Interpreters are “Expensive”


cliff_small_headshotOver the years I have witnessed people refer to American Sign Language Interpreters as “expensive.” I would like to suggest that this label is, at most, unjustified, or at least, not helpful.

It is of course quite rare for a Deaf individual to pay for interpreting services out of their own pocket. The cost of service is almost always paid for by the organizations with whom they are engaging. Perhaps it is a little ironic, or only coincidental, that it is often Deaf consumers who throw the word “expensive” into the discussion. Depending on their role or involvement, a Deaf consumer may or may not know how affordable the services are for the organization actually securing the service.

An unanticipated cost does not, by definition, equal “expensive”. For most organizations, ASL interpreting expenses are rare. Because of this, they are often forgotten during the budgeting process and end up surprising those in charge. An unanticipated expense may be painful but that does not necessarily mean the services being paid for are expensive. If, for example, a large convention, thinking ahead, added a few cents or dollars to the cost of general registration to prepare for the rare but possible cost of communication access requests, the expense would be easily managed and the label of “expensive” may not be tossed around so freely, stigmatizing communication access.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to the price of interpreters. They are, in my opinion, neither expensive nor cheap. Their price ranges fluctuate according to the cities where they live, work, play, raise families and make contributions. Each city or region has a certain cost of living, a certain number of qualified interpreters available in the pool, and a certain volume and style of demand. These dynamics, along with costs associated with securing and then maintaining professional certification, year round workshop attendance, professional liability insurance, vehicle maintenance and travel costs, ultimately determine the price. That being said, it has been my observation that interpreting services are still perfectly and completely affordable by practically every organization that is asked or required to secure them. Therefore there is no reason, in my opinion, to intentionally or unintentionally shame interpreters by throwing the word “expensive” into the mix. If we want to attract and keep a talented, highly qualified pool of interpreters who are available 24/7/365, along with related support systems, then we should hope and pray they are well and fairly compensated; perhaps even close to “expensive”.

Cliff Hanks
President,
Network Interpreting Service Inc.

(This originally appeared in the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing August 2014 Newsletter)

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12 Comments
  • Reply

    Unfortunately, “expensive” is only a small part of it. As you refer to, they are few and far between.

  • Aaron Brace
    Reply

    I don’t feel shamed when Deaf people call interpreting services ‘expensive’, because they very often are. We typically make significantly more than the people for whom we interpret, and the quality we bring to the task is wildly unreliable, even among certified interpreters.

    ‘Expensive’ is a relative term- what’s expensive to one person is affordable to another. The non-profit employee organizing a charity event at which everyone else is volunteering will surely and appropriately feel that interpreting services are ‘expensive’. Deaf people, who, as stated in the article, typically don’t pay the service fee, can still feel the ‘expensiveness’ of interpreting in terms of how they’re treated by the people who *do* pay the fee. I also don’t think that interpreters are the best people to argue that we aren’t expensive, because no matter how cogent the argument, it’s so easily dismissed as self-interested.

    ‘Expensiveness’ isn’t only a matter of the rate we charge, but also how rigidly we demand it and other terms and conditions, even in settings where flexibility is called for.

    I do agree that educational interpreters are drastically underpaid, but the claims of interpreters being expensive rarely refer to services in that setting. I also don’t think that ‘expensive’ means ‘overpaid’. There are plenty of things that I consider to be expensive- and to me they are- but that I’m sure are worth every penny; I just can’t afford them. We do tend to nettle at any use of the term ‘expensive’, and dig in until we’ve won the argument that we’re not, rather than live with the term long enough to find out what the person who used it meant by it.

    • cliff
      Reply

      Hey Aaron,

      For some reason I didn’t realize there were a few comments on the article that didn’t receive an acknowledgment or reply until now. Thank you for your insight, remarks, and thoughts on the subject. I really think they add value to the discussion. I see the validity of the points you are making. 🙂 I especially liked the part about expensive’ness’ going beyond the basic rate/fee for the service.

      Thanks for expanding the conversation and my view of the topic.

  • Jessa
    Reply

    I am an educational interpreter. I can’t afford to live on what I make in the area where I live. We may be ‘expensive’ but we are also underpaid. Even in the freelance world, interpreters are not overpaid. We make enough to live on, but are by no means wealthy. Agencies are sometimes expensive, but there is also a great deal of expense to running an agency. I understand that it makes it hard for a deaf person who wants to hire an interpreter independently, and that is one of the reasons for SSI, but the fact that our services add an expense does not make us overpriced. If you want qualified, skilled interpreters, you have to pay us for our time. We are not doing charitable work; if we can’t make a living at it, we’ll do something else to make our living. Perhaps that’s okay. If Deaf people would rather live their lives without us, that’s what will happen, and is a perfectly valid choice. Personally, I think there should be government subsidization of interpreter services (beyond SSI), but that will not happen in this political climate. Because we ARE an added expense that companies won’t want to incur when choosing between a Deaf applicant and a hearing applicant in deciding who to hire. That isn’t fair to Deaf people. But the blame for it does not lie with interpreters because expense or not, the one thing we are NOT is ‘overpaid.’

    • cliff
      Reply

      Hi Jessa. Sorry I missed your reply to this all these months ago. Thank you for contributing to the discussion. I appreciated what you had to say. Be well.

  • Alice
    Reply

    You make my heart feel full and appreciated. Thank you for your candor and support.

  • Reply

    I think this is just one perspective of many. Another perspective is that the current range of costs prevent deaf people from setting on their own such as being entrepreneurs, etc. However it’s all about supply and demand. I think over time with introduction of voice and hand recognition technology. The demand will be reduced where it’s balanced among 3 different communication accesses. Then rates may be corrected as well.

  • Keith Wann
    Reply

    priceless article! Thank you

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