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Henk Boelman for Microsoft Azure

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Adding sign language interpretation to your online event

The current situation around the world forcing us to stay at home and re-invent online conferences, offers us the opportunity to make events more accessible for community members who are deaf or hard of hearing. The past six months I have been involved in co-producing multiple online conferences that offered signed language interpretation. I worked with Maya de Wit, who runs her own company in Sign Language Interpreting Consultancy. Maya assisted me in creating this document.

I was a complete unaware of sign languages and interpretation before I started on this journey. In this article I want to share with you the things I have learned and hopefully inspire you to add sign language interpretation to your next online event.

Things I learned

A person providing sign language interpretation is called a sign language interpreter. Persons who ‘speak’ a sign language are called signers.

Sign language is not just one language

Pick the right language for your audience. I thought sign language is universal, turned out that this was not the case. Each country has their own national sign language and sometimes also regional signed languages.

The first step for your event is to ask yourself, who is the audience and where are they located. If your audience is mainly in the United States, you can go with American Sign Language (ASL). If your audience is Dutch go with NGT (Dutch Sign Language). However, in these times most online events - and especially tech events - reach a worldwide audience, so picking a local sign language excludes a lot of people by default. Luckily there is something called International Sign.

International Sign (IS) is constructed by combining common elements and lexical signs from different sign languages. IS is used in a variety of different contexts, particularly at international meetings, and informally when travelling and socializing. International Sign is a term used by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and other international organizations. Deaf people typically know only one sign language. Signers from differing countries may use IS spontaneously with each other, with relative success. This communicative success is linked to various factors. First, people who sign in IS have a certain amount of shared contextual knowledge. Secondly, signers may take advantage of shared knowledge of a spoken language, such as English. Thirdly, communication is made easier by the use of iconic signs and visual resources.

You need more than one interpreter

Interpreting is an exhausting activity – both physically as mentally. Keeping up with the story, context, jargon, references is no easy feat. This is especially so when interpreting a conversation (or: banter), or a Q&A session. You always need at least a team of two interpreters per language combination, and if the event is longer than two hours you will need at least a team of three interpreters. Ask the interpreter consultant to advise you on the recommended number of interpreters needed for your event. More importantly, check if the interpreters you want to hire are accredited: you can ask for their credentials.

Do not interact with the interpreters during the live show

The interpreters are at your event to interpret. Be a professional by respecting their work and the deaf viewers and do not comment on their interpretation or specific signs you see.

When there are technical difficulties, inform the interpreters that they can pause until further notice.

As producer you can help!

As a producer of the show (the person behind the buttons) you can support in various ways. A good thing to know is that if a person is not visible in the video stream and you can only hear their voice, it is more challenging to interpret. Deaf people do not hear who is talking, so the interpreter needs to indicate first that the person not visible on the screen is talking, before they can actually start interpreting what is being said.
Not every platform is suitable for sign language interpretation. For my events we have used different platforms like Streamyard and MS Teams. Check with the interpreter consultant if they can recommend a platform or if your preferred platform is suitable.

Size matters

The size of the interpreter's insert should be at least twenty five percent of the total broadcast screen. The insert can be either on the bottom right or the bottom left, although the latest research shows that it is better on the left side of the screen. Place a thin and dark frame around the insert to make it easier on the eyes.

What & how?

1 - Preparation

For almost everything good preparation means half the work done. To deliver the best experience possible the interpreting team needs to understand what will happen.

Know the content ahead of time

  • Outline of the complete event This gives the team a general idea about the structure, duration of sessions, and helps with planning / when to switch to another team member.
  • The content per session Share the abstract and slides of every session prior to the event. This is very helpful to understand the context and intent of the talk.
  • List of names Share with the interpreters the names of presenters, moderators and participants who have an active role in the event, so they will know how to spell the names of everyone correctly.

Taking turns

The interpreters need to be able to see each other and interact with one-another during the event to make sure switching turns is as smooth as possible. As the producer you need to know when to switch interpreters. You can do so by agreeing on a cue so that the interpreter can signal when it is time for a switch. In general, the interpreters take turns approximately every fifteen minutes.

Test the setup

Always do a test of the broadcasting setup with the interpreters a few days before the event.

In the test session check the camera setup, the audio for the interpreters (is it clear and not distorted), their lighting (no shadows on face or hands), and the size of the interpreter's insert on the screen. Ask the team to use identical colored backgrounds (preferably blue or grey), and always ask the interpreters for tips to improve the experience for the viewer.

Practice also taking turns in the test session.

Create a back channel

Create a dedicated back channel with the larger production team for your online event. It wouldn’t be an online conference if someone wouldn’t get disconnected, can’t receive an audio feed, etc.


  • Include in the speaker invite that sign language will be provided during the stream.
  • Use the icon for sign language interpretation on your website / for the sessions or tracks that will have interpretation, helping participants build their schedule accordingly.
  • In your event promotion, share that there’ll be interpretation and into which language. Some event platforms allow you to specify what accessibility features you’re offering participants. One of those platforms is

2 - Run

Ensure that all the presenters in your online event wear a headset or have a dedicated microphone. Good audio is essential for all your participants but also for the interpreters in order to provide a good interpretation.

The interpreters will inform you what their anticipated schedule is: who will start and when switching can be expected. The interpreters will interpret everything they hear, from communication, comments to obvious sounds.

3 - Debrief

Plan a debriefing session with your interpreting team to discuss how you can improve your setup to ensure a successful interpretation. If it is possible, ask your viewers for feedback on the interpretation.

When publishing your event recordings, clearly state the availability of sign language interpretation so that deaf viewers are able to find the accessible information.


Online conference with IS

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Top comments (3)

hayleydenb profile image
Hayley Denbraver 👩‍💻🥑

This is great and I hope it is helpful to organizers.

I would add that it is helpful to have both sign language interpreters and captions if possible. Why? Not all people with hearing loss know a signed language. They can either have been denied access to a signed language when growing up, or they may have lost some or all of their hearing in later life.

So why have interpreters if you have captions? Because ASL (or the signed language in your area) is a distinct language from English (or the spoken language in your area). By providing sign language interpreters, you are providing access in many D/deaf people's primary language.

Having both interpreters and captioning provides the best access.

kaysauter profile image
Kay Sauter

I am deaf myself, but I am not able to speak any sign language (I use cochlear implants and am speaking almost normally).

Hence, I also support the idea to offer both options, captions and sign language.

ruannawrites profile image

Thank you so much for this post! Having either an interpreter or captions is so important for accessibility and equity. <3