The Sign Language Market – Gaps, Trends & Opportunities for Growth

The World Federation of the Deaf estimates that there are around 70 million deaf people in the world. The international deaf community uses approximately 300 different sign languages, and new ones are popping up all the time.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), if we consider the people who are hard of hearing, this number then goes up to 466 million, or five percent of the world population. The WHO further estimates that by 2050, more than 900 million people, or one in 10, will be deaf or hard of hearing.

In other words, this is a large and growing market.

Sizing up the market

We’ve taken a look at the current market for interpreting. Most companies offer onsite, video remote interpreting (VRI) and over the phone interpreting (OPI) for various international languages. However, when looking at the companies featuring in The Nimdzi 100, we find there is a gap. Only seven out of the top 10 interpreting companies offer sign language interpreting as part of their services.

*ASL = American Sign Language

**BSL = British Sign Language

***LSQ = Quebec Sign Language

****Tactile interpreting = A way of communicating for those who are blind and deaf

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Out of the top 10 interpreting companies in the world:

  • seven offer sign language interpreting
  • two offer interpreting in more than one sign language – Translation Bureau + Akorbi
  • one offers interpreting in “other international sign languages” – Akorbi

This means only one thing – a gap in the market waiting to be filled.

Why you should provide sign language interpreting

When we think of equal access for deaf people, we probably think of more extreme scenarios, such as medical and legal settings. But what about everyday needs and real inclusion?

In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act are three laws which ensure equitable access to education, employment, and the community. While this sounds great, real-life implementation is not as simple.

Education as an example

Not all deaf children can attend deaf schools. This is simply because there aren’t as many and the closest one might be too far away. So they have to go to a hearing school.

Most teachers in hearing schools don’t sign, and while some schools provide interpreters, others simply expect the deaf student to somehow adapt, by reading lips, for example. Even if interpreting is provided, it might not be by a quality interpreter.

The issue continues in higher education. In the US, there are only two colleges for the Deaf – Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, located in Rochester, New York. This means that many deaf people have to go to hearing colleges and may not have the opportunities that hearing students have.

In 2009, 123 US colleges and universities participated in a survey by PEPnet, a federally-funded project to increase the education, career and lifetime choices available to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Assessing the colleges’ needs, the survey found that more than half of the institutions require interpreting and/or speech-to-text services regularly:

College requirements:



Source: PEPnet, 2009

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

Consider these results: If more than 50 percent of the 123 institutions in this study require between 11 and 100 hours of interpreting per week, that is a total annual demand of 35,464 to 322,400 hours of interpreting – and that’s just for about 62 colleges. If we consider all schools and universities in the US, the demand will be significantly higher.

Who supplies this interpreting demand?

According to the survey, only 14 percent of the participating institutions can cover their interpreting demand with staff interpreters. They outsource the rest to agencies and freelancers.

In addition, only five campuses stated that they make use of video remote interpreting. 13 campuses said they use voice recognition software to provide classroom speech-to-text services. These are two areas that offer room for growth for language service providers (LSPs).

Education is, of course, just one example. Similar issues exist in other areas such as employment. A study by the National Deaf Centre found that in 2016, 47 percent of deaf people in the US were not in the labor force, compared to 23 percent of hearing people. Yet another opportunity for language services to make a difference.

In addition to providing both onsite and video remote interpreting for the Deaf, LSPs could use the existing gaps to expand their speech-to-text and captioning services. Because although interpreting is often preferred, providing written versions of lectures and business meetings in real-time could be an effective tool to equip the Deaf and hard of hearing with better access to all areas of life.

Why you should provide interpreting for more than one sign language

It is a common misconception that there is only one universal sign language. As stated earlier, there are approximately 300 sign languages worldwide. They developed naturally in deaf communities across the globe and are not based on spoken languages – another misconception.

This means, for example, that even though both hearing communities in the US and the UK speak English, BSL and ASL are very different from one another, and natives cannot easily communicate with each other.

Most of the global interpreting leaders listed above only offer sign language interpreting in the official sign language of their country, e.g. ASL for US companies. So what happens when a deaf person travels? How do deaf people communicate their needs with both the deaf and the hearing community of the country they visit?

Deaf travel to date

Smartphones and new technologies have opened doors to the world that had long been shut for the Deaf. They can now chat and stay in touch with both deaf and hearing people and use the internet to access information. But technology has not removed all barriers.

Since sign languages are not representations of spoken languages, written languages are second or even third languages for deaf people. This means that chats, articles, and subtitles are always a form of translation. For deaf people, access to communication in their native languages is extremely limited, especially abroad.

Some deaf people who travel learn International Sign System (IS). However, it is not an actual language but rather a simplified system for basic needs and communication. It fulfills a similar function as English does for many international travelers.

Tourism is a huge market and one that currently does not cater to the needs of deaf people. As outlined in the Nimdzi report on Interpreting opportunities in retail, tourism in the US is worth USD 220.1 billion. If the five percent of the world population who are deaf or hard of hearing were given easier access to travel, this could potentially add another USD 11 billion in the US alone.

Deaf interpreters

This is where the latest trend comes in: deaf interpreters. These are deaf individuals who interpret between different sign languages, which has several advantages, both for the Deaf and for LSPs.

For the Deaf:

  1. Culture: Deaf people have a rich and unique culture that is almost inaccessible for hearing people. Deaf interpreters can bridge this gap.
  2. Trust: Deaf history is filled with horrible discrimination, and to this day deaf people are fighting for their language and human rights. Given this background, there is a trust issue when it comes to the hearing community, and deaf people prefer to have one of their own to help them communicate.
  3. Accents: Some Deaf report that having a deaf interpreter is visually easier because they sign more naturally and don’t have strong accents. From a hearing point of view, this can be compared to listening to someone with a foreign accent versus listening to a native speaker.

For LSPs, all of the above are advantages when it comes to client satisfaction. In addition, hiring deaf interpreters might make it easier to add more sign languages to the list of services.

Instead of trying to find hearing interpreters who interpret between different international sign languages and spoken languages, why not use a combination of deaf and hearing interpreters? One interpreter can for example bridge the gap between English and ASL and the other interprets between ASL and BSL, or ASL and Mexican Sign Language (LSM), or ASL and German Sign Language (DGS), and so on.

Having access to interpreting in their native language would also provide an excellent solution for deaf people who travel. In some cases, they would not even need a hearing interpreter. They could go straight to the deaf interpreter.


Right now, there is no platform that offers interpreting for all major sign languages in the world. Imagine if the 70 million deaf people in the world had easy access to a platform that offers interpreting into their native sign languages.

Imagine, if they could access it anywhere. Not just in hospitals and in courts, but also in restaurants, cafes, hotels, on public transport, and at tourist sites. How many would finally be able to travel without barriers? How much could such a service generate? The technology is out there – all it requires is a platform and a network of deaf interpreters.

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