Personal Safeguarding Considerations Specific to Educational Interpreting

 Return to the COVID-19 Resource Page | September 16, 2020


The purpose of this document is to outline considerations specific to personal safeguarding for educational interpreters during the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the pandemic on Deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind (D/HH/DB) individuals has raised many concerns regarding communication accessibility in their daily lives. The focus of this document is to look at how safeguarding strategies for interpreters in educational settings have unintended and potentially unresolvable consequences for D/HH/DB students. Guidance and resources for other categories of implications, which may help mitigate such unavoidable concerns with face-to-face interpreting (such as providing services remotely), can be found at the NAIE COVID-19 webpage, and will continue to be updated regularly. 

 While the NAIE generally recommends adhering to the evolving guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), we emphasize that there are myriad of additional considerations unique to educational interpreting. One such overarching concern is the hindrance of communication, both aural and signed, potentially caused by the use of personal safeguarding equipment. It is important to clearly define the guiding nature of this document, as it is not within the scope, nor the ability, of the NAIE to provide mandates regarding specific personal protection protocols, particularly due to the changing nature of the situation and evolving guidance from health-related organizations. As educational professionals, educational interpreters are obligated to remain aware of, and appropriately consider, state-, local-, and district-level guidance, while also negotiating the considerations unique to their professional situation.

Recommendations for Safeguarding

At the time of this publication, the Centers for Disease Control recommends…

  • the use of cloth face coverings that cover the nose and mouth (“masks”) by all people in public spaces, and even more critically so when social distancing of at least six feet is unlikely to be consistently implemented.
  • the use of such masks by all people at least two years of age, but not by children under the age of two, nor by those with increased respiratory risk, nor potentially unable to remove the mask independently. 
  • that such masks are not considered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Rather, PPE, including surgical masks and N95 respirators, should be reserved for healthcare and other frontline workers.

Considerations for Adaptations to Masks

The CDC recognizes that the use of masks may not be feasible in some situations and that adaptations could be considered. For example, they acknowledge the difficulty of aural communication for D/HH/DB individuals who utilize speechreading, and subsequently suggest utilizing clear masks and/or considering alternative communication methods altogether, such as written communication, captioning, and/or adjusting the acoustics of the environment to improve auditory access. Other populations for whom the use of masks should be specially considered include young, school-aged children, and those with intellectual, developmental, sensory, or mental-health considerations. Likewise, mask adaptations may need to be considered for use during water-based and high-intensity activities, such as swimming or running, as well as situations in which there is an increased risk for heat-related illness or working near certain equipment.

Many of the aforementioned characteristics and situations could present themselves as additional considerations for an individual educational interpreter and/or the student(s) with whom he or she works. For example, if a Deaf student with an additional disability is deemed unable to wear a mask in an educational setting, additional precautions may need to be considered for the safety of both the interpreter and the student. Likewise, if an educational interpreter is unable to wear a mask in a school setting for personal health-related reasons, it may be more appropriate for him or her to fulfill a virtual-interpreting position from home.

Concerns of Visual Inaccessibility

Sign language communication is a physical task that requires coordinated movements of the hands, arms, body, and face, particularly including the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. Likewise, it requires the receiving communication partner to have unobstructed visual access to such movements. The use of a face covering or mask directly hinders both natural production and visual accessibility of such critical linguistic components, thus inherently omitting information from the signed or interpreted message. For example, the PAH mouth morpheme is essential in differentiating between the concepts of “finally” and “successful.” Without visual access, the connotation of a sentence that indicates someone’s success can be erroneously perceived as unnecessarily taking a long time to complete the task.

[Photo Source: Sign With Robert via GIPHY]

While speechreading English is an important communication strategy for D/HH/DB individuals who use listening and spoken language, it is also an appropriate component of American Sign Language (ASL). When the direct English translation is meaningful, signers will produce mouth movements that correlate with fingerspelled words, such as when representing English vocabulary terms or proper English nouns for which a direct ASL interpretation does not exist.  Such access to English words is particularly purposeful in fostering literacy development and in preparation for educational assessments that are presented in written form.  In certain situations, some educational interpreters incorporate such strategies even more heavily in order to support students’ spoken language accessibility and goals.  Amongst a range of communication modalities, visual inaccessibility to the signer’s mouth prevents D/HH/DB students from accessing this important information.

While the use of masks with clear windows was initially accepted as a mitigating strategy for communicating with D/HH/DB individuals, effective communication cannot be guaranteed. For visual communicators, the use of any mask can function as a visual distraction, similar to experiencing a distracting background noise during spoken communication. While the use of face shields was also initially regarded as a potential communication solution for the D/HH/DB community and the professionals who work with them, the CDC does not recommend them as a substitute for a traditional cloth covering mask. Evolving information has resulted in concerns regarding their efficacy in safeguarding from potential transmission of the Coronavirus. However, if an individual is determined to use one given their situation, additional considerations for coverage specifications are provided by the CDC. 

Additionally, many full-face coverings, such as shields, interfere with the production and visible accessibility of the eyebrows, which play essential linguistic roles in ASL. For example, topicalization in ASL utilizes a slight raising of the eyebrows to indicate the primary subject of the sentence, while a more pronounced raising or lowering of the eyebrows signals the type of question being asked. Although seemingly subtle in natural production and reception, skewed topicalization can result in a message that appears unorganized and incohesive, while inaccessibility to information about the type of question being asked, both negatively impacting comprehensibility. Even if a particular mask doesn’t directly obstruct the eyebrows, the information presented in ASL will still be less comprehensible when visual access to the accompanying facial changes, such as muscle movements under the eyes and in the cheeks, are hindered. 

[Video Source: “Topic Comment Structure | ASL – American Sign Language” by ASL THAT via YouTube]

Likewise, the use of any face covering can interfere with the physical production and comprehensibility of many signs which require facial contact to be produced and perceived correctly. To significantly reduce the spread of the Coronavirus, the CDC has long-warned against touching the face and cautioned against touching the mask. If unavoidable, the recommendation is immediate hand-washing, which would not be feasible between the many signs requiring this contact. For example, signs for IF and KNOW require contact near the eyes, SAY and THANK-YOU require contact near the lips, and some versions of signs such as GLASS and PEANUT require contact inside of the mouth. Artificially attempting to modify the production of such signs, of which the list is truly extensive, would negatively impact comprehension, particularly for D/HH/DB children who are often relying on their educational sign language interpreters as their primary language models.

[Photo Source: Sign With Robert via GIPHY]


Concerns of Auditory Inaccessibility

Likewise, both traditional and clear masks can degrade the audible signal of spoken language, resulting in an additional barrier to communication accessibility for the population of D/HH/DB individuals who utilize listening as a component of their communication modality. For example, when working with a student who utilizes cochlear implants, an educational interpreter may use simultaneous communication at times to support effective communication and address communication goals. Additionally, many D/HH/DB students utilize speechreading to communicate with their hearing teachers and peers, potentially supplemented by educational interpreting support. We defer to the Educational Audiology Association for evolving guidance regarding such considerations. 


Evolving data supports the use of cloth face coverings, referenced as masks, to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus. As acknowledged within the Professional Guidelines for Interpreting in Educational Settings, educational interpreters are obligated to contribute to the overall safety of the school setting (p.3), while being overarchingly held to district, local, state, and federal policies for educational professionals (p.6). However, the educational interpreter also possesses a layer of expertise regarding implications unique to educational interpreting, and has a responsibility to share such considerations with the educational team, including administration (p.4). 

Despite incredible concerns with the effectiveness of interpretation when any portion of the face is covered, it is not the recommendation of the NAIE to forgo such precautions. Rather, the educational team, along with guidance from national and local health organizations, must carefully convene to determine best practices for all involved. Most critically, the unavoidable negative impacts on educational accessibility must be acknowledged and mitigated to the fullest extent feasible. It is important that all educational stakeholders including, but not limited to, administration, classroom teachers, other related service providers, and families be aware of the limitations in accessing the educational content and environment, including the essentialness of communication with peers. D/HH/DB students’ comprehension of instruction and mastery of content must be monitored even more stringently. Although not ideal, alternative instructional-delivery methods, such as remote learning or video remote instruction, in which the interpreters can present themselves virtually without facial obstructions, may be considered more accessible. In either venue, compensatory educational services, such as additional tutoring, supplemental instruction or practice, extension of the school day or school year, should be strongly considered.


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