Basin native chosen for elite ASL training

Express Logo Ranae Bangerter, Vernal Express, March 28, 2012

When Hillary LaFrance signed up for her first American Sign Language class during her sophomore year as a biblical studies major at Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, N.D. she had no idea how much it would change her life.

“I graduated and didn’t think about ASL again until 2008,” she said. For three years she worked as an executive secretary at the University of Utah, and after some time she realized she didn’t want to do that for the rest of her life.

One day she was talking with a friend who was an interpreter, and she suggested LaFrance work to become one as well.

“I thought back to how much I loved ASL in my undergrad and decided to take a class and see how I felt,” she said.

She registered for her first class at Salt Lake Community College in 2008 and never looked back. Following one year of language at SLCC, she was accepted into the Interpreter Training Program in 2009.

“(The ASL program) was ridiculously challenging and I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” LaFrance said. “Sign language is a unique and rich language and must be learned. I find it complex as a second language learner, but interpreting is an extremely challenging and complex task.

“If I hadn’t fallen in love with it and just continued to become more and more passionate about it I wouldn’t have made it through,” the 31-year-old said.

Now, 12 years after that initial class, and four years into the program, the graduate of Ashley Valley Education Center in Vernal can’t imagine doing anything else.

For the past two months LaFrance has been completing the VRS Interpreting Institute’s School-to-Work Program, an accelerated course to prepare her to receive her National Interpreter Certification.

From there, she and the others enrolled in the class could continue on to become Video Relay Service interpreters.

To communicate through VRS the deaf client only needs a Sorenson videophone, a television screen, and a high-speed internet connection. It’s much like Skype; deaf ASL client sign to a VRS interpreter on the television screen and then the interpreter relays the message to the person on the other line, and vice versa.

No longer do the deaf need to translate messages from ASL to English, type them into teletypewriter and then wait for a response. But now, deaf clients can communicate in ASL.

For a deaf person, a conversation that used to take 20 minutes on the old teletypewriter now through SVRS only takes two minutes.

“It completely revolutionized communication for (the deaf) because for the first time they had communication access that was as equivalent as possible to what hearing individuals were using,” Sorenson Communications public relations director Ann Bardsley said.

“TTYs were just clunky and slow and there were delays in the conversation,” Bardsley said.

Through the Americans With Disabilities Act, each deaf person in the country is eligible for the VRS service for their home or place of business if they have a high-speed internet connection.

For years, as the rest of the world jumped on the mobile phone bandwagon and began placing phone calls all over the world from just a small hand-held device, the deaf community was unable to communicate via cell phone conversations on the go. Even with VRS, deaf were forced to travel home to use their videophones before they could place a VRS call. But, now, even that is changing.

Bardsley said deaf people, who have a mobile phone with a forward-facing camera, can now make VRS phone calls away from home.

“In the last decade deaf people have really come to see that step forward — that functionally-equivalent communication has become a reality,” Bardsley said. “VRS has kind of leveled the playing field.”

With that leveling comes a higher demand for capable VRS interpreters, that’s where LaFrance comes in.

She was selected as one of 12 individuals from around the country to complete a VRSII three-month, 150 hour intense training course, which prepares her to become a certified interpreter nationally. From there, she and others could gain additional experience to become a VRS interpreter.

“It’s a very challenging program,” LaFance said. “You’re constantly doing 6-10 tasks at the same time.”

Unlike interpreting a speech or graduation where the ASL interpreter has some prior knowledge of the subject, VRS interpreters are asked to interpret each phone call having no prior knowledge or expectation of what the phone call will be about, ie: a phone call to the bank, pizza shop, or lawyer.

“It’s such a complex extremely demanding job in every way mentally, emotionally, physically,” LaFrance said.

LaFrance said she wants the deaf community to have equal access through educated, skilled, experienced and ethically sound interpreters. She also wants the ASL profession to continually improve by establishing programs like the Sorenson’s VRSII.

She said the point of language is that people understand each other and assisting in that work is what she has come to love doing.

To learn more about the VRSII program visit

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