interprets a performance of the RIT production of The American
all high-demand professions are high-tech, however. The Institute
offers a certain program - some might consider it "digital"-that
has employers pleading for its graduates: American Sign Language
and Interpreting Education (ASLIE).
federal laws, especially the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA),
which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, and
Public Law 94-142 (also known as the Least Restrictive Environment
legislation), mandate that governments and private businesses
offer equal communication access to all employees. Any organization
that relies on oral communication is scrambling to meet the requirements
of the law as it applies to the deaf. The demand for interpreting
services continues to grow exponentially.
demand for interpreting services is both qualitative and quantitative,"
says Rico Peterson, chair of ASLIE. "Not only does the nation
need more interpreters, but we need more interpreters with better
are huge gaps to fill for interpreting services in government
agencies, medical, legal, religious and mental-health settings,
for example," Peterson says. "And small town and rural areas are
all crying out for help."
Interpreting Services crew, which among myriad other responsibilities
helps mainstream deaf students at RIT, has 104 interpreters on
staff, with an additional 150 supplemental freelancers. Even the
RIT office, though, with its proximity to one of the best interpreting
programs in the nation, is challenged to meet the needs. "We have
never been able to satisfy 100 percent of the demand," says Liza
Marshall, director of Interpreting Services. The diversity of
the deaf population at RIT and the highly technical nature of
many students' work, pose challenges for interpreters, she says.
Students from non-ASL countries need interpreters who understand
their difficulties communicating in an ASL environment. Students
in specialized areas have a technical language that is specific
to their study. Even among American-born deaf, there can be interpreting
difficulties, with variations in signs among regions. "I would
like to be able to provide the exact type of service that each
person prefers," Marshall says. "But there is a definite shortage
of qualified interpreters nationwide and insufficient numbers
of interpreters to meet the educational and community needs in
the Greater Rochester area."
some might think that all an interpreter needs to learn is a simple
fingerspelling vocabulary, interpreting is certainly not that
simple. A good interpreter for the deaf needs to be fluent in
American Sign Language (ASL), or the sign language of the country
he or she is working in. If you look back at your high school
Spanish or French class, you'll remember that fluency isn't something
that can be picked up in a quick course. Most of us, even after
three years of a second language in high school, aren't sufficiently
fluent enough to interpret for a native speaker. Fluency requires
time and study, along with immersion in the culture. RIT's two-year
AAS degree program graduates about 40 interpreters a year. Students
learn American Sign Language (if they don't already know it);
they also study interpreting theory and practice and information
on related subjects. RIT, through its National Technical Institute
for the Deaf (NTID), has positioned itself to be a pioneer in
the interpreting field. (NTID is the world's first and largest
technological college for deaf students, with nearly 1,100 deaf
students from around the globe.) For example, according to Rico
Peterson, ASLIE is planning to offer two new academic degrees,
both an associate's and bachelor's degree in ASL to English interpretation.
The AAS will begin this fall; the BS, pending approval by the
New York State Department of Education, will roll out in fall
Jonathan Hopkins in an industrial design class and Karen Northup
(left) in a computer lab.
some areas of the state and country that are underserved, interpreters
are hired who have never formally studied ASL and can't provide
the quality of service that a fully schooled interpreter can.
NTID, with a $3.7 million federal grant administered by the New
York State Department of Education, will upgrade many of those
interpreters through a project directed by Marilyn Mitchell, assistant
professor and former instructor and interim ASLIE chair. After
locating more than 600 working interpreters in the New York state
elementary school system, the researchers on the project are assessing
the interpreters' skills and knowledge, and will provide training
to ready them for the state tests for permanent certification.
Eventually, all of the interpreters working in such environments
will need to be certified. Additionally, because of the lack of
interpreters being prepared to work in these same environments,
the grant has established two new college preparation programs
to begin in fall 2001.
that project, New York Assemblymember Susan John has helped NTID
receive $300,000 in state funding, which will be used to upgrade
the skills of interpreters working in community service agencies
makes an interpreter become an interpreter? RIT's interpreters
are a diverse bunch; anyone who has used an interpreter's services
or watched one at an RIT event or in a classroom knows how unalike
they truly are. "What they have in common is that maybe they have
met a deaf person or have seen the beauty of sign language; they
become interested in learning more," says Marilyn Mitchell. "Otherwise,
they are all different."
Meet Jonathan Hopkins, an RIT interpreter for 12 years. "When
I was a child, I went to a summer camp that had about a dozen
deaf kids," he says. "I became fascinated with their use of language.
So, since I was 12, I've been fluent in sign." Hopkins studied
speech pathology and audiology at the University of North Dakota,
but was frustrated by the school's emphasis on teaching the deaf
to speak rather than using sign language. Now, after transferring
to and completing RIT's degree program, he says, "I'm needed everywhere."
Hopkins works primarily with Asian, African-American and Hispanic
deaf students. A Native American himself, Hopkins has organized
a committee to attract more Native American students to RIT. "There
are only three Native American interpreters in the country," he
Elliott at an Institute wide United Way meeting.
hearing child of deaf parents, Karen Northup's native language
is ASL. "I can remember that by the time I was 7, I was interpreting
bank conversations for my mother. It's not like I understood what
they were talking about-I was just the go-between." Northup is
a member of the business and computer technologies team of interpreters,
helping deaf students in those programs. "It was tough at first,
especially since I have no technical background," she says, laughing.
"When I get assigned to a new class, I think, ŽOkay now what book
do I need to look at?"
at RIT remembers seeing Dave McCloskey interpreting somewhere.
With his white beard and long hair, he's easy to spot. After 20
years as an interpreter, his second career after three decades
in business, he sees himself as a mirror for the speaker. "If
someone speaks in a monotone that puts the hearing audience to
sleep, then the deaf audience needs to go to sleep, too," he says,
smiling. "An interpreter shouldn't make the presentation any more
or less exciting than it is." But the work can be thrilling for
the interpreter, he says. McCloskey has interpreted for Kenny
Rogers and Natalie Cole; he has been the interpreter during a
triple-bypass operation, births, deaths, murder trials and exhumations.
"What an education," he says. "But even on the best day of my
life, when everything I interpret, from language to language,
is perfect, I still know I am only the second best communication
Elliott was a drug-and-alcohol-treatment counselor in Oregon when
she met a deaf client. "I wanted to really talk with her," she
says, "so I learned to sign." After a full-year, total-immersion
program in ASL at Western Oregon State College, Elliott interned
at Rochester's Norris Clinic. Since arriving in Rochester, she
has been a freelance interpreter, worked as the lead interpreter
at Strong Memorial Hospital and now trains interpreters as well
as acts as an interpreter at RIT. The most difficult part of being
an interpreter, she says, is that when working with a client who
is in emotional or physical pain, an interpreter has to remain
detached to be effective.
hold a lot in," she says. "But communication can be so fulfilling.
Every day I get in the car to come to work and I'm excited about