Conveying medication prescriptions in American Sign Language: Use of emphasis in translations by interpreters and deaf physicians

Brenda Nicodemus, Laurie Swabey, Christopher Moreland


In this study we examine linguistic features produced by interpreters and deaf bilingual physicians when translating medication instructions from English into American Sign Language (ASL). In the U.S. healthcare system, signed language interpreters are frequently called upon to facilitate communication between deaf individuals who use ASL and their non-signing physicians. A small but growing number of deaf individuals are now pursuing medical training, creating a situation in which deaf patients can communicate in ASL with their healthcare providers. Numerous practical and perceptual barriers affect patients’ medication intake behaviors, including comprehension, memory of instructions, and language differences between physicians and patients. Research indicates that language concordance increases patients’ compliance to prescription treatment. It follows that direct communication in ASL between deaf patients and deaf physicians will positively impact treatment compliance of patients and may result in better recall of medical instructions. We examined the linguistic features used in English to ASL translations of two medication directions as produced by experienced ASL-English interpreters (n=3) and deaf bilingual physicians (n=3). Results showed the absence of a standard approach for translating medication directions into ASL; however, both groups incorporated the same linguistic devices to promote emphasis within the translation, including repetition, emphatic lexical signs, and prosodic markers, presumably to promote recall of key concepts by deaf patients. Lexical variability in the translations is discussed, as well as information gaps between the ASL and English versions of the medication instructions. The results hold implications for healthcare professionals, interpreters, and interpreter educators for building effective communication for deaf patients.


healthcare; prescriptions; interpreters; physicians; deaf; American Sign Language; repetition; modals; prosody; emphasis

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