Extreme interpreting

From skiing down mountains to riding bicycles, interpreters ‘sign’ it all

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A. Sue Weisler

Angela Hauser interprets for the Aeolian Choir during RIT’s Martin Luther King Day celebration.

Whether they are rock climbing in the Red Barn, scuba diving in a pool or playing a friendly game of dodge ball, deaf students on campus are often accompanied by a sign-language interpreter.

Interpreters don’t only work in classrooms. They facilitate communication in student-organization meetings, with visiting speakers, sports and recreation activities, religious services, workshops and commencement addresses. More than 130 full-time sign-language interpreters are found throughout RIT.

“Wherever you would find a deaf student—and you now find them anywhere—you’ll probably find an interpreter,” says Meredith Ray, an interpreter who also coordinates many of the assignments. “We have talented deaf students finding themselves in every arena on campus.”

During a noontime class in kickboxing, RIT/NTID student Jonathan Petermon, a third-year engineering student from Illinois, jumps, stretches, kicks and punches with more than two-dozen hearing students. Interpreter Morgan Tucker stands in front of the gym in the Student Life Center and interprets what the kickboxing instructor is doing and saying.

“KICK, two, three four, PUNCH, two, three four,” Tucker signs the rhythm as Petermon throws jabs and kicks in sync with the rest of the class. When the students stretch, she often joins along, putting her fingertips on the floor by her toes without bending her knees.

“The interpreter is here to tell me what everyone is saying,” Petermon says. Without one, he says he might not even take the class.

In classrooms at RIT, interpreters often are grouped in subspecialties—technology, science and math, or engineering. Others are generalists and others specialize in one or two subjects. And there are two academic teams, focusing on interpreting needs for deaf faculty and staff, and another team for student activities.

Some interpreters, like Erika Vazquez, most often work in classrooms. But she’s accompanied students to a nanotechnology conference in Mexico and participated in class trips to the Galapagos Islands and Point Pelee National Park in Canada.

And interpreters are always on stage when entertainers such as Al Pacino or dignitaries such as President Bill Clinton come to speak.

But not all assignments are as fun. Jim Orr recalls one of his most memorable assignments was a field trip to a sewage plant near Rochester. Students were taken to progressively foul-smelling collection sites. “At the very end—at the worst smelling site—they had to walk over the waste on this wooden plank,” he says. “I had to walk backwards on this board while I was interpreting. And they gave everyone masks because the smell was so bad. But I couldn’t wear one because they had to read my lips.”

Many interpreters are also needed to work with the more than 20 deaf or hard-of-hearing students who play varsity sports at RIT. They travel to practices and games, interpreting instructions and game plans. Some interpreters have had to use bicycles to keep up with members of the track team. At Bristol Mountain, south of Rochester, more than 70 deaf and hard-of-hearing students are enrolled in ski or snowboarding lessons, so interpreters are out there on the slopes each week alongside the instructors.

“It’s a mountain full of madness,” Ray says.

Steve Nelson, director of access services, says demand for interpreters rose 20 percent last fall to more than 4,000 hours per week. Yet more than 99 percent of requests for interpreters were met.

“Rochester is known as a unique community, with a high per capita of deaf people. And we’re also unique in the concentration of qualified interpreters,” he says. Many of them had their training through NTID’s American Sign Language and interpreting education department, the oldest and largest interpreter-training program in the country.

Student clubs also rely on interpreters for sky diving lessons, all-night dance marathons and blood drives.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” says Jennifer Horack, an interpreter who also coordinates interpreting jobs. “As we have more diverse people doing more diverse things, that only increases the variety of things we have covered.”