American Sign Language Interpreting: The Size and State of the Market

22 April 2021

ASL Interpreting size and state of the market

Report written by Sarah Hickey and Hannah Leske.

Table of contents

  1. American Sign Language Interpreting
  2. Methodology
  3. ASL: Facts and figures
  4. The market for American Sign Language Interpreting
    1. A local market
    2. The role of the government
    3. Buyers and main verticals
    4. The providers for ASL
    5. An interpreter-driven market
    6. Rates and margins
    7. Geographical distribution
  5. The size of the market
  6. Technology
    1. VRS
    2. VRI
    3. Captioning
    4. Apps
    5. Gloves, glasses, and other gadgets
  7. Challenges
    1. A hard market to enter
    2. Buyer vs end-user
    3. A lack of interpreters
    4. Little control over usage or location
  8. Trends, gaps, and opportunities
    1. Technology
    2. Deaf interpreters
    3. Mergers and acquisitions
    4. Business and entertainment
    5. Canada
    6. Privacy legislation
  9. How to succeed in the ASL market
  10. Conclusion

American Sign Language interpreting

Sign language interpreting is not just another language service offered by companies in the industry. It is a field with unique requirements that evolved out of and grew within the deep roots of Deaf history and Deaf culture. 

In the United States, the market for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting services is highly regulated and the right to language access for Deaf and hard of hearing (DHOH) individuals is protected by the law. Deaf communities are well-informed and protective of their rights, and compliance with the law is imperative for language service providers (LSPs) and language service buyers (LSBs).

Although ASL is the second most in-demand language (right after Spanish) in the largest interpreting and language services market in the world — the United States — it appears that it is not given enough attention within the language market. Nimdzi Insights conducted a study of the market for ASL interpreting services in order to identify key market features, trends, challenges, and opportunities.

Methodology

Over the course of this market analysis, Nimdzi reached out to a variety of players in the ASL market, ranging from small to medium-sized LSPs who exclusively focus on ASL to large national players and LSPs who offer ASL interpreting as one of many language services. In addition, Nimdzi reached out to buyers of ASL interpreting services, ASL interpreters, and members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community. The goal of the study was to assess the market from multiple angles in order to identify overarching trends, challenges, and opportunities, as well as collect data to estimate the size of the market. Nimdzi employed an investigative approach to research, data collection, and analysis in order to present data that has not been presented in a unified manner before.

Below is a summary of the methodology used for the ASL interpreting market study.

  1. We concentrated on identifying ASL interpreting companies with the assistance of on-the-ground experts, members of the Deaf community, and secondary research. Once we identified the relevant companies, we researched information that could help us make more accurate estimates of their size, location, and specialization within the ASL interpreting field. 
  2. We launched a survey aimed at ASL interpreting service providers with the goal of reaching more companies in the field and gathering substantial data about company sizes, business strategies, and industry trends.
  3. We held interviews with relevant stakeholders in the field, ranging from LSPs to LSBs, to ASL interpreters, and members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community. The goal was to gain a deeper understanding of the industry trends that stood out from the survey and secondary research, as well as to gather supplementary insights from experts in the ASL field. Over the course of the research, Nimdzi gathered data from more than 40 LSPs, 10 LSBs (in the field of education, healthcare, and employment), four ASL interpreters and three members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community. 
  4. The ASL interpreting market is a subsegment of the larger interpreting market, but remains very fragmented. While there are large LSPs operating on a national level, the bulk of the ASL interpreting service is being provided by small companies active in local communities. Although together they might make a significant contribution to the market, they are difficult to track. Therefore, our list of providers only highlights some of the larger players in the field.
  5. Our definition of interpreting services for this study includes onsite community interpreting, video remote interpreting (VRI), video relay services (VRS), conference interpreting, and remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI).

ASL: Facts and figures

  • The Gallaudet Research Institute estimates that there are around 1,000,000 functionally deaf people in the United States.
  • According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 2 to 3 out of 1,000 children are born with detectable hearing loss in the United States.
  • American Sign Language is the primary sign language of DHOH in the United States, Barbados, Bolivia, Cambodia, Canada, the Central African Republic, Chad, China and Hong Kong, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Jamaica, Kenya, Madagascar, the Philippines, Singapore, and Zimbabwe.
  • Rochester, New York, has the largest Deaf population per capita of all cities in the US
  • The market for American Sign Language interpreting services is dominated by small, local providers, with several large, national players.
  • The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf lists 10,253 certified ASL interpreters in the United States and Canada (at the time of writing).
  • The largest verticals in the industry are healthcare and education.
  • Video relay services (VRS) and video remote interpreting (VRI) are the most common ASL interpreting technologies, but alternative technological solutions are on the rise.
  • There are two universities for the Deaf in the United States: Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York.

The market for American Sign Language interpreting

A local market

It is no news that the language services industry is fragmented. According to the 2020 edition of the Nimdzi 100, the top 100 companies only concentrate 14.5% of the market in terms of revenue. Within this USD 57 billion industry, interpreting services account for about USD 7.6 billion or 13.3% (source: The Nimdzi Interpreting Index). 

Although the concentration of LSPs is higher in the interpreting market (the top companies account for 33.2% of the market) than the overall language services industry, the market for ASL interpreting services is extremely fragmented. There are only a handful of large companies that provide services nationwide (see below) — with the biggest players being Sorenson Community Interpreting and LanguageLine Solutions. The vast majority of this unique subsegment of the larger language market is made up of small providers who have specialized in ASL interpreting, or medium- to large-sized LSPs who provide a variety of language services and have added ASL divisions to provide ASL interpreting on a local level. This is due to two main reasons:
 

  1. A preference for onsite interpreting
  2. A close connection to the local community

While onsite interpreting is preferred for most languages, this predilection is particularly strong for ASL interpreting. This is mostly due to the nature of the language, which is inherently three-dimensional, and also due to negative experiences with video remote interpreting (VRI) when it first came onto the market in the early 2000s. Because of the popularity of onsite interpreting, providers and interpreters need to be present locally. This is why most LSPs serve specific communities or cities.

The importance of community connection stems from the history of discrimination against Deaf Americans. Although this has improved significantly, Deaf communities are still very protective of their language and human rights, and “outsiders” can find it difficult to gain trust. Interpreters are generally perceived as allies, but this does not automatically extend to providers of ASL interpreting services. Having close connections in the local community helps an LSP gain trust from its Deaf end-users.

The role of the government

In the United States, Deaf rights are protected by law. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can expect to receive the same access to public life as hearing people, and may not be denied or excluded from services, or otherwise treated differently. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forms the basis for the provision of services for the Deaf.

At the most basic level, the ADA mandates that:

  • Equal access must be provided in places which are open to the public, and auxiliary aids must be supplied to ensure equal communication is accessible.
  • Deaf users cannot be charged for these aids and services.

Although these rights are nationally mandated, regulation is sometimes left to local governments and can vary between states. 

In fact, inconsistencies between federal and local regulations were highlighted just this year, when the White House was sued over failing to provide ASL interpreters for COVID-19 announcements on television, despite governors of all 50 US states individually providing this service already (source: Court House News).

Legal action is not uncommon if ASL interpreting services are not provided or are inadequate — this can even include providing an uncertified interpreter. The Deaf community is very well-educated about their rights and has the support of the ADA and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) in these cases.

Buyers and main verticals

ASL interpreting services can be required in all areas of life but the largest markets for these services are in healthcare and education. Within these sectors, buyers tend to be hospitals, schools (K-12), or higher education institutions (college or university).

While schools certainly have the option to merge into groups or districts and combine their contracts, this happens infrequently. Instead, they commonly engage freelance interpreters as necessary. These contracts are often set up for one interpreter per Deaf student for the academic year and are worth roughly USD 35,000.

Higher education institutions and hospitals are considerably more likely to form larger groups and award contracts to LSPs for ASL interpreting services. For many hospitals, outsourcing to an LSP is also a way to share responsibility and legal risk.

In higher education, the demand for ASL interpreting services can be less predictable, as students might, for example, transfer to another college mid-year. Contracting with an LSP can make it easier for universities and colleges to fill demand as needed and also provide other services, such as professional note-taking — a service sometimes utilized by DHOH students in universities who do not have ASL as their first language and were instead trained to read lips. Reading lips requires an enormous amount of mental effort and can therefore be quite tiring, so having a professional note-taker can ease the cognitive load for a DHOH student. Educational institutions are required to provide these services, in addition to ASL interpreters, if requested.

The higher education market is growing steadily, as more and more Deaf students enroll in universities and colleges, and demand for interpreting in this sector increases. This also flows over into the employment market: as students graduate, they seek services when applying for jobs and entering workplaces.

At present, our research indicates that demand in the employment sector seems to be largely limited to the hiring and onboarding phase. Once Deaf employees settle into the workplace, they are often left to their own devices and excluded from meetings instead of being provided with an interpreter. This limits the Deaf person’s access and hinders their ability to work at their full potential. At the same time, a new trend is emerging where ASL interpreters, for example, specialize in the high-tech sector to provide services for Deaf employees in large Silicon Valley enterprises. Macro-trends like this might indicate a mindset shift among employers that could translate into higher demand for ASL services in the employment sector.

Other notable verticals are the social services and legal sectors. In addition, it is worth pointing out that the government is the largest employer of Deaf people. This is why there is a high demand for ASL interpreters in Washington D.C. and we can find a cluster of LSPs here who are competing for local contracts with the federal government. 

Even here though, the contracts available tend to be relatively small. High-level government agencies usually hire a handful of individual staff interpreters, with contracts worth around USD 120,000 per year. Enterprises, like the ones in Silicon Valley, also tend to engage individual interpreters to meet demand (one interpreter per Deaf employee), rather than engaging LSPs.

Finally, there is a growing demand in entertainment, as simultaneous ASL interpreting enables access for the Deaf community to concerts, shows, theater, television broadcasting, and more. This sector is worth keeping an eye on, as the potential remains largely untapped thus far.

National contracts

Large national contracts for ASL interpreting services tend to be few and far between, but those that do exist can be worth up to seven figures. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), for example, provides ASL interpreting services for all its Deaf and hard of hearing employees (current and prospective), guests, and visitors across all locations in the United States, including Puerto Rico, and Guam, via a multi-million-dollar contract. The IRS contract is just one example, and similar large contracts that are worth noting are also offered by:

  • The National Institutes of Health
  • The Social Security Administration
  • The US Postal Service
  • The Department of Defense

In rare cases, large, national contracts are awarded by hospitals with subsidiaries in different states, such as Kaiser Permanente. 

Additional large national contracts are available for specific services such as video relay services (VRS), which are funded by the Telecommunications Relay Service fund. However, these services can only be provided by a handful of vendors approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

What Buyers are looking for

It is important to note that the market for ASL interpreting services is very much driven by the need to be compliant with ADA regulations. Businesses and public institutions can be held liable if acceptable services are not provided, and many buyers hire interpreters because they need to, not because they want to.

As a result, buyers often want services that first and foremost are easy to use. Some businesses consider captioning or written communication an adequate form of language communication for Deaf people — this opinion is not shared by native ASL signers, for whom English is not their first language.

To minimize the extra work and total headcount for their business, many buyers seek a vendor who can handle all aspects of DHOH service provision. Most ideal is a vendor with a good track record who can provide services at scale, who is compliant across different states, and who can optimize their services to minimize cost through the use of tools like technology and automation.

For enterprise buyers, accessibility is also a significant factor when selecting a provider. Remote solutions are often preferred, so a Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) provider may be chosen over a regular LSP or specialized ASL interpreting service provider.

The Providers for ASL

The vast majority of providers of ASL interpreting services are small. According to our research, a large proportion of providers’ revenue from ASL services is less than USD 500,000. A provider with an ASL revenue of USD 5 million would be considered a big player in the industry. Because most providers operate on a local level with deep links to the community, they are often affectionately likened to “mom-and-pop” shops.

Many small providers specialize in interpreting for ASL, rather than offering services for multiple languages. Despite actively limiting their potential market, this specialization is often beneficial rather than detrimental. It has been noted that larger LSPs can easily run into trouble when attempting to expand into the ASL market, as they fail to recognize and appreciate the distinct differences between signed and spoken languages.

While the importance of community connection can make it challenging to expand nationally, this is not an impossible task. Below is a list of some of the largest providers within the ASL interpreting market. Companies are listed in alphabetical order:

ASL Interpreting Service providers

Sorenson Community Interpreting and LanguageLine Solutions are the largest players in the ASL market. Sorenson Community Interpreting is the market share leader for VRS — for which the FCC estimates a total funding requirement of USD 482 million for the year 2019-2020 (between all VRS providers). In addition, Sorenson also holds a contract with the US Postal Service.

LanguageLine Solutions is the global market leader for all interpreting services. The company’s revenue in the latest fiscal year (2019) was USD 530 million, of which about 94% is generated by interpreting services. Within their interpreting division, ASL is the second largest language, right after Spanish. 

Despite their top positions, the two companies do not heavily compete with one another. This is because they focus on different areas of the ASL market. While Sorenson Community Interpreting also offers onsite interpreting and VRI, the company’s focus within the ASL market is on the provision of VRS. In contrast, LanguageLine Solutions does not provide any VRS and instead focuses heavily on the provision of onsite services for ASL and also offers VRI. 

When asked who their top competitors are, almost all providers that we spoke to – regardless of size – indicated that their most significant competition is from small, local, or regional LSPs. Ultimately, this is evidence of the value of local connections in the ASL interpreting market.

An interpreter-driven market

Much more so than in spoken language interpreting, ASL interpreters have a strong impact on the market in terms of working conditions and rates. For two main reasons:

  • A considerable shortage of interpreters relative to market demand
  • A need for compliance

There is a shortage of interpreters in the ASL market and unlike in spoken language interpreting, not just any bilingual person can be used as an interpreter. Virtually all LSPs in the ASL market work exclusively with interpreters from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), as certification is strongly encouraged and Deaf individuals have the right to sue if the interpreter provided to them does not hold a certification. Not using an interpreter is not an option for buyers, as the ADA guarantees communication access.

What this means is that ASL interpreters are a rare commodity — and they know it. ASL interpreters tend to be very well organized and form a united front when it comes to working conditions and rates, leaving very little room for negotiation. This creates an interpreter-driven market where LSPs have to go the extra mile to stand out as an employer of choice. Forming a close connection with the local ASL interpreters is essential to be accepted by the community. Offering more than monetary benefits is an asset.

ASL rates and margins

Recommended rates for both ASL interpreters and providers are published by state. These are often significantly higher than rates for spoken-language interpreting.

While some interpreters may charge more than these recommended rates, it is uncommon for them to accept anything lower. Some providers prefer this price rigidity, claiming it makes it easier to succeed in the market as there is less of a price battle.

Nimdzi surveyed a panel of LSPs offering interpreting services in the US, asking them what rates they offered for ASL interpreting services. Furthermore, we wanted to compare them with the rates they offer for spoken-language onsite community interpreting.

We found that hourly rates for ASL can vary between USD 50 - 150, which is about 25% more expensive than for Spanish onsite interpreting.

When compared with rates offered for spoken-language onsite community interpreting, those for ASL interpreting can be on average up to 25% higher than some of the European languages, but still lower than the averages rates for interpreting for Asian languages.

Rates are generally quoted for a two-hour minimum session plus overtime, although this can vary between verticals. Interestingly, buyers often search for rates for a 30-minute slot, indicating a discordance between their understanding of the market and the real demand from Deaf end-users.

Our research revealed that gross margins for LSPs and providers can vary significantly, with responses ranging from 20% to 50%. On average, onsite margins tend to be about 30-40%, while video remote interpreting (VRI) margins are a little higher, at about 40-50%.

Geographical distribution

The following geo-map indicates the distribution of certified ASL interpreters across US states, according to RID data (2020). While this does not specifically show the distribution of ASL users, it does indicate trends in demand for ASL interpreters.

ASL Interpreter location

Across the US, there are several core hubs where Deaf people have congregated over time. Many of these communities first formed decades ago.

For example, the Deaf community in Rochester, New York — which boasts the largest Deaf population per capita in the US — grew from an initial cluster of Deaf employees at New York’s former printing industry. Deaf people often found work in the print industry as they were able to work next to the loud machines without any trouble. 

The Rochester community continues to grow today because the National Technical Institute for the Deaf is located in the city. The high concentration of Deaf people and, consequently, higher awareness and acceptance of Deaf culture in the broader community attracts DHOH people who have perhaps felt isolated in their previous neighborhoods.

A hub has also formed in Washington D.C., driven predominantly by the presence of government institutions (which employ a high number of Deaf people) and Gallaudet University — the largest university for the Deaf in the United States. Other notable hubs include Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

ASL is also used in Canada by a majority of the Deaf population (estimated to be 340,000 people in 2018). The distribution of Deaf services within Canada is harder to track but seems to be predominantly concentrated in the eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec, where several of the earliest-founded schools for DHOH students are still running (although it is worth pointing out in French-speaking Quebec, Quebec Sign Language — LSQ — is more commonly used). The Provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba also have schools for Deaf students. The market for ASL interpreting in Canada is less mature in comparison to the US but recent legislative changes and the COVID-19 pandemic seem to bring about positive change for the rights and services for the Deaf. As the demand for ASL interpreting in Canada starts to grow, the market offers significant untapped potential for established ASL interpreting providers from the US. 

The size of the market

The market for ASL interpreting services is extremely fragmented. High fragmentation is characteristic of the language services industry in general, as the barrier to entry is low. That being said, the ASL field is even more splintered than the rest of the language industry. This is because having close ties to the local Deaf and ASL interpreter Community is essential in this field and most local markets are run by little, well-established mom-and-pop shops who developed within the community. This stipulation can make it harder for ASL providers to grow and expand nationally. On the other hand, low concentration is also always an indicator of an open market with plenty of opportunities.

The ASL interpreting market is built on the foundation of a strong legal basis, provided by ADA. While the strict legal regulations can be a challenge for LSPs, they also guarantee a continuous need for ASL interpreting services. The market for these services is far from saturated, as Deaf people are increasingly gaining access to all areas of life. In other words, there is plenty of business already and the market is expected to grow.

We estimate the market for ASL interpreting services in the United States in 2021 at USD 900 million to 1.2 billion. 

This includes core services such as onsite interpreting, video relay services (VRS), video remote interpreting (VRI), conference interpreting, and remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI).

Interpreting providers should calculate the addressable market for their services at 60 percent of the total figure. This is because not all interpreting services are outsourced to LSPs. Large government institutions like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employ staff interpreters as well as freelancers, rather than working with agencies. The same goes for most schools and businesses in the private sector who employ Deaf individuals.

Using mergers and acquisitions (M&A) to expand into new states and regions is a key strategy in the ASL market. As the need for ASL interpreting services grows, we can expect to see more consolidation, which, over time, will slowly reduce the current dispersion in the field. 

The graph below is based on the total size of the global language services industry in 2020 (USD 57 billion), as estimated in the Nimdzi 100. The graph shows how much of this market is made up of all global interpreting services (USD 7.6 billion, as estimated in the Nimdzi Interpreting Index), and how much of the global interpreting market is generated by ASL interpreting services (maximum size estimated at USD 1.2 billion).

Size of the ASL interpreting market relative to the rest of the language industry, in USD billion

ASL Interpreting market size

Source: Nimdzi Insights

While it might seem unusual that, according to our estimates, the market for ASL interpreting services makes up between 11.8 and 15.8% of the global market for all interpreting services, it is important to keep in mind that:

  1. The United States is by far the largest market for interpreting services worldwide
  2. ASL is the second largest language within this market — right after Spanish

It is also worth noting that our estimated size for the ASL market is only for the ASL interpreting services in the United States. It does not include interpreting services in other countries that also use ASL, such as Canada.

Technology

Technology has long played a role in the ASL market. In fact, Deaf people communicated via video calls long before smartphones and web conferencing. Before video calls, Deaf people used Text Telephones (TTY) to make phone calls. TTYs are equipped with keyboards for typing messages and screens (or paper printouts) for displaying them. TTYs connect to a standard phone line, and a communication assistant transcribes what the hearing person says and speaks what the Deaf person types. However, since texting via mobile phones became widely available, TTYs became obsolete.

Telecommunications relay service (TRS) is the group name for all communication services for the Deaf, which are funded by the Telecommunications Relay Fund. These include:

  • Video relay service (VRS)
  • TTY relay service
  • Speech-to-speech relay service
  • Internet protocol relay service
  • Internet protocol captioned telephone service
  • Captioned telephone service 

The Telecommunications Relay Fund is controlled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and publicly funded, although it is not tax-funded. Instead, the ADA requires that all phone providers be contracted to the Telecommunications Relay Fund, and charges are listed on everyone’s phone bill in the United States. For the year 2019-2020, the FCC estimates the total funding requirement for all Telecommunications Relay Services at USD 1.4 billion. 

VRS

Video relay service (VRS) is well established in the United States. It allows Deaf people to make phone calls to anyone via a special videophone and provides instant access to a sign language interpreter. Usually, VRS phones are connected to televisions to allow the best visual quality possible for the Deaf user. VRS is provided free of charge and is one of the services that are funded by the Telecommunications Relay Fund.

A key feature of the VRS market is that only selected companies are allowed to provide these services, meaning that proceeds go to these few select providers. Sorenson Community Interpreting is the current market share leader for VRS.

VRS is well-established in the Deaf community. The onset of COVID-19 sparked a rise in demand again and there are now more interpreters working in VRS than ever.

VRI

Once access to computers, smartphones, and tablets increased, further technology-aided solutions became available, in particular video remote interpreting (VRI). This had a tangible impact on the market structure, as VRI services could be provided by anyone, rather than just the approved VRS providers. The buying structure also shifted from Deaf individuals to companies and institutions that provide interpreting services to Deaf customers.

Despite the apparent potential for VRI technology, it is unpopular among Deaf communities and is yet to be fully accepted in the ASL interpreting market, even though it was introduced almost fifteen years ago.

VRI has continuously received pushback from the Deaf community, chiefly because it was initially forced on users as the only solution, even over onsite interpreting. A decade ago there were also significant problems with internet connection and video quality, so remote interpreters were often difficult to understand. Consequent miscommunication caused a lot of harm in some settings (hospitals, for example) and, although the technology has improved tremendously, many Deaf people still reject VRI today.

The clear position of the Deaf community remains that VRI should never be used in healthcare or legal settings, where clear communication is crucial. The additional cognitive load is considered an unfair burden on individuals who are already under significant stress in these situations.

Some concessions have had to be made during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have helped re-open the door to VRI solutions for some use cases. Certainly, the experience for those who use it today is much more positive than it was in 2010, and there are situations in which it could be beneficial. For example, in the corporate world, where Deaf employees receive very little access to interpreting services. Introducing scheduled VRI for business meetings could allow for more inclusion of Deaf people in the workplace. Employers can benefit from providing such services as well, as it will allow Deaf people to reach their full potential at work. Scheduled VRI would be preferred over on-demand services, as it gives individuals the opportunity to select an interpreter that is specialized in their field and who, over time, knows their history — leading to overall better communication.

VRS vs VRI

Strange as it may seem, VRI and VRS are not in direct competition with one another. This is because they fulfill different purposes. VRS is designed to enable Deaf people to make phone calls. It can therefore only be used in scenarios where a hearing person would also use a phone, i.e. when they are not in the same room as the person they want to communicate with. This means that VRS can not be used during onsite doctor-patient consultations or in business meetings when all parties are in the same place. Therefore, for conference interpreting or community interpreting in an official public setting — a courtroom or hospital — onsite interpreting or VRI are the only two options to choose from.

That said, the lines have become somewhat blurred since the rise of web conferencing because Zoom and other platforms offer participants the option to dial in via phone.

Captioning

It is worth highlighting again that captions and subtitles are not considered acceptable alternatives to ASL interpreting for first language ASL users.

However, Deaf people for whom ASL is not the first language (generally, those who went deaf later in life or who grew up learning to lip-read and speak instead of using ASL) appreciate captioning services. Captioning can also be used to assist ASL users in work meetings or conferences where having an interpreter is impossible. Despite the rise of speech recognition and automatic captioning, this tends to be mistrusted and human captioning is still preferred.

Caption calling is also an emerging technology aimed at speaking DHOH people. These devices are often handheld and function similarly to a one-way, portable TTY phone: a hearing person speaks into the device, their words are transcribed on a screen for the Deaf person to read and respond to orally. A plethora of caption calling devices are available at a range of prices. This year, with the widespread use of facemasks, caption calling has become particularly relied upon by the speaking and lip-reading Deaf population.

Apps

Speech-to-text apps (similar to caption calling devices but downloaded onto a smartphone) are gaining popularity in the speaking DHOH Community. There are several apps on the market that allow Deaf individuals who can speak to communicate with anyone they meet at the click of a button. The apps will instantly transcribe what the hearing person says and the Deaf person can respond orally. For signing Deaf, FaceTime and other video apps are used for communication with one another.

There are not yet any successful apps for remote ASL interpreting, but our research suggests that this is not a large potential market. After all, VRS and onsite interpreting are publicly funded, so Deaf people are unlikely to pay for an interpreting service for situations in shops and restaurants where pointing and writing is usually adequate and free of charge.

Gloves, glasses, and other gadgets

With the rise of technology, there are naturally some fun and innovative ASL interpreting gadgets available. However, when considered critically, many of these offer minimal potential for genuine ASL interpreting support in the real world.

Products like interpreting gloves disregard the importance of facial expressions and body movements, which form a critical part of ASL grammar, and are therefore not expected to have any tangible impact on the market.

Challenges

A hard market to enter

Perhaps the greatest challenge to succeeding as an ASL interpreting provider is breaking into the market initially. The market is well regulated, interpreters are very organized, rates are inflexible, Deaf people are informed about and protective of their rights, and community connections are vital for gaining trust and acceptance. If people don’t know you, they won’t work with you.

For LSPs who don’t understand the unique market conditions — such as those adding ASL as one of many language services that they offer — entering this market can be particularly difficult. Expecting spoken language solutions to work for ASL is an easy mistake to make, but one that can backfire just as easily.

Even after entering the market, the localized structure means it can be difficult to expand nationally. Freelance interpreters and small ASL providers dominate local markets and some verticals (particularly education), and even large national contracts from government agencies are often won by individual staff interpreters.

Buyer vs end-user

Another challenge in the ASL market is that buyers and end-users of interpreting services are not the same people and both have vastly different requirements and motivations. As a provider, it can be challenging to keep both parties happy. In many cases, it is difficult to convince buyers that ASL interpreting services are necessary at all, much less that quality services are worth investing in.

At the same time, end-users must be provided with adequate services. This is further complicated by the fact that Deaf people are inclined to take legal action if they feel that they do not receive suitable services. Having a national organization to defend Deaf rights, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), means that there is often considerable support for Deaf people taking this course of action. It is worth pointing out that that is one major difference to the market for spoken language interpreting, as there is no association that actively protects the right to language access for non-English native speakers.

Finding the right balance that keeps both parties happy, is a challenge that LSPs in the ASL must learn to navigate. When trying to sell ASL interpreting services, the best strategy for LSPs is to remind buyers of a need to comply with the law, as well as to explain that improper communication can potentially cause severe harm, especially in medical and legal settings. It can also be worth stressing that partnering with an LSP who knows the ASL market well can significantly reduce the risk of non-compliance with the ADA.

A lack of interpreters

The biggest challenge mentioned by every provider is that there is a considerable lack of ASL interpreters. As more Deaf people obtain higher degrees and enter all levels of society and employment, the demand for interpreting services is on the rise. At the same time, however, it appears that the number of available interpreters has plateaued. In some cases, this is simply because of a lack of awareness that being an ASL interpreter is a viable career and also because ASL might be considered a more specialized field. However, the lack of interpreters is certainly further complicated by a recent suspension of RID certification.

In the United States, there are only two national certifying bodies: the RID and the NAD. Practically all ASL interpreters are registered with the RID, and most providers hire from this single list. Although certification is not a formal requirement for working as an ASL interpreter, it is strongly encouraged and, due to the associated legal risk, LSPs often refuse to work with non-certified interpreters.

Obtaining national certification has recently become more difficult. The RID’s test needed to be updated but COVID-19 has delayed any recommencement of this, which in turn led to the RID suspending its certifying process. 

Ensuring certification is further complicated by inconsistencies in local requirements. Some states have their own accreditations and require interpreters to hold specific certifications in order to work in the state; others don’t. LSPs are expected to keep track of which interpreters are licensed where.

Little control over usage or location

LSPs often have very little control over when and where interpreting services will be required, particularly within the healthcare sector. Interpreters are often required onsite, sporadically and at short notice, and very little can be done to predict these demands.

From a business perspective, this makes it difficult for LSPs to plan for or rely on a certain number of assignments per year.  It can also make it difficult to provide interpreters promptly when required onsite and ensuring that interpreters are available where needed can be logistically impractical in regions with very few or no ASL interpreters. Despite the challenge this poses to providers, end-users are still entitled to an interpreter, as per the ADA. 

Trends, gaps, and opportunities

We have broken this section down based on the major trends and opportunities that stood out from the research:

Technology

For now, onsite interpreting is by far the preferred mode. Clients are comfortable with it, and technology has previously been insufficient for video remote interpreting to work effectively. However, some LSPs express optimism that VRI will become more accepted for certain use cases within the next decade.

Video remote interpreting 

As technology develops and connectivity speeds increase, it is indisputable that VRI services offer potential benefits, when used and offered the right way and in the right scenario. 

Some LSPs predict that COVID-19 may be a turning point for VRI. Growing pains with the rapid shift to web conferencing and online calls have created a new appreciation for the challenges of remote interpreting and may actually benefit the VRI market.

Perhaps the largest potential for VRI is in spaces where other interpreting services are currently not available. An example is the recent implementation of VRI as a short-term solution in hospital emergency departments while an onsite interpreter is en route. This might be particularly useful in remote regions where it can take an interpreter hours to get to the end-user. While this breaks the community’s “rule” of not using VRI in healthcare, it might be considered a better option than providing no interpreter when Deaf patients first arrive. An onsite interpreter can then be used for the proper consultation with the doctor. 

VRI could also be introduced in public spaces such as banks, where an onsite interpreter might not be reached as quickly, but interactions are long enough that written communication may be tedious. As mentioned above, scheduled VRI could also be used to increase access in workplaces, where many employers still choose not to hire full-time interpreters for Deaf employees. Importantly, scheduled VRI would mean that the same interpreter can be requested every time, which can increase communication success.

Over time, gradual exposure to video remote interpreting could improve the acceptance of this technology, further increasing the growth potential. Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced more people to work from home, there has been a noticeable increase in the acceptance of virtual interpreting technology (VIT) in general — for spoken languages as well as for ASL.

However, it can be expected that onsite interpreting will always remain the preferred mode, as it is not considered ideal to use a 2-D medium for communication in a 3-D language.

Remote simultaneous interpreting

Remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI), which is largely being used for multilingual web conferencing, appears to be making inroads into the ASL market as well. The market for web conferencing is expanding rapidly. Even before March 2020, web conferencing software and services were forecast to reach a market size of USD 5.4 billion by 2025. Since the pandemic, these estimates have gone up significantly and experts predict that the market will reach USD 12.8 billion by 2025 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.2 percent. 

As the market for web conferencing is expanding, the market for multilingual web conferencing is expanding with it. RSI providers are seizing the day and are broadening their service offerings. Prominent providers in this space, such as KUDO and ScheduleInterpreter, have added ASL and other sign languages to their portfolio. Especially in the employment sector, RSI could be utilized to increase access for Deaf people, for example, if RSI can easily be added to internal meetings.

A blended model

Our research shows that the majority of LSPs foresee a blended business model for ASL interpreting services where providers offer both onsite interpreting and VRI. Just offering VRI is not a viable option, given the lack of acceptance by the Deaf community. Exclusively focusing on onsite interpreting might be good enough for now, but the market is changing and LSPs would be wise to invest in the future now — which includes adding VRI services to their portfolio. While it might take a while to grow the VRI market and onsite interpreting will likely remain the preferred mode, now is the time to look at the market and see where VRI services can fill a current gap. Becoming a leader in a new sector for ASL interpreting could set an LSP ahead of the game. 

Deaf interpreters

Deaf interpreters, or Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDI), are Deaf individuals who work as interpreters, to allow for better communication for ASL users. Deaf interpreters usually work alongside hearing ASL interpreters, so two interpreters are required for one assignment. It might be hard for hearing people to grasp why a Deaf interpreter can be preferred over an ASL interpreter. The easiest analogy is to compare the speech of a native language speaker with the speech of someone who speaks with an accent. Listening to someone with a strong accent can be difficult and requires more concentration. Someone who is not a native speaker might also miss important cultural nuances — which is also why in spoken language interpreting, interpreters typically interpret only from other languages into their native language. The same idea applies to Deaf people for whom a Deaf interpreter is easier to understand. Deaf interpreters are particularly beneficial for Deaf people with compromised language capabilities or where it is necessary to lessen the cognitive load, for example in particularly stressful situations.

While it is not always feasible to have two interpreters for one assignment, there are many cases in which it makes sense to use a Deaf interpreter:

  • In high-visibility cases, such as conveying emergency COVID-19 information
  • In emergencies or when conveying particularly critical information, such as medical diagnoses and recommendations
  • When interpreting for young Deaf children 
  • When interpreting for Deafblind people, in which case tactile interpreting (using touch) or close-vision interpreting (when individuals have some vision left) is used
  • In rural areas, as Deaf people often grow up without proper ASL training and use their own version of ASL instead. In these cases, Deaf interpreters are often better equipped to understand what the person is signing (as many have also grown up in similar scenarios).
  • When working with Deaf refugees, who use different sign languages 

Many Deaf interpreters are trained to interpret between different sign languages, which can also open the door to providing interpreting services for Deaf tourists. As immigration in the US increases, this market is expected to grow. 

Mergers and acquisitions

The market for ASL interpreting services is growing and LSPs in the field are increasingly looking to expand their national reach. As elaborated above, this is no easy task, as it is essential for ASL interpreting providers to establish close ties with the local Deaf community in every new city, region, or state they wish to enter. Many LSPs consider acquiring a smaller, local provider to be one of the best ways to enter a new market, as these local mom-and-pop shops will already have ties to the local community. Some of the larger LSPs we interviewed reported that consolidation in the industry is already happening and that they foresee increased M&A activity as one of the upcoming trends in the ASL field

Business and entertainment

As more Deaf people obtain higher degrees (18.8% of Deaf people completed a Bachelor’s degree in 2017, up from 15.9% in 2008) and subsequently enter the workforce (just under 20% of Deaf people were gainfully employed in 2019), demand for interpreting in these verticals will continue to increase. This is already creating a need for interpreting in the workforce.

The market seems to lack an attractive solution for buyers at the moment, who only tend to engage LSPs for the interview stage. Beyond this, Deaf employees are largely left to fend for themselves and are not provided with services to enable them to participate fully.

Further opportunities lie in interpreting for specific professional fields, such as tech businesses in Silicon Valley. Some interpreters already specialize in high-tech interpreting, for example, and LSPs would just need to engage these interpreters and market the services to buyers.

Another vertical with growth potential is entertainment: interpreters can be added for theater productions, musicals, concerts, the opera... the list is limitless. An important consideration is whether the inconsistent nature of the work lends itself well to an LSP, or whether this is better suited to self-employed interpreters. Alternatively, perhaps an option for LSPs who wish to capitalize on this opportunity is to offer interpreting services directly to theaters and large musical companies. 

Canada

As mentioned in the Geographic distribution section, Canada is a largely unexplored market. Multilingualism is already well established in Canada, thanks to the nation’s long-term use of both English and French as official languages, but the sign language market is not yet as regulated as it is in the United States (although, the Accessible Canada Act was passed last year).

In particular, the technology used for sign language interpreting in Canada is lagging well behind the US, and the sector offers significant potential for growth. VRS was only introduced in 2016 (available in the United States since 2002). There is also the potential for VRI technology to be implemented in Canada, particularly in remote regions. It may even be a viable option in sectors where it is rejected in the US, such as healthcare, as Canadian hospitals can sometimes be located hours from ASL interpreters.

The main difficulty in the Canadian market is ensuring that all ASL services are also available in LSQ, as the federal mandate to ensure multilingual access (English and French) extends to sign language as well.

US-businesses, such as Convo Communications have already made inroads into the Canadian market, proving that there is potential for more. 

Privacy legislation

Privacy legislation is something that is not really being talked about in the ASL market yet. However, it has the potential to create waves. A privacy act inspired by Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has already been passed in California, with states such as New York, Illinois, and Washington expected to draft similar laws this year.

These laws will make it harder for small, local providers to operate without making significant changes, but this could leave space for larger, established LSPs to expand and fill this gap.

How to succeed in the ASL market

Our data show that there are a few standout requirements that LSPs must meet to succeed in the ASL interpreting industry. 

Number one: Investing energy into building close connections with DHOH communities

We know that the market can be difficult to break into without community contacts. But how can LSPs foster these connections, or establish them in regions of prospective expansion?

One method for gaining respect and trust from Deaf clients is to employ Deaf staff, particularly in roles which are visible to end-users. This approach has, for example, been used by Sorenson Community Interpreting, where Deaf staff are hired to install VRS technology in homes. Not only do Deaf clients feel more comfortable with technicians who speak their language, but in close-knit communities, some clients may even know the Deaf staff members.

Similarly, using high-up ASL interpreters in consultancy and sales roles when exploring prospective regions can be valuable. These interpreters can offer an in-depth understanding of market features and common difficulties for interpreters. They may even have pre-existing contacts who they can consult with.

Finally, mergers can be a remarkably simple way to expand into a new region, especially for LSPs with limited understanding of the ASL interpreting services market. Acquiring a smaller ASL-specialist company also means acquiring their preexisting networks and connections, so LSPs do not need to establish these relationships from scratch.

Number two: Treating interpreters well and fostering relationships

Demand for ASL interpreters exceeds supply, resulting in an interpreter-driven market. LSPs may need to offer additional benefits and incentives in order to win over loyal staff. One option here is to create a community for interpreting staff members: ASL interpreters are often isolated in their roles and may appreciate a lively, social community.

The best thing that an LSP can acquire is a loyal and happy team of ASL interpreters. 

Number three: Providing services that are compliant with regulations and easy for buyers to use

For many buyers, the main motivation behind engaging an LSP or ASL interpreting service provider is to ensure that they are compliant with ADA regulations. Buyers do not want to spend too much time or energy implementing these services, so systems must be easy to use and compliant.

Number four: A diversified client base

For an LSP already operating in the industry, the best strategy for long-term success is to ensure diversity of services and be present in multiple verticals — a lesson taught in particular by COVID-19. Unfortunately, LSPs who specialized in the affected verticals (most notably, education) were hit the hardest by the pandemic in 2020.

Conclusion

The ASL services industry is vital for Deaf communities in the United States and select countries around the world. The ASL market in the United States is growing, so there is no shortage of opportunities for businesses in this field — which is great news. However, the ASL market needs to be navigated carefully and those who are unfamiliar with the specific challenges that it comes with, are unlikely to succeed. Knowing the unique requirements of Deaf communities and establishing close ties is the make or break for LSPs in this field.  

For the most part, local small and medium providers dominate the market. While there are a handful of large national contracts in the seven-figure range, the majority of contracts are small and local. Expanding nationally is challenging but achievable and there are a number of large providers who successfully provide ASL interpreting services across different states. This trend is set to increase through M&A activity as the market for ASL interpreting services continues to grow.

Demand from buyers is predominantly driven by the need to be compliant with ADA regulations and LSPs may struggle to keep buyers and end-users happy. However, buyers in the employment sector seem to slowly wake up to the benefits of providing better access to their Deaf employees in order to leverage their full potential. In hospitals and legal settings, LSPs can stress the fact that providing interpreting services does not only ensure legal compliance but can also prevent serious harm caused by miscommunication. 

There is significant potential in emerging sectors such as employment, entertainment, as well as in the Canadian market.

Technological advancements are on the rise but are still in second place behind established services such as onsite interpreting and VRS. That being said, the market for alternative services, such as captioning, speech-to-text apps, and even VRI are picking up and have the potential to expand the market and offer more access for Deaf people in all areas of life. When looking to introduce new technologies, it is advisable to do so in cooperation with the Deaf Community, who ultimately will decide whether technologies will just be a flash in the pan or actually successful. 

Targeting Deaf people as potential direct buyers of services or technologies is unlikely to be successful, given that VRS and onsite ASL interpreting are provided free of charge. This means that for any new services and technologies that are being developed, having to satisfy both end-users and buyers from public or private organizations will remain a challenge.  

Overall the research shows that while the ASL market can be challenging, it can also be a lucrative niche for LSPs to be in. The potential for growth in this field is huge, thanks to a solid legal framework and an active Deaf community who are entering more and more areas of society and are demanding equal access in all of them. 

Sarah Hickey VP Research Nimdzi Insights

This report was researched and written by Nimdzi's VP of Research, Sarah Hickey. If you wish to learn more, reach out to Sarah at [email protected].

Hannah Leske Nimdzi Insights

This report was researched and written by Nimdzi's Localization Researcher, Hannah Leske. If you wish to learn more, reach out to Hannah at [email protected].

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