Demand high for skilled American Sign Language interpreters

Technology in place—More, better-trained interpreters needed.

Salt Lake Tribune Kathy Stephenson, The Salt Lake Tribune, November 7, 2009

TAYLORSVILLE » Thirty years ago, it was futuristic to think a deaf or hearing impaired person could communicate by standard telephone. With Video Relay Service, or VRS, that space-age fantasy is reality. "It's changed our lives," said MJ Bienvenu, an expert on American Sign Language (ASL) and a professor at Gallaudet University.

With the video technology firmly in place around the country, now it's time to "improve the quality of sign language interpreters," Bienvenu said Saturday while in Utah.

"Training interpreters now will improve services in the future," she said during a public open house for Sorenson Communications' VRS Interpreting Institute. The Institute, which opened in March, is a one-of-a-kind training center designed to improve the skills of interpreters for the hearing impaired.

Prior to video relay technology, which Utah's Sorenson Communications pioneered, the deaf and hard of hearing used a TTY system. An individual would contact an operator, who would type messages and send them back and forth between the two parties. The process was slow, tedious and created a lot of misunderstanding, said Bienvenu, who is deaf and signed her speech to the audience.

With VRS, a deaf person can sign a message to an interpreter using a videophone attached to his or her computer screen. The interpreter then speaks the message to the hearing person on the other end of the line. The hearing person responds and the interpreter signs the response. The two callers can see each other and response time is almost immediate.

But the success of the system depends on the quality of the interpreter, said Carolyn Ball, executive director of the VRS Institute, located on the top floor of Sorenson Communication's Taylorsville headquarters.

A person who has graduated from an ASL program may have the basics of the language, but they do not have the practical skills needed to be a fluent interpreter, Ball said.

The Institute is trying to fill that school-to-work gap. It offers short and long-term programs, including a 15-week course that will give college graduates intensive training.

The signature offering at the institute is a 30-station computer lab where students practice different interpretation scenarios. They are able to go back through the videophone system to see if the message they conveyed matched what they intended.

Ball said as students improve their skills, they are less likely to get frustrated and drop out of the profession, which happens often.

Besides helping to increase the number of skilled interpreters in the field, the Institute provides training to ASL educators to update their teaching skills.

Minnie Mae Wilding-Diaz, was one of about 60 people who attended the VRS Institute open house. As a deaf person and user of VRS technology, she said interpreter quality could improve.

"Sometimes the interpreters are just fine and other times they will have to stop and think about what they are signing," she said. "I have to be careful about using slang words because they don't understand it."

Ball said the Americans with Disabilities Act spelled out situations in which the deaf have the right to an interpreter, such as dealing with schools or government agencies. But the government provided little money for training or expanding the pool of available and qualified interpreters.

"There are tons of jobs in this field," Ball said, "just not enough trained interpreters to fill them."

From The Salt Lake Tribune. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List