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Fluent fingers

filling the communications gap

    Educational programs geared toward careers in technology are in high demand-and with good reason. The fast-paced techno-revolution is exhilarating; running alongside it guarantees thrills, chills and big money. RIT's educational programming keeps pace with the revolution, offering plenty of opportunities for those interested in digital/technical careers.


Dave McCloskey interprets a performance of the RIT production of The American Clock

    Not 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).

    Several 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.

    "The 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 academic preparation.

    "There 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."

    RIT's 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."

    Although 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 2001.

(above) Jonathan Hopkins in an industrial design class and Karen Northup (left) in a computer lab.

    In 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.

    Alongside 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 and settings.

    What 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."

    Indeed. 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 says.


Marlene Elliott at an Institute wide United Way meeting.

    A 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?"

    Everyone 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 option."

    Marlene 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.

    "I 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 my job."


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