New York State’s Uniformed Court System (UCS) employs more than 300 staff interpreters in more than 20 languages, in addition to hundreds of additional freelance interpreters who work in the system each year. But just a handful of the court’s staff interpreters work in American Sign Language (ASL)—in fact, just seven were employed by the state courts in 2018, all of them assigned to courthouses and offices in New York City, according to records compiled by the website SeeThroughNY.
It’s often not enough to meet demand, and the dearth of ASL interpreters can make interacting with the courts more difficult for deaf and hard of hearing residents, according to advocates, attorneys and others who work in the industry who spoke to City Limits. They tell of postponed hearings, delayed arraignments and miscommunication caused by the limited number of interpreters, making the already high-stakes, onerous process of navigating the legal system even more challenging for those who rely on such services.
“Communicating in court is hard enough. If you can’t communicate fully in your native language [it’s even harder],” says Andrew Rozynski, an attorney with the Manhattan-based Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, where he serves as co-director for the firm’s Deaf Law Center. “In court, one sentence or one word can make the difference.”
Experts and advocates point to a number of reasons behind the shortage in sign-language interpreters: It’s a demanding job that requires a specialized set of skills quite different from those of other interpreters who translate languages verbally. Availability of ASL interpreters is an issue not just in the courts, but across other sectors of public life, such as in hospitals, police precincts and government offices, according to Maureen Belluscio, a senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s Disability Justice Program.
“Lack of interpreter services is really a pervasive issue that the deaf community faces,” she says.
But the primary factor behind the shortage in city courts, sources say, is pay. The base salary for an ASL staff interpreter in New York’s courts is $54,947 a year, plus an additional $4,100 for those posted in New York City, while a freelance or “per diem” interpreter earns $330 for a full day’s work, according to job postings published on the Unified Court System’s website. Advocates and experts say the pay is well below what an ASL interpreter can earn doing similar work in the private sector, making recruitment and retainment difficult.
David Wayne, chair of the court interpreter chapter for District Council 37, says that while court interpreters have gotten union raises over the years, their salary grade—the system the courts use to classify job positions and pay rates—has not changed since 1994.
“We have a scarcity of interpreters in general,” he says. “But sign language is like in a crisis right now.”
Over the last decade, that number has remained relatively stagnant: payroll records show either six or seven ASL staff interpreters employed by UCS each year since 2008.
A ‘daunting challenge’
When someone needs an interpreter in one of New York City’s courts, they can request one by calling the Office of Court Administration’s Office of Language Access, which will arrange one for them at no charge to the court user. But New York State is large and linguistically diverse, with more than 150 languages spoken across the state, making the task of providing interpreters “a daunting challenge,” a 2017 UCS report notes.
The interpretation needs of deaf and hard of hearing New Yorkers—of which there are more than 200,000 living in New York City—also varies from person to person. While many deaf residents might use ASL, others are fluent in other forms of sign language, and some may not use sign language at all. Residents who are hard of hearing might rely on other accommodations in the courtroom besides an interpreter such as CART captioning, a computer-assisted transcription service that types what’s being said onto a screen in real-time.
Making sure a court user has access to an interpreter that accurately suits their needs can sometimes be difficult.
“It’s important in situations when someone’s in court because you’re hearing a lot of complex information,” says Belluscio. “Sometimes the matchup of the person with the interpreter is not accurate, and then the person has a really difficult time understanding what’s happening in the process.”
Nicolyn Plummer, coordinator of outreach and advocacy on the Deaf Services team at Barrier Free Living, which provides support for domestic violence survivors with disabilities, says it’s important that court users know they have the right to request an interpreter who suits their linguistic needs. Her clients are often in court to seek restraining orders, child support or alimony—an already difficult process that’s compounded by communication issues and delays caused by the shortage of interpreters.
She recounted one experience where a client turned to her in tears during a court proceeding because she couldn’t understand the assigned interpreter.
“I remember [the client] turned around to me and cried and said, ‘I don’t understand what they said. I don’t understand the interpreter,” she says.
In addition to recruiting more ASL interpreters on staff, Plummer says the courts should be hiring Certified Deaf interpreters (CDI)—interpreters who are deaf or hard of hearing themselves, and who work as part of a team with an ASL interpreter. They are commonly used to communicate on behalf of deaf litigants who have limited language fluency, Plummer says.
Delays and adjournments
Experts and advocates say it’s not unusual for residents who are deaf or hard of hearing to have their cases delayed or court dates postponed due to the scarcity of ASL interpreters. Christina Curry, executive director at the Harlem Independent Living Center, says such adjournments are “extremely common.”
“What is supposed to happen is the case is adjourned to the next available date with an interpreter scheduled. That does not mean it always happens,” Curry told City Limits in an email. “There have been times when the courts will try to proceed without the assistance of an ASL interpreter, which means effective communication [does] not take place during proceedings. Some lawyers will try to settle a case just because of the lack of qualified interpreters.”
Ralph G. Reiser, an attorney based on Long Island, says the most egregious instances of delays take place in cases where a deaf individual has been arrested on a criminal charge and is awaiting arraignment. While other types of court hearings are usually scheduled enough in advance to try and arrange for an interpreter ahead of time, deaf residents who’ve been arrested can be forced to sit in jail or in a holding cell longer than they otherwise would because an ASL interpreter isn’t available yet.
“The person has been kept behind [bars] longer than others in the same timeframe because of the fact that he’s deaf,” Reiser says. “My view is that if an individual is held even 15 minutes longer than they should have been, there is a constitutional violation.”
Delays due to a shortage of interpreters affect court users in other ways: a client might have taken a day off of work or arranged for childcare to attend their court hearing, only to be told to come back another day. In instances where attorneys are billed by the hour, it means heftier legal bills for the court user who has to wait around until an interpreter is free.
“It’s frustrating for them,” Reiser says. “Court cases don’t move very quickly, generally speaking. When you have the added matter of interpreters and their not being available and their not being adequate, even more time is consumed.”
When staff interpreters are unavailable—tied up in another trial, for instance, or assigned to a case in another borough—the UCS might assign a “per diem” interpreter instead, though some advocates say not all of these freelance workers have the specific legal training to effectively interpret for the courtroom. To work in the courts, all ASL interpreters must be credentialed by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.
There are 74 per diem ASL interpreters listed on the UCS’s statewide registry, 30 of whom are available to accept assignments in NYC Courts, a spokesman for the UCS told City Limits in an email.
“Unfortunately, there is a shortage of ASL interpreters and an occasional delay is inevitable,” Spokesman Lucian Chalfen said. “We have been taking steps to prevent these delays.”
Those steps include outreach to colleges and universities about careers in court interpreting, as well as instituting a cancellation policy last year to pay per diem interpreters a prorated fee if their assignment gets cancelled (as frequent cancellations was identified as a factor that hindered recruitment of new interpreters).
Other efforts include making state-of-the-art assistive listening technology available in every courthouse, and expanding the use of video remote interpreting—in which the interpreter appears on video from another location—in instances where an in-person interpreter is unavailable.
Advocates, though, warn that remote interpreting is no replacement for an in-person interpreter, especially when it comes to ASL, since video might make it harder for a court user to see the interpreter clearly, increasing the potential for communication errors.
“This might not be an issue outside of court but within a court case [it] could be devastating,” says Curry, adding that remote interpreting also makes it impossible for a lawyer and defendant to communicate privately with one another.
Reiser, who’s been practicing law since 1981, says that in spite of the interpreter shortage, he thinks the court system has gotten better overall during the last few decades when it comes to accommodating people who need interpreting and other services.
“However, you still have the fact that money comes into play, and it’s the state,” Reiser says. “They’ve made progress, but not enough progress.”