Supporting d/Deaf and hard of hearing people at an unconference

AdaCamp was a two-day unconference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. This page is part of the AdaCamp Toolkit, which helps you take AdaCamp’s tools and practices and apply them to your own event. You can re-use the text of this page under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license with credit to Mel Chua and the AdaCamp Toolkit.

As part of offering an accessible unconference, one accessibility option we offered on our webpages was hiring a Sign interpreter and a Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) transcriber for d/Deaf/Hard of Hearing (HoH) attendees.


Little-d and big-D d/Deaf are an important distinction to some in the d/Deaf world; “Deaf” connotes a cultural identity that is typically associated with sign language, Deaf culture, etc., whereas “deaf” connotes a medical condition that may not be associated with identity, language, and/or culture.

Providing access to the entire event

Consider that full access means full access, not just “you can understand the plenary.” How much of a conference do you go to for the plenaries — and how much of your conference value comes from having dinners with people, sitting at mixers with them, hallway track, etc? Unless a Deaf conference attendee has an interpreter sitting next to/across from them at dinner, they can’t talk to anybody at their table.

When using interpreters, general practice is to assign 1–2 conference interpreters to an attendee and have them attend the entire event with the attendee (who gets to decide when/where, coordinates with them via text message, etc.)

Sign interpreters

Offering an interpreter for sign users is vital to access for d/Deaf/HoH attendees. Many Deaf attendees will not even consider attending an event that doesn’t already have interpretation set up. This is similar to how many people will not even consider attending an event held entirely in a language they are not fluent in.

The event, not the attendee, should pay for the interpreter. Check with your accountants about whether tax credits or deductions can be claimed for sign interpretation.

Interpreting is a mentally demanding job, and the quality of interpretation suffers considerably when the interpreters fatigue. For events longer than an hour, most agencies and interpreters will mandate the use of a team — 2 interpreters, trading off with each other every 20 minutes or so in order to keep the quality of interpretation high. Additionally, AdaCamp and similar events are not the place for a student or amateur interpreter; our content was complex and the setting dynamic, so interpreting would have been a hard job.

Coordinate with the d/Deaf/HoH attendee before the event:

  • Clarify what you can provide, ie you will to the best of your ability hire and pay for an interpreter team for them, all of whom will have your country or region’s interpretation certification.
  • Let the attendee know which events the interpreter will be provided for: eg, for any or all of main sessions, unconference sessions, formal social events, trainings and/or less formal social events with other attendees.
  • If the attendee is local to the event, ask if they have a preferred interpreter. Some attendees will give you specific names of interpreters they are used to working with.
  • Ask the attendee what their sign language needs are. When asking, keep in mind that they may not be experienced in working with translators, so offer some language options that they might be able to start from when describing their needs. (See below for background on some sign language options.) If you have already contacted an agency or a local interpreter registry, you may be able to compile options from the skills of the interpreters available.

Background on sign languages and preferences: countries or regions that share a majority spoken language may have multiple sign languages. For instance, British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are completely different and mutually unintelligible languages. Signing preferences vary widely. Attendees may prefer transliteration, mouthing, a sign language such as ASL, PSE (Pidgin Signed English), or SEE (Signed Exact English). A good interpreter should be able to adjust to all of these. There are also regional sign variants, akin to regional accents. A good interpreter should also be able to adjust to all of these.

Interpreters should be certified by a country or region-level interpreting body. If your attendee does not have preferred interpreters available:

  • If you are not experienced in screening interpreters, you should work with an agency where possible. Agencies will screen and schedule interpreters.
  • In the United States, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) has a database of local certified interpreters
  • In other countries, the national or regional institute for the Deaf may provide lists of interpreters or agency referrals, as might other national or regional language translation certification bodies.
  • Ask a college/university with a sign interpreting program or a local college/university accessibility office if they have recommendations for interpreters or agencies to use.
  • Ask for interpreter referrals from your venue and your local sponsors.
  • Search the web for a local interpreting agency that uses certified interpreters.

Interpreters should be used to the language level and subject matter of the material at your event. Not all interpreters can handle college-level material or technical topics. Provide your event schedule to the interpreter or the agency with notes on any specialist vocabulary needed, eg in AdaCamp’s case feminist theory and open technology and culture terms would have been needed. Give as much notice as you reasonably can, and an absolute minimum of two to three weeks notice.

CART services

Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) transcription, or realtime transcription, is captioning of spoken words at your event as it goes ahead in realtime. It is roughly comparable in cost to sign interpretation by a team, can be done remotely, and helps for d/Deaf/HoH people who aren’t fluent in sign (including a lot of late-deafened adults) and is also a boon for non-native English speakers.

CART also improves remote participation and creates a record of the event. Finding CART services is similar to finding a sign interpreter in many respects, in terms of communicating with your attendee about the CART services you will pay for and for which events; how to find leads and how much lead time you will need.

In the US, White Coat Captioning is a specialist provider of CART services to medical and technical events.


More information about CART and using it at events is available from:

The Ada Initiaitve would like to thank our advisor Mel Chua, lead author of this document, for this invaluable contribution to the AdaCamp Toolkit.