What is a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI)?

What is a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI)?

*Four minute read

What is a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI)? According to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. (RID), a CDI is a Deaf or hard of hearing individual with the following qualifications:

  1. Native user of American Sign Language (ASL)
  2. Already part of the Deaf community with a strong sense of Deaf culture
  3. Gone through RID’s certification process to become a CDI

These interpreters specialize in the use of interpreting, gestures, miming, incorporating props, drawings, and other tools to enhance communication for a broad range of assignments.

When To Use a CDI

Many businesses and sometimes even interpreting agencies aren’t aware of when to use these specialized interpreters. In an ideal world, a CDI should always be used for Deaf individuals involved in high-risk or challenging assignments. This includes but not limited to a Deaf individual:

  • In a life-and-death situation
  • Fighting for their freedom in court
  • Experiencing financial crisis
  • Uses atypical language
  • A strong ASL user
  • From another country
  • A senior citizen

ASL Interpreter versus CDI

Before delving into why using a CDI is ideal, we first need to understand the difference between a CDI and an ASL Interpreter.

An ASL Interpreter is a hearing individual who has passed written and performance exams to become a professional interpreter for the Deaf community. They must have studied the foundation and concepts of ASL in college and have received an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Though there are some exceptions, most ASL Interpreters do not come from Deaf families or use ASL as their first or native language. 

The key difference here is the word “native.” 

Because CDI’s are native in their language and culture, they have the best capacity to deliver messages with clarity and ease that makes sense to Deaf individuals.

On the other hand, an ASL Interpreter who learned ASL as their second language has a higher possibility of becoming mentally strained after a prolonged duration of interpreting. The result of their mental and physical exhaustion can impact the accuracy of their interpretation. For Deaf individuals, this causes difficulty in understanding the concept and message being delivered.

The Cycle of CDI Shortages

The more the Deaf community is aware of their access to CDIs, the more requests for this service increase. The surge in demand for these interpreters then causes shortages in the supply of CDIs. 

To put things into perspective, there are only five registered CDIs in the entire State of Indiana compared to the thousands of Deaf individuals living in the state. And out of these five CDIs, only one is a full-time interpreter. 

The low statistical chance of finding a CDI available causes Deaf individuals to stop requesting for the service, and the cycle continues. 

Until more Deaf individuals pass the tests to become certified, this cycle will keep happening. Currently, the tests to become a CDI are not available as the national certifying organization is in the process of finalizing their revisions. It will be a while before we see a change in the number of available CDIs in Indiana. 

Cost Issues

Because a CDI usually works in an interpreting team of two, it can be more expensive for a business or organization to use these services. In an interpreting appointment, a CDI partners alongside an ASL Interpreter to ensure access to communication. This allows them to work as a team and provide the Deaf individual the best interpreting experience possible. 

When a business or organization is not aware of the necessity of a CDI and the benefits of their work, they can become hesitant of the idea of paying for two interpreters instead of one. 

There are some scenarios when a CDIs could do the job alone without relying on an ASL interpreter. For example, interpreting a written exam into ASL or when working with a Deaf-Blind consumer.

Advocating for a CDI

When a CDI is requested but not available, there is some controversy regarding how a business or organization should approach this. Either the appointment can be rescheduled to ensure CDI availability or the appointment proceeds without a CDI.

A Deaf individual may advocate for themselves by voicing their “effective communication” rights to the business or organization and insist on having a CDI for their appointments.

All an interpreting agency can do is make the CDI recommendation, but it’s entirely up to the organization paying for the service and Deaf individuals (and their advocates) to decide.

To learn more about our ASL Interpreting Services, read more on our website here or contact us directly here.


Betsy Payne is a Language Coordinator for LUNA Language Services. She works in our ASL Department helping coordinate appointment needs across the entire state of Indiana.  As a Deaf individual and native ASL user, she brings a valuable perspective on how best to serve the Deaf community. She has been working at LUNA for over a year, and we are excited to share her latest article!