Booking and using a sign language interpreter

British Sign Language (BSL) is the preferred language of many Deaf people. In 2003, the British Government officially recognised BSL as a language. There are about 70,000 BSL users in Britain and, at any given time, we are likely to have a few BSL users studying at the University of Leeds.

What is a BSL/English interpreter?

A BSL/English interpreter is a professional who is trained and experienced in working between the two languages.

How are BSL/English interpreters arranged for lectures or seminars?

If a deaf student requires an interpreter in lectures or seminars, this will normally be identified during a student’s assessment of study needs which is carried by the University’s Disability Team. If a member of staff knows of a deaf student or applicant who has not yet contacted the Disability Team, it is important to refer them on.

The Disability Team will normally handle booking arrangements and invoicing for interpreters required in lectures and seminars. In these circumstances, the cost of the interpreting will often be covered by students claiming Disabled Students Allowances.

In these circumstances, a Disability Co-ordinator will contact tutors or module leaders in advance of any lectures or seminars to find out more about the content and the materials that will be discussed. This important step will enable the interpreter to be fully prepared.

The rest of this webpage deals with a situation in which a school or service needs to book an interpreter for an event, such as a conference or departmental open day. Whilst the focus is on sign language interpreters, much of the advice will be relevant when booking other types of communication support.

The 4 steps below describe what staff at the University of Leeds should do to book a BSL/English interpreter.

Step 1: Make sure that it is a BSL/English interpreter that is required

Not all deaf people use BSL and an interpreter may not be the most appropriate option. If you are organising an event and you need or wish to book a sign language interpreter, you will need to make the booking directly, although advice may be sought from the Disability Team.

If you are booking an interpreter because you know a deaf person is attending your event, the first step is always to ask the deaf person about their communication preferences. As well as BSL/English interpreters, there are other forms of communication support that a deaf person may require or prefer:

  • Sign Supported English (SSE)
  • Lip-speakers
  • Note-takers
  • Speech-to-text reporters or electronic note-takers
  • Deafblind communicator guides/interpreters
  • Interpreters working in languages other than BSL (for example, American Sign Language)

Step 2: Booking a BSL/English interpreter (for conferences or events)

If you are booking an interpreter for an event, it will be your responsibility to brief the agency or interpreter when making a booking. Ideally, as a minimum, you should gather the following information before contacting an interpreting agency or interpreter:

  • Date and start/finish times of the event
  • Full address of event venue, directions and map
  • Contact name and telephone number of the event organiser
  • Nature of the event
  • Numbers of people involved in the event, including the number of deaf people who are expected to be present (estimated, if necessary)
  • Information about invoicing/payment procedures

You must book an interpreter as soon as possible, ideally at least two or three weeks before the event.

It is unlikely that you will be able to book an interpreter at short notice. However, if you do receive a request for such a service at short notice, you must still endeavour to meet this request to ensure that we are complying with the Equality Act 2010.

If the event will last longer than 2 hours, you are likely to require two or more interpreters. You may require even more, depending on the nature of the event. Interpreting agencies and individual interpreters will be able to advise on these issues.

Bear in mind that sign language interpreters will not only be required for the formal parts of an event/meeting. For example, people will also want to mingle before and after the meeting, or during coffee breaks. You need to allow time for this when booking an interpreter so that you do not leave a deaf person with no means of taking part in the informal discussion that takes place. This may mean that you should book more than one interpreter, even for a small event.

A BSL/English interpreter can be booked via an agency or directly. You may wish to consider contacting:

The Disability Team currently employs a Disability Co-ordinator who is also a qualified BSL/English interpreter. This person may have some availability for internal interpreting work, but would normally prioritise academic interpreting work for students. You are welcome to contact the Disability Team for information about prices and availability.

Step 3: Prepare for the event

In advance of the event, you will also need to give the interpreter(s):

  • Paperwork, including minutes, agendas and speeches
  • Name of the person in charge of the event on the day
  • Details of other interpreters or communication support workers who will be working at the event

Interpreters will be able to advise on the kind of information they need.

Step 4: Manage communication issues on the day

There are a number of things that will enable the BSL/English interpreter to provide an effective service. You should:

Allow adequate time at the start of the event to set everything up.

  • Plan the venue and seating arrangements carefully. It can make communication very difficult if you get these things wrong. Take time before an event to identify the best place for the deaf person and interpreter(s) to sit, ensuring there will be enough light to enable them to see each other clearly. In practice, whenever possible, allow the deaf person and interpreter(s) to identify the best location themselves.
  • Devote time to thinking about very practical issues. For example, if you are using microphones at a meeting, you will need to know whether the deaf person attending will be speaking or whether it will be the interpreter(s) who will require the use of a microphone.
  • Manage the agenda of your meeting appropriately. Remember that interpreters are often in great demand, and may need to leave a meeting at the time that their booking ends to travel to another assignment.
  • Remember that an interpreter is not just there to assist a deaf person. Interpreters will also be required to interpret BSL into English to enable hearing people to understand what is being said during the meeting.

Do not be afraid of asking people what their requirements are. It is much better to ask, than to make assumptions about people’s needs and get them wrong.