who are currently certified interpreters for the Deaf or who are "skilled in signing" and "have experience interpreting."  If so, ask them to interpret for your meetings in exchange for reduced (or zero) conference fees.  Not for "free" -- but in exchange. (Value for value.)  If you need to hire a terp -- comparison shop.  Contact a "gold standard" interpreting to get a baseline -- then ask around.   Also, when you are on the line with an interpreting company -- ask them if they will co-sponsor your convention by providing interpreters in exchange for free advertising in your brochures or logo placement at the convention itself.   Being told "no" is better than not asking.

5.  TRADE:  Contact any local or state "interpreter organizations" (see and work your way down from there) and offer to trade a one-year membership in your organization in exchange for interpreting services from those of its members who are interested in the field of Social Work.  Invite one or more of the members of SAVRID to present at your conference regarding Social Work and interpreting.

6.  CONSIDER:  Consider alternative accommodations.  If a Deaf person is purporting to be "qualified" to function in the U.S. education system as a "qualified" Social Worker -- then he or she is going to need to be "reasonably" (there is that "reasonable" concept again) qualified at reading English.  If so, that would "reasonably" indicate that a workshop which was real-time captioned would be accessible to the Deaf individual. It might not be his/her "preference" but the law doesn't guarantee "preferred" accommodations -- but rather "reasonable" accommodations.   If you have a "very fast" typist, a laptop, a projector, and a display screen -- you could provide a live transcript of everything said by the speaker and of questions emanating from the audience.    The Deaf person could even type his/her questions on the same laptop or write them out and hand them to the speaker or speaker's assistant.  

7.  ALLOCATE:  If offering more than one section of the same workshop it is reasonable to list "one" section of the workshop as being "interpreted." 

8.  THINK:  It is important though to think carefully from the participant's point of view.  For example: Offering one interpreted section on the far end of the conference site and the next interpreted section on the opposite far end of the conference site is just begging for complaints and dissatisfaction. 

9.  BACKUPS:  Have back-up plans ready.  Equipment will fail.  Interpreters will (sometimes) get lost and be late.

10.  SURVEY:  At the end of the conference, ask Deaf participants what worked well and what could be improved upon next time.  When people feel genuinely "listened to" they are less likely to start shouting (or suing).

A closing thought in the form of a question or two:
1.  What is your attitude here?  Is your attitude:
A.)  "How do we get away with doing the absolute legal minimum to not get sued for not providing interpreters?"
B.)  "How do we create a win/win situation here wherein we enhance the professional, social, and emotional growth and outcomes of all participants in our conference (
including Deaf and hard-of-hearing participants)?"

No need to answer that question out loud or in print.  I'm well aware that there is only one socially acceptable answer.
I ask the question for reflection purposes only.
- Bill

William G. Vicars, Ed.D.


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