Do Sign Language Interpreters Ever Have “Clients?”

As a sign language interpreting student about eighteen years ago, I was told that the term client was falling out of use in our profession. If only that dream had come true by now. Sadly, the word is still far too commonly used.Sign Language Interpreter Worried About Using the Term Client

Recently, I was a user of interpreting services, and I heard one of the interpreters talking with her intern during a break. She referred to us as her clients. I was so disturbed by this that I sat up and took notice. Excuse me? I thought. I am not your client!

How is it that interpreters have used this term for so long and not been taken to task? I believe the answer is that consumers of interpreting services rarely, if ever, hear them using it.

 What’s the Big Deal?

If you use this term, you may wonder, “what’s the big deal? I’ve seen it in textbooks!” The fact is: it contributes to oppression in a not-so-subtle way.

Think about the people who use this term. Mostly they are attorneys, counselors, consultants, and the like. They are people who give advice. They are people whose opinions are sought after at work. A simple search of the words “my client” turns up these types of professions: realtor, therapist, executive coach, attorney, editor, broker. And it usually implies that the client is the one who pays for the service. Clearly, this does not describe our work.

The Danger of Presumption

For us to use this term when describing our consumers is presumptuous, for two major reasons:

1.     We use it disproportionately to refer to deaf consumers. This reinforces the notion that many hearing people subscribe to: only deaf people need interpreters. But as I am so fond of saying to hearing consumers, I don’t just interpret for (as you call them) the “hearing impaired,” but also for you, the signing impaired.

 2.     It suggests a measure of authority we cannot claim. While in some cases we do dispense advice – on matters of interpreting – it is inappropriate to put ourselves in a place of authority. As suggested by Trudy Suggs in her article, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting, we must bring deference to every situation we encounter, or risk upsetting the delicate balance of power that the interlocutors work so hard to achieve.

If we ever hope to foster the “full interaction and independence of consumers” (from the Code of Professional Conduct) we must abdicate, as much as possible, the role of arbiter of discourse. We must continue to seek ways to effectively walk the tightrope between managing turn-taking and letting the interactive chips fall where they may. Finding the balance requires a great deal of respect for both deaf and hearing parties, a healthy dose of humility and grace on the part of the sign language interpreter, and an understanding of one’s power and privilege as suggested by Aaron Brace in his article, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter.

Xenia Woods

Xenia Woods

Maintaining Balance

Part of that careful balance — being humble and walking the fine line that allows us to leave as many decisions as possible to the consumers of our service – requires us to find every opportunity to step back into the wings, and leave the players to be fully on the stage.

In my experience, the following three maxims allow sign language interpreters to engage with people authentically, and avoid the self-assured distance that some interpreters create as a result of having felt powerless in the past.

1.     Be willing to be a little uncomfortable. If you’re always at ease, you’re making too many assumptions. While interpreters can offer suggestions on how to do things (such as placement, procedures, and the like), participants are much better able to bring their ideas to the table when they are actively involved in negotiating communication. This can sometimes be awkward at first, especially when the cultural gap is a large one.

2.     Ask questions. Another way to prevent the problems that arise as a result of faulty assumptions, questions allow us to check in regularly and revisit our standard approaches. Asking a hearing person about their experiences with interpreters, or asking a deaf person for ideas on how to approach a problem, we can engender trust and demonstrate that we truly respect consumers’ experience and knowledge.

3.     Use your powers of observation. suggested by Brandon Arthur in his article, The Goo at the Center of a Sign Language Interpreter, “As artists with a keen sense of observation, sign language interpreters become expert at investing in people. They quickly and efficiently invest small increments of emotional labor (personal, professional, linguistic, and cultural mediating micro-decisions) with those they come in contact with. By doing this, they earn the social currency needed to make adjustments in the work environments, achieve consensus among meeting participants, and to deliver experiences that are truly remarkable.

In the end, no one is ever our consumer. They are, whether deaf, hearing, or hard of hearing, simply people. Let us never forget it.

I would love to hear how you maintain the careful balance in your work. Care to share?


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About the Author

Xenia Fretter Woods holds a Master’s degree in Adult Education, the Certificate of Interpretation and the Certificate of Transliteration from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, as well as the Specialist Certificate: Legal and NIC Master certificate, and the Ed:K-12. She lives in Oregon and teaches interpreting at Portland Community College and operates TerpSavvy Online Interpreter Career Development.

74 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Hi!
    Thanks for post!
    I use the term client on forms for invoicing because that is often the most neutral way to refer to the user of services. I don’t see any disrespect. Consumer has a connotation that seems inhumane. People don’t consume other people’s services. Client is a more neutral term. It is unbiased so if the person is a criminal defendant, I still use term client on invoices to show that I am interpreting for a person separate from the details of the encounter. Same for medical situations. I do avoid saying “my client”…I use “Client:________” on invoices. Client is a term used in professional realms. If invoicing for a school you can use the term “Student:__________”….Otherwise I think I use term “D/HH individual/lady, man” when speaking.
    Thanks again for thoughtful post!

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Your usage of the word makes sense to me. On invoices, and without the “my” attached to it, it doesn’t create the tone issue. And I like the fact that you choose specific terms to fit the situation, like “student,” “patient,” “deaf woman,” etc.
      I have also felt ambivalent about the word “consumer” and don’t use it very much myself.
      Thanks for weighing in, Shelly.

  2. Vivienne Tran says:

    What you argue about is purely semantic!

    First, “client” term does NOT always imply an recepient who must seek advice from authoritative sources. “Client” actually refers to someone who receives professional services. For example, if I am an accountant, I am not there to dispense advices to my clients; instead, I listen to them and SERVE their needs for accounting or tax work. Similarly, an sign language interpreter SERVES the needs of information accessibility for both hearing impaired and signing impaired clients.

    Second, clients are “consumers”. Whenever you receive compensation for the service work you do for others, you establish a business relationship with them, and they become the consumers of your service.

    Third, I do not see any degrogatory meanings in either term, “client” or “consumers”. Both terms are simply business-related terms, and fully applicable. An interpreter is a professional who provides a service to a consumer who needs to access information. Neither term decries the deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing communities, the “people” who receive professional services.

    • Linda Parkin says:

      I love the phrase “signing impaired”!

      My BSL is Level 2, enough to talk about food, pets and the weather, but not enough to have a business discussion.

  3. Amy Williamson says:

    Hello Xenia,

    Great to see your thoughts shared here!

    I have a few reactions to what you have said and would like suss them out a little bit here.

    You say:
    “Think about the people who use this term. Mostly they are attorneys, counselors, consultants, and the like. They are people who give advice. They are people whose opinions are sought after at work. A simple search of the words “my client” turns up these types of professions: realtor, therapist, executive coach, attorney, editor, broker. And it usually implies that the client is the one who pays for the service. Clearly, this does not describe our work.”

    I believe that your characterization of the client/professional relationship above is incomplete. What I see in these relationships (attorney/client, realtor/client, etc) is not simply a financial relationship and more importantly it is not just about ‘advice giving’. The professionals in these situations have an expertise that they impart and bring to the relationship. The professionals have a skill that the client needs/wants. The power balance IS in the hands of the client…they may choose to fire the professional or they may choose to seek the needed expertise elsewhere. I believe that this clearly, does describe our work.

    You also state that “We use it (the word, ‘client’) disproportionately to refer to deaf consumers.”

    This dichotomy has NOT been the case in my life-long experience in working with interpreters and take issue with being lumped into a ‘we’ statement such as you have put forth. The interpreters I have worked with here throughout the county have not held the view that the deaf person is the only one in a communication dynamic that ‘needs’ us. I would actually argue that more professionals in our field are biased in the other direction and give more deference to the deaf person in the situation.

    On a final note, you also state that “It suggests a measure of authority we cannot claim. While in some cases we do dispense advice – on matters of interpreting – it is inappropriate to put ourselves in a place of authority. As suggested by Trudy Suggs in her article, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting, we must bring deference to every situation we encounter, or risk upsetting the delicate balance of power that the interlocutors work so hard to achieve.

    We do have authority. The sooner we can accept that…Accept the power and expertise we DO bring to each and every speech act we are a part of, the better.

    I do not argue against the power of our words. I do argue against the points you have given against using the word ‘client’ to describe our relationship with the parties we work with.

    I look forward to seeing more discussion around what you have put forth here on StreetLeverage.

    I am very ready to be uncomfortable and challenged.

    Thanks, Xenia. A thought provoking article, for sure.

    • Kevin Lowery says:

      As an ITP student, finishing up his degree, I can attest that we are taught that the “hearing” person is just as much a client as the Deaf person. In fact, if I am relaying a story to someone about a client, I will refer to them as “the hearing client” or “the Deaf client.” If used unilaterally then what is the problem? I do not, however, use these terms during the interpreted event.

    • Jennifer Harper says:

      I have to agree with Ms. Williamson. I’ve been interpreting for 25 years and about half of my family is Deaf. Nobody in my family has ever expressed any offense to the term–or if they were bothered by it, they didn’t say anything to me. Certainly we don’t want to oppress–we want to empower. Unless another word is determined, I’m not quite sure what else would be appropriate.

      I’ve heard several terms used, but I believe that client is the best choice we have. I’m not going to write in my schedule book that John Doe is my “Person” or tell a freelancer for my agency that their person is so-and-so. Of course all people are individuals that shouldn’t be labeled; however, we live with labels every day as means of dictating various relationships between each other. At some moments we are we are an employee, other times a wife, mother or all of these at the same time. We go to the doctor and we are a patient. Other days, we may be a customer at a store or a patron at a restaurant. I don’t believe that our referring to a D/deaf person as client is meant in any way to demean, indicate that we are dispensing advice, or represent any kind of superior relationship. It simply means, we are providing a service between two parties that wish to communicate.

      You do bring up some interesting points. If nothing else, maybe this is something that the NAD could provide some guidance on. If any person who is D/deaf is offended by the term, I hope they understand that this is not unintentional–it’s just the way it’s always been in my experience.

      Great discussion!

      • Xenia Woods says:

        I’m curious to know what region you live in, and whether other deaf people (outside of your family) are equally comfortable being referred to as clients.
        I am merely attempting to question the status quo and suggest that we revisit this habit. It may be a while before we find words we feel more comfortable using. Part of our duty as a profession is to continue revisiting our terminology. After all, there was a time when we called voicing “reverse interpreting!”

        • Jennifer Harper says:

          Hi Xenia,

          I’ve been living for the past 9 years in the greater Miami, Florida area. However, I’ve also lived and worked in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Colorado Springs, Denver, Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio. Thus far, I’ve mainly heard the word client used. In earlier times, I noticed consumer being used, though like many others, I prefer client to consumer.

          Your article certainly brings up a valid question. I agree we should always be evolve our language to coincide with the times we live in. Certainly if anyone who utilizes our services dislikes the term “client”, I would ask them kindly to let us know what they prefer and then simply use their preferred term of reference. Personally, I’ve not heard any complaints, but that doesn’t mean that others haven’t. I can only speak from my own experience.

          As I indicated in my previous post, this may be a good question for the NAD. Maybe we could ask if they would be interested in conducting a poll. Any feelings on this?

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Amy, thanks for your candid comments. I agree that we have authority. Sometimes we use more power than we need to use. I like the idea of always looking for ways to include the users of interpreting services in our decisions. There are times, of course, when the interpreter needs to make decisions and use a certain degree of authority.

      I’m so glad to hear that you don’t find an imbalance among your co-workers in how they refer to deaf people and hearing people.

      I believe we can be seen as professionals without referring to those we interpret for as clients. I respect your preference. Have you had discussions with those you’ve interpreted for about their preferred words?

  4. Linda Hawthorne says:

    I was little “insulted” by the idea that she assumed that the interpreters were meaning to put the deaf/hh in a sub position. I find the word consumer a little unsettling but would not assume the choice of that word is an insult to the one bring discussed. When I use the word client it is in the same capacity I would use it for my massage therapist or chiropractor. I am her client. I am going to a professional to get my needs met. the D/hh or hearing person does not have the ability to do what is required with out my services.

  5. signingfemme says:

    So what do you suggest we call the Deaf people we serve?

  6. Annette says:

    Hi. Thank you for the thought provoking discussion. What do you propose as a term to use? I am not sure there is a one size fits all. I am a generalist who works with Deaf and Hearing adults. I am always trying to ensure both parties are getting the most out of my service. I have to be careful that my presence,demeanor, biases do not intrude or affect outcomes. At the same time, I sometimes need to do cultural mediation for the communication to happen effectively. If I allowed too much uncomfortable miscues and false starts to occur as you suggest, not taking some control, neither consumers would be happy. This could negatively affect the outcome as well. I will be mindful of the rest of your article. None of my clients are ever JUST clients – they are people. What do Deaf people use when they refer to themselves? Thanks. A

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Annette, I haven’t often encountered Deaf people using the word client to describe a user of interpreting services. I like your use of “parties” especially in a legal setting. I often refer to them as participants, or use patient, student, instructor, counselor, caller, or whatever other term describes the role the person(s) are filling in that instance.
      In classes and workshops that I teach, I most often use one of the above terms, or simply “deaf person” and “hearing person.”

  7. Marlene Elliott says:

    I dislike the terms client or consumer. As you note here it implies the wrong kind of relationship, “a measure of authority we cannot claim.” I also find both terms pejorative. As interpreters we are always, first and foremost interlopers IN SOMEONE ELSE’S LIFE. To center ourselves in that fact is not to put ourselves down but to find our proper place.

    Interpreter education that focuses on the interpreter as the primary performer leads to a skewed vision of our place that I don’t believe feels comfortable for most Deaf people. And after all, it’s their life.

    I try always to say “the Deaf person” (or persons) if I am talking with an agency about the Deaf people involved in an interaction I will be interpreting. If I’m talking about the hearing people in the situation I call them by their titles or roles – the person presenting, the therapist, the lawyer, the contact person, the coordinator, etc.

    The desire to have a generalized category that fits all people is a function of English. I believe it is also a good illustration of how the structure of the language we use forms how we think. We don’t need one word to mean everyone we are working with. We can call them what they are – Deaf or hearing – and/or by their role if that is helpful, and most of all a PERSON.

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Marlene, thanks for putting so clearly one of the points I’ve been struggling to articulate. I firmly believe that the pervasive patterns of English discourse are causing us to use words in a particular way (as you say, because of a desire to have a generalized category). I too am troubled by the grouping, labeling, etc., of people we serve in a way that allows us to put a distance between us and them that may not be conducive to the goals and values of the Deaf and interpreting communities.

    • Jason says:

      Marlene, interesting that you use the TITLE for the hearing person, but not for the Deaf person. We have no problem labeling the Deaf as such, so why not do the same for hearing? Calling both parties “client” or “consumer” seems fair since we are serving both parties. Referring to them as the “hearing client” or the “Deaf consumer” is a “po-tay-to” “po-tah-to” argument.

      I think we have bigger fish to fry in this profession than this.

  8. John says:

    I agree with what you said however had I written the article it would have had the words “client” and “consumer” reveresed. I actually prefer the word “client” over “consumer”

    • Xenia Woods says:

      John -
      Perhaps this is a regional thing? Others have commented similarly. My biggest pet peeve is when the phrase sounds proprietary, as in “my client,” which sounds like a lawyer!

  9. Simcha Benami says:

    There are countless other ways to say it, most of them insulting and arrogant. “Hello, I’m the interpreter that the hearing people in the room have paid to talk to you” comes to mind. Client is inoffensive and innocuous by comparison and indicates that I work for everyone with that appellation. It also denotes professionalism and integrity.

  10. Becky Stuckless says:

    I have many thoughts after reading this article. I appreciate your perspective and thanks for putting it out there. The first service-provider/recipeint relationship that comes to mind when I hear the word “client” is my Hair Dresser. I am his client. I make all decisions regarding when I see him, what type of service he provides and what my anticipated goal is. If he messes up, or does not follow my instruction – I will no longer be his client. I don’t feel the word client has a negative connontation at all, but your article is food for thought. Is it more than the sematics of the word “client”?

    • Xenia Woods says:

      I don’t claim to have the final answer on this controversial topic. But I do feel that it’s an important conversation to have. Semantics are more important than we appreciate sometimes. They can subtly determine status and influence, so we should be mindful of how we choose our words, especially when not all parties involved have access to the same words. While the hearing people involved may hear the word “client,” the deaf people involved may only see an initialized sign that could mean client, consumer, customer, etc.
      Do they have equal input into the framing of their position in the triad? Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t. I’m sure it varies from one situation to another.

      • Becky Stuckless says:

        Xenia, I couldn’t agree more that semantics are important. I would hope that given my role as an interpreter, I have the utmost appreciation for semantics! I’m not claiming to be perfect, but I value semantics. I will argue in my home that semantics is everything! (Sometimes frustrating my partner and children!)

        The more I think about this, I think that I most often use the term “client” when speaking with other interpreters. When actually providing services, I would typically arrive and say, “I’m the interpreter, has John Doe checked in? ” When introducing myself to the people (hearing) I am providing service to, I am always conscious to say I am here to provide interpreting services for both of you.

        When explaining the process, speed, my needs to the person who hasn’t utilizing interpreting services, I usually wrap up with something to the effect of “I’m a non participant and you can think of it this way, you’re borrowing my hands, and they’re borrowing my voice.”

        In the situation that you referred to, where the Deaf person was referenced as “client”, you used the word “heard” and so in my mind, it was used in English. I will tell you, I hardly EVER use the “sign” for client. Usually when having the discussion in ASL about those utilizing our services, I phrase it much more specific. I.e. Instructor/Student, Doctor/Patient, Joe/Jane. Probably because I really don’t think the sign visually represents what I am trying to say. And as you point out, it is used in many contexts with different power references.

        Again, thank you for opening the discussion!

  11. One more thought~ the word client is actually respectful. I see it used as a respectful way to interact with people in a professional manner similar to other professions. It might even add a level of dignity and respect to the D/HH person to be recognized as a client utilizing a professional service. Just throwing that out there. I think the article above takes issue with the interpreter getting upity and wandering around spouting about “my client, my client”. That isn’t the case with interpreters who take their work seriously and are very aware of being deferential while providing a service.

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Shelly –
      Thank you for making the distinction. I agree that the most important thing is the intent with which one speaks.

  12. dani f says:

    Thanks for this article but I agree with Shelly – the term is a respectful way to refer to BOTH parties who ‘use’ interpreters. I’d never use the term ‘my student’ or ‘my patient’ – I’m not a teacher nor a doctor – but I AM a professional and professionals have clients. In fact, I would prefer that my doctor refers to me as her client, even though I don’t pay her (I’m lucky to live in Australia where we have Medicare for all). She is providing a professional service and I’m the (often questioning, not submissive) recipient of that service. Similarly, I provide a professional service to at least two clients whenever I interpret, and that’s the case whether I’m paid by one, both or neither.

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Dani -
      I wonder if you are American or Australian, and whether the usage of the word client is at all different in the two countries.
      Do you think of yourself as a consultant when you interpret? Perhaps that is why you use the term? Some interpreters do see themselves that way, and there is certainly a valid perspective there.

  13. Lianne Moccia says:

    It’s interesting to see which labels people embrace or reject. I agree that it’s important to examine labels (of all kinds) for the assumptions or beliefs that they embody or hide. “Customer”, “client”, and, “consumer” have held sway and gone out of fashion in most of the social service agencies where I have interpreted over the years. It is not surprising that the argument is being raised here. I welcome it.

    I use many different terms to describe situations: the professor (Deaf or hearing, as the case may be), the students, the staff, the committee. I am there for everyone.

    I do consider myself the authority in the room, the reason I have been hired to be there. Until I understood and accepted that as my responsibility and my duty, I doubt I was a very effective interpreter. I take issue with your quote: “If we ever hope to foster the “full interaction and independence of consumers” (from the Code of Professional Conduct) we must abdicate, as much as possible, the role of arbiter of discourse.” That IS my role. Not to control or direct, but to provide effective interpretation.

    I was part of the early generation of interpreters who thought we were invisible. How crazy was that? Today I want to own the authority and expertise that I have, open to negotiating with all involved—my team and whoever is part of the communication.

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Lianne – I fully agree that we cannot ever be invisible, and I regularly teach my students that they must own and accept the role of communication facilitator. It may be a fine line, but I draw a distinction between this and arbiter of discourse. Merriam-Webster defines arbiter as
      1: a person with power to decide a dispute : judge
      2: a person or agency whose judgment or opinion is considered authoritative

      I don’t see being a communication facilitator as conflicting in any way with fostering with the full interaction and independence of consumers. On a regular basis, I look for ways to share the power that being the only bilingual person present gives me.

      • Michael says:

        I feel bringing in definitions of words is a sticky subject…

        I find that our field is a fairly unique one. We are talking about semantics here, as they are indeed vital. But, our field is only just emerging and unique terms have yet to be established. For example, “transliterating” is used through our field in a way that the rest of the world does not see it. For spoken/written language transliterating stays in written form. We use the term fairly differently, correct? Therefore, adhering to such literal definitions might not be the best approach.

        Perhaps, “client” is a term that our field is using to most appropriately convey the concept of what the hearing and deaf people receiving our services are to us.

        That said, I feel as though we are working professionals. We provide a very complicated service to a great many people. We are trained professionals, armed with the knowledge of two cultures and two distinct languages. We have expertise in this field and should be trusted to use it.

        I would never say that the power distance between myself and my doctor or lawyer is incredibly great. I pay them for the service they render. They use their expertise, just as we use ours. If they are unable to effectively fulfill my expectations I am not obligated to continue using their services.

        We even invest in malpractice insurance, just as other professions do. If we did not have “clients”, would we need it?

        With so many similarities, I feel that we are just as professional as other practice professions.

        I will say, however, that our expertise of the ASL is never greater than our deaf counterparts; we know the language, but it is not ours as it is theirs.

        • Xenia Woods says:

          My suggestion to move away from using “client” is in no way whatsoever a suggestion that we are anything less than professionals. The fact that we are professionals was never in question. I believe we can be professionals without calling those we interpret for clients.
          I want to emphasize that my concern is about how the word is perceived by users of interpreting services. In my experience, they often do not like it. If that feeling is common enough, we owe it to them to consider an alternative.
          The fact is that at this point in time, users of interpreting services often have less choice about who interprets for them than we have about which doctors or lawyers we use.
          Thanks for taking the time to participate in this discussion.

  14. Aaron Brace says:

    Hi Xenia! Great to see you writing for Streetleverage.

    Maybe we can strip away the label and start with the meaning we intend to convey. For me, I think of the people who use my services as those whose requirements direct the course of my work. Unfortunately, “client” seems to be the closest to capturing that meaning (think “architect”, “interior designer”, “advertiser” other creative fields), even as it can also connote the things you describe in other contexts.

    Maybe it’s a bit awkward, but perhaps we could get used to saying “the people for whom I work” (or “the people I work for”, if you subscribe to the notion that “whom” isn’t a word anymore). Maybe we have to add to our thinking a little alarm bell in *any* situation in which we find ourselves needing to use a word to describe the people we work for, to see if there is any real or perceived power imbalance in the reference.

    Thanks again for stirring it up a little : )


    • Xenia Woods says:

      Great thoughts, Aaron. Thanks. Part of what I am exploring here is indeed the idea of avoiding the use of catch-all labels. What I reacted to that day when I was being called a client was being labeled.
      Several people have pointed out above that it’s just semantics, but if interpreters can’t be expected to be mindful of semantics, who can?

  15. Bill Moody says:

    Neither “client” nor “consumer” is inherently pejorative. Client is defined as “A person or organization using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company.” Consumer is defined as “A person who purchases goods and services for personal use.” Between those definitions, I actually prefer “client.” Both the Deaf and hearing persons with whom I am working are USING my professional services, no matter who is paying for them. “Consumer” implies payment for product or services, and it is really not important to me from whom the payment derives…

    In addition, Deaf people tend to use “USER” for consumer, and “C-person” for client or customer. I don’t mind that Deaf people “use” me, but they usually aren’t the ones paying. And I’m not crazy about the initialized CLIENT/CUSTOMER sign either. So in ASL, neither one really translated that elegantly. So it is no great help to search in the ASL vocabulary to see which English term might correspond better to our relationship with the hearing and Deaf people with whom we work.

    I still prefer client in English. I AM a professional, though I readily admit (and am careful about) the duality and contradictions inherent in my daily practice, as is Aaron. Maybe I offer my advice a little too readily, but I am immediately ready to pull back when either of my clients find my advice intrusive. Since I offer it with the best of intentions, it is usually accepted or passed over without any fuss…

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Bill -

      Glad to hear from you. I admire your work.
      In response to your post, I queried three Deaf people as to how they feel about being referred to as a client. (Note: I spelled client, I did not use the sign you mention above). None of three was comfortable with it. They said it seemed to imply a status differential between deaf person and interpreter.
      Do you think this could be a regional thing? I’m reporting from the West coast.

  16. Sophie says:

    I always struggle with the use of the term ‘interpreting for’ as to me that would mean listing everyone in that booking who had any part in the communication I facilitated.
    “Interpreting for John Smith” (i.e. the Deaf person) implies that he was the only person using my services, which is rarely the case! I completely regard the hearing people, (as previously mentioned on here) are using my services too.

    I have played with using the term ‘Interpreting with John Smith’ but this somehow feels misleading.

    I would be interested to know others’ thoughts on this.

    In relation to asking Deaf people what they would prefer to be called within the context of client/consumer/etc, the response has been varied. One Deaf person who I work with/for(!) has expressed particular disdain toward being called a ‘client’ by an Interpreter, but another Deaf person said they thought it was a professional term and didn’t feel demoralised or ‘lesser’ in any way.

    Interestingly, in BSL the sign for CLIENT is the same as PERSON, with the mouth pattern providing differentiation.

    May I ask another question to the readers of this article- how do you respond when a Deaf client explicitly refers to the Interpreter as ”MY Interpreter?’

  17. dani f says:

    Hi Xenia

    I’m Australian and I’m not sure if there’s a difference in how Aus/US use the term ‘client’ – but as in BSL (see Sophie’s post above), the sign for ‘client’ is usually the same as ‘person’, but with a different mouth pattern.

    I don’t actually see myself as a consultant, no. I see myself as a language professional providing a service which may or may not be paid for by either or both of the clients/consumers/parties involved in the actual assignment, an assignment which I perform to the best of my ability within the boundaries of my skills and our Code of Ethics. in this way, i don’t see my job as any different to a doctor’s or lawyer’s. (obviously it’s different in many other ways!)

    In relation to Sophie’s question, how do I respond when a Deaf client calls me his/her interpreter, it totally depends on the person and the situation. I really really HATE being called someone’s interpreter, I have to say! Most of the time, though, I don’t say anything, though perhaps I should. On some occasions – when I’ve known the Deaf client well, and not in front of the Hearing client because I certainly don’t wish it to look like I’m ‘correcting’ anyone – I’ve pointed out that they, the Deaf person, probably knows English significantly better than the dr/lawyer/teacher knows Auslan, and so they – the Deaf person – could probably understand more of what’s going on than the Hearing person could, were I not to be there; and that in fact by its very nature interpreting is two-way – I’m there to facilitate communication BETWEEN both parties, and the Hearing person requires an interpreter at least as much as the Deaf person does. By explaining this, I’m hoping to empower the Deaf person by drawing attention to the ‘bilateral’ nature of interpreting. (btw, I’ve done the same thing in reverse – a bit cheekily, perhaps – to Hearing folk eg (to a receptionist) “Good morning, I’m Dani F from xxx interpreting agency, I’m here to interpret for Dr Smith for his 1:30 appointment.” “Oh, Dr Smith doesn’t need an interpreter!” “Oh, I’m sorry, he’s fluent in Auslan?”) I guess I’m very big on trying to spread the message that it’s not about the ‘poor deaf’ person being unable to hear/speak; it’s about both parties needing professional assistance so they can best understand EACH OTHER.

  18. Kristen Anderson says:

    We must have a way to talk about our work. We might not always know how the people who use interpreting services want to be referred, so within the parameters of confidentiality we must find language that is appropriate and effective. I have appreciated reading everyone’s responses to this article and am inspired that so many interpreters care about the nuances of our jobs.
    It seems that in order to be recognized as professionals we have strayed away from common terminology and embraced other professions’ terms for “clients”, “consumers”, “customers” and now maybe we can evolve that into something perfect for interpreting where we are not the center of the dynamic…. something to consider. I might try “the deaf/hearing person” and see how that goes (unless I can say “the student/patient” etc). I like that idea.
    As for “my interpreter”… I always introduce myself as the interpreter and don’t correct the deaf person. I believe that through our behavior, boundaries, ethics, and effort to empower/not oppress, deaf people know our role in the interaction. Through “setting the example” by calling yourself the interpreter not “your” interpreter is good enough in my opinion. Thanks again for the article Xenia!

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Kristen, I like the way you say it: “maybe we can evolve that into something perfect for interpreting where we are not the center of the dynamic.”
      Even though we must accept our power, our influence, our inability to be invisible and completely neutral, we can always endeavor to minimize the impact of our involvement.
      Thanks for commenting.

  19. Jocelyn Cunningham says:

    I just wanted to share my experience related to this article. I am an interpreter and in the office I work we use “consumer” to refer to the D/deaf/deafened or hard of hearing participants in any interpreting assignment. Since I am newer to the field, to this particular region,and I can see both perspectives presented on this website,I decided to ask a trusted member of the Deaf community about this issue.
    I too felt that “client” was a neutral word and I was using it in the region I use to work in. What I found out was that in their opinion, the word “client” carried a negative connotation even though the hearing community feels it neutral. They felt that “client” meant that there is a problem that they needed help with or there was something wrong with them, that sort of thing. They also felt that the word “client” put the interpreter or hearing participants in a position of power to “look down” upon the Deaf participant. The use of the word “consumer”, in this region, has been this way for many years here and it was the Deaf community who decided that “consumer” was the appropriate term that they wanted used. Through this conversation it was also theorized that maybe my old region of work used “client” because there wasn’t much communication or collaboration between the Deaf community and interpreters. In that case, the interpreters would likely be following other interpreters instead of following the Deaf community’s desire, but this is an assumption and may not be fact. I think it’s always wise idea for us all to rely on what the community wants, to defer to them and just ask what their preferences are. I think asking the quesion creates good dialogue and respect amongst us.

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Thank you for sharing about this, Jocelyn. After writing this article and seeing people’s responses, I did a similar thing. I decided I should ask more deaf people for their opinions. In the last two days I have asked three more deaf people, and they all said they were uncomfortable being called “client.”
      However, I’m open to the different perspectives shared here, and am interested to hear if others (including CDIs) have gotten different results when asking around.

  20. Emily Graves says:

    Hi Xenia,
    What a great discussion both in your article and in the comments! I remember a particular conversation when I was going through my ITP a few years ago about terminology. My class was discussing the various labels that were applied to Deaf folks including “client” and “consumer”. I remember thinking that “client” sounded very odd to me. I preferred consumer at the time and still do; I think there is also room to call people by their names instead of to label roles. I would also like to second the other commenter who said that he was taught in his ITP that the hearing people were as much consumers of the interpreting service as were the Deaf folks. That was a message passed down to me and my classmates as well.
    Thank you for your article!

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Emily – I’m so glad to hear that so many ITPs have gotten in the habit of emphasizing that we serve both deaf and hearing people.
      As for using the names of people we serve, that really makes sense when you’re actually at work. It seems that the situations in which I have heard the word “client” used most were those in which we were discussing tricky scenarios and needed to respect confidentiality.

  21. Mindy Lanie says:

    This is interesting and has really made me think!

    I agree with an above comment – I’m not sure that the term ‘client’ always implies that there is a consultant relationship. The professions that that came to mind off the top of my head were hairdressers or plumbers. They are providing a services, and refer to the people they are providing the service to as ‘clients.’

    I don’t know that there is a perfect term. Perhaps the most neutral way to refer to people using our services in person is ‘the Deaf person using my services’ and ‘the Hearing person using my services.’ Although, I, like you, frequently make the point that everyone in the room is utilizing my services.

    When I checked ‘client’ at, one of the definitions was ‘a customer.’ Perhaps that’s a neutral and acceptable term?

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Customer to me sounds like retail sales. I think you’re right, there probably is no perfect term. Thanks for weighing in, Mindy.

  22. Tim Kinsella says:

    Hi there:

    I find that most of the time I use either the word person or people, or the signs person or people. ” I was working with this Deaf person/guy/woman/doctor/ social worker and….”, “And then the hearing person/doctor/social worker said…” In the end, our relationships are not strictly business relationships (leading to client or consumer). They are personal, relational connections with others.

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Tim, thank you for emphasizing that they are not strictly business relationships. I don’t see my work as a series of transactions, but rather, as you say, a series of personal relational interactions.

  23. Justine says:

    Thanks for putting your thoughts out there everyone. From now on I think I’ll use,the Deaf/hearing person. It is interesting thar both CLIENT and CONSUMER seem to be initialized versions of PERSON in ASL. Deaf/hearing individual would work equally as well.
    I tried to imagine how I would feel if I were deaf and stuck in traffic and an interpreter texted their agency, “deaf client did not show”, how that would make me feel. In that situation, I think I’d prefer to be called an individual.

  24. Justine says:

    Thanks for putting your thoughts out there everyone. From now on I think I’ll use,the Deaf/hearing individual or person. It is interesting that both CLIENT and CONSUMER seem to be initialized versions of PERSON in ASL. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I were deaf and stuck in traffic and an interpreter texted their agency, “deaf client did not show”, how that would make me feel. In that situation, I think I’d prefer to be called an individual.

    • Jocelyn Cunningham says:

      Thank you Justine for pointing out how some are using the terms in ASL. It made me think that I should clarify my comment above. My Deaf coworkers prefer to use the English word “consumer” and it is not signed as an initialized PERSON. They are using “USER” to mean consumer.

    • Trudy Suggs says:

      Actually, I sign “user” for consumer, and the initialized version for CLIENT (C down the torso). I’ve seen most people do the same.

  25. Justine says:

    Actually, the more I think about it. I probably would rather the interpreter say nothing about me at all and simple text their agency, “interpreter not required at this time, available for next assigment”.
    So back to the example you all were discussing in the situation where a mentor and student are debriefing. I think I would prefer to be called a person if it were me.

    • Jocelyn Cunningham says:

      I feel that not labelling is a good thing when possible, but I do know there are occations when we have to talk about the “client” or “consumer” and have specific terms used to identify them. I am thinking about a recent interaction involving two different agencys that have services for their “clients” or “consumers.” They were discussing how their agencies could work together to provide improved services for the same pool of people they work with. It was helpful to be able to identify them for clarity of the message. One agency used the term “client” as they are more of a governement social service type agency while the other agency uses “consumer.” Their primary group of individuals they serve is culturally Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing or deafened, their services are usually interpreter related and/or Deaf/Hard of hearing device sales and setup etc. I should also add that this Deaf community has made it know that they do not want to be called “client” unless being reference to other types of agencies and their services. They feel that the label of “client” from interpreters or interpreting agencies has a negitive conotation as I mentioned above.

  26. Laura says:

    I feel as though client is the correct term. We are professionals providing a professional service and that would imply a “client” / “consumer” relationship. A client is just someone that you provide professional services for. A consumer is someone who uses professional services. The clients I work with are of course both deaf and hearing or my services would not be needed. As an interpreter when I have to discuss the clients I work with I would not want to say, student, or doctor or a label as that gives out information that I should not be giving out. As a profession we have times when we need to discuss our work (not the individual) and I can’t think of a more generic way to do that without telling male/female, deaf/hearing, black/white, student/teacher (all of which give out more identifying information than we should be giving out).

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Laura – Do you think there may be a way to still be seen as professionals even when we’re not using the word client?
      Could you discuss the work and use the terms “deaf person” and “hearing person?”
      It’s clear that several people in this thread are very accustomed to using the word client and not so interested in changing it. I completely respect that, and am still pushing the question of whether it’s really necessary to use that word. Because several deaf people have told me they don’t like it.

  27. Andrea Medlock says:

    I agree with your emphasis on the term “my”. This reminds me of an article that I have students read in Theory 2. “Whose Student” (Coon & Brumberg, 2007, RID Views) The authors suggest that using the term “my” indicates a type of ownership over the person’s behavior or well being. It may also suggest that we are THE only professional the person uses for interpretation when in fact the hearing and deaf people we serve are likely to use many interpreters in many settings. Perhaps if I had a private contract with the purchaser of services I could say that is my client.
    Client is tough word to get around or replace. Agencies in the area send out job information indicating dc (Deaf Client(s)) and hc (Hearing Client(s)). Referring to the purchasing entity, they usually indicate customer. Should this change to dp (deaf person/people) and hp (hearing person/people). It is very interesting. Since our discussion on the semantics of the term in question, I know I have been cognizant of when the term is used and how it is used. Awareness of how our message is understood is a great discussions for interpreters as professionals and interpreted message producers! Thanks.

    • Xenia Woods says:

      I agree that if I had an exclusive contract with a purchaser of services, I might very well refer to that party as the client.

      Thanks, Andi, for your contribution to this discussion!

  28. Dan Parvaz says:


    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking article. It seems to me that none of the terms I’ve been taught to use — client, consumer, customer, requestor — wholly fit any of the parties involved in the transaction, and rôles are further muddied when an agency is involved. As for the power dynamics, they appear to be fairly fluid, as well. There is a difference in status that can’t be denied, but it depends on much more than hearing vs. deaf. Gender (unfortunately) is involved (a 22-year-old young woman interpreting for almost any older adult, for example), education (sometimes the interpreter is the “professional” in the room, and sometimes, either or both parties have credentials which dwarf the interpreter’s), and other factos are involved.

    The question of “who’s the boss?” is a complicated one. Is it the person holding the purse strings? Is the interpreter an autonomous professional capable of making their own judgment calls? Does the mere fact of one person’s Deafness make them authoritative in any way? It seems to me that all these situations are to be engaged on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the totality of the circumstances: the individuals involved, the ethical and legal backdrop, and what is negotiated both in advance and in situ.

    As for nomenclature, I’m reminded of a friend of mine who would get questions like this: “So what do I call you? Are you Indian, Native American, Navajo, Diné, indigenous…?” And his response was usually along the lines of, “I’d appreciate it if you called me ‘Larry.’”

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Dan – Well put! I like your point that each interpreting situation is unique. So true. And I agree, none of the terms really fits all of them.

  29. Lauren Collette says:

    cli·ent [klahy-uhnt]
    a person or group that uses the professional advice or services of a lawyer, accountant, advertising agency, architect, etc.
    a person who is receiving the benefits, services, etc., of a social welfare agency, a government bureau, etc.
    a customer.
    anyone under the patronage of another; a dependent.
    Computers. a workstation on a network that gains access to central data files, programs, and peripheral devices through a server.

    con·sum·er [kuhn-soo-mer]
    a person or thing that consumes.
    Economics . a person or organization that uses a commodity or service.
    Ecology . an organism, usually an animal, that feeds on plants or other animals.

  30. Julie says:

    So, I’m still unclear as to how to refer to “the person I interpret (transcribe) for.” As a transcriber, I could refer to this person as a “reader” or “speaker”… but as an interpreter? Would “observer” or “participant” (as in, a participant in the conversation?) be appropriate? “Deaf man, etc..” seems to be too much information or too identifying to retain privacy.

    Maybe it depends on the context or purpose for which one is using the terms? Actually, apart from reporting to my supervisor, why would I speak about this person anyway? It seems to me it would be an invasion of privacy and gossip to speak about the people I work with and the conversations I observed or participated in.

    I would like to know, on the positive side, what IS appropriate/preferred in different circumstances!

    • Xenia Woods says:

      Julie – I like the sound of “participant.” It doesn’t carry any status differential.
      We as interpreters do have to discuss our work situations quite a bit, to ensure that we are handling cultural conflicts well, and making ethical decisions. This means case-conferencing with colleagues. So we do need to be able to refer to people without using their names. It’s not the same as gossiping. It’s considered good practice.
      I urge you to read this Street Leverage article by Kendra Keller on the topic:

  31. George Costa says:

    While the discussion has been fascinating, I’ve seen few proposals of an alternative (more proposals of terms which would be more distasteful).

    Despite the potentially Legal/courtroom connotation, what reaction do you (author, readers) have to “party, parties”? For example, ‘…the Deaf party,’ ‘the hearing party,’ ‘the two parties to the interpretation’…

    Merriam-Webster offers this (only 3rd) for the word “party”:
    3: a person or group participating in an action or affair

    Unfortunately, their first definition carries an adversarial flavor:
    1: a person or group taking one side of a question, dispute, or contest

    Enjoy… and thank you for your time.

    • Xenia Woods says:

      George, I agree that does have a bit of an adversarial connotation. I will probably stick to using “parties” when I’m interpreting in legal settings only.
      Thanks for furthering the discussion with your post.

  32. Marcia Reaver says:

    I have read with interest this discussion. I think the important distinction for me is if I am doing my work or talking about my work as an interpreter.

    When I am doing my work I use the terms typically used in the setting or better yet people’s names. Examples of this are:

    1. Hello, I am here to interpret for Joe Brown’s meeting with the judge.

    2. Good morning I am here to interpret for Dr. Smith’s appointment with Mary Jones.

    Using names or identifying people by their function avoids the use of vague terms like client, consumer, etc.

    When I am talking about my work, as in Xenia’s original example with a mentor and a student, I refer to the deaf client and the hearing client. I use these terms because, as others have stated I am providing a professional service to these parties. I think either client or consumer is appropriate, but in my opinion client is a more accurate descriptor. I don’t use the deaf/hearing person, because I am trying to keep the conversation as abstract as possible during these discussions. Client, for me, has become almost like a pronoun in these conversations.

    I do not use the term “my when referring to the deaf/hearing people. My is a possessive pronoun. I am not the owner of anything except my interpretation.

    When I am talking to a deaf person I use “one deaf/hearing” as my sign of choice. In my mind, this is the ASL equivalent of the deaf/hearing client in English. An example of this would be, “One deaf told me s/he thinks it is better to use all organic food.” The beauty of ASL is that I don’t have to use those pesky pronouns that are required in English. I also don’t have to talk about the client or the consumer. I avoid having to guess which of those terms will insult the deaf person I am talking with at that moment.

    Finally, when I am working on scheduling/billing, I am dealing with the customer. They are the party paying the bill. I tend to call them by the name they give me when they call/fax/email a request. Customer is only used within the office when we are talking to our co-workers. When asking for the information needed for an interpreting request I will use language specific to the setting. I will ask who is the patient, student, client, etc. I then ask which doctor, teacher, attorney, etc. In my area any party could be the deaf person (people) so if I don’t recognize names I will ask who is deaf. When I send a bill I do list clients, but I need one term that fits all settings. We had a long conversation about this before choosing the terms we used on our invoices. We decided on client rather than consumer since we felt the people reading the invoice would understand that term more readily. We also list both the deaf and hearing clients on the invoice.

    To sum it all up, I think this is a matter of one size does not fit all, or as they say in ASL, “It depends.” I believe the language we use with each other is not the language we should be using with our clients and customers. Words are important and how we use them should be done with the goal of the conversation being understood by the person we are attempting to communicate with in the moment.

    Good discussion everyone. Thanks for your thought provoking posts.

  33. Xenia Woods says:

    Great analysis, Marcia! Thanks for taking the time to do that! I agree that there is no one-size-fits-all term, and it does vary depending on the situation and the perspective.
    It seems to me that many interpreters got in the habit of using the word “client” because it’s gender-neutral and vague, so it can be used when discussing interpreting scenarios with colleagues, mentors, etc., to get some professional input on how to make good decisions. Then it stuck and was applied across the board.
    Hopefully we can return to a more precise approach to describing the people we work with and for.

  34. Michelle says:

    I am curious how spoken language interpreters and the recipients of their services refer to themselves.

  35. dani f says:

    a really interesting discussion. just an addendum: i’ll often use the word ‘client’ very deliberately when i’m getting briefed by/briefing the Hearing client (ie say if it’s a solicitor) as a way of drawing attention to the fact that we ‘share’ the client. it’s a good way, i think, of helping the solicitor understand that (a) we’re both professionals (so the deaf person and I aren’t treated like helper and ‘helpee’) and (b) in some ways, we’re working as a team. (obviously this will depend totally on context – wouldn’t be appropriate in an adversarial situation such as court.)

  36. KBS says:

    I, too, prefer the word ‘client’, but would never use “my client”. In educational interpreting, we abhor “my student” or “your student”, which should be corrected as quickly as possible . . . s/he is ***the teacher’s*** student. I provide interpreting services.

  37. Pam says:

    Professionals working in various fields , use various terms: client, patron , patient , student, consumer, customer… To me client puts you on equal footage with the professional. Lawyers have clients, psychologists work with patients, teachers work with students. I don’agree at all with the author.

  38. Paul Barnes says:

    Thank you for this insight. I’ve been the field for 3 years and have used this word almost daily in that context. I have never thought twice about it because, as you said, it’s in our text books. I have never heard any complaints from the deaf or hearing participants. But in any case, this will serve the profession and the consumers well if we all think this critically about the words we use.

  39. Bruce Wheelock says:

    I am adhering member of the organization to which I belong, and also have a BSL of 2. I was, until recently, responsible for booking interpreters for our group events. Our Deaf members, interpreters, and accessibility committee members have always referred to the Deaf members as the interpreters’ clients. Our rationale for this is that they are the ones being served, which is what the word means to us. However, you make a very good point that the interpreter is serving both the Deaf and the hearing members. I’m not sure that we will change our terminology, but I’m going to introduce a change in how we think about what interpreters do. As it happens, I’m giving a talk on Deaf Accessibility to a gathering of hearing members tomorrow, and this concept has just become part of what I will be saying. I’m glad my night-before research led me here.

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