For Deaf students, having an interpreter can make all the difference in their academic careers. One adage (often attributed to Helen Keller) states; “Blindness cuts us off from things; deafness cuts us off from people“. While conventional interpreting deals with facilitating comprehension, educational interpreters for the Deaf also create social connection. Given the stigma these students often face in a hearing world, providing this additional support in the classroom is invaluable.

The Importance of Interpreters

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, there has been a growing awareness of Deaf needs. In particular, schools have made increased use of educational interpreters for Deaf students who might otherwise struggle to succeed. As with second-language students, native speakers of ASL are at a disadvantage in the English-only classroom. They run the risk of lagging further and further behind when the school does not attend to their linguistic needs. This is why classroom interpreting for Deaf students is so important to ensure equal treatment and access to educational opportunity.

Educational interpreting is as much a specialization as medical, legal, or any similar division, requiring training and certification. Any school that calls upon the services of an interpreter for a Deaf student should seek an accredited professional. Programs like the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education (CCIE) maintain rubrics for qualification. You can also reach out through an interpreting agency like Global Arena to find the vendor who suits your needs. Ultimately, the best educational interpreters will be those who are not only bilingual, but understand the dynamics of the classroom.

Classroom Interpreting

ASL in the Educational Setting

A common misconception about American Sign Language (ASL) is that it is merely English spoken with the hands. But in fact, it has its own independent grammar, ways of forming vocabulary, and narrative structure like any language. For these reasons, an educational interpreter for Deaf students needs the same level of training and professionalism as any other. The educational setting can also be difficult because by definition, one party (the student) usually has less information than the other (the teacher). Classroom interpreters must bridge not only the language gap, but also a knowledge gap, to facilitate the learning process.

Another complication of classroom settings is that there are often activities that require group interaction and communication. In these cases, classroom interpreters need to facilitate conversations between Deaf and hearing students, who may have different levels of language sophistication. With training, they are able to effortlessly move between a number of speech styles while interpreting. This in turn helps the Deaf student learn how to follow talk that is exchanged by several people at once.

Obviously, it is the Deaf student who benefits most from an interpreter’s presence—but hearing students can, too. It exposes them in a casual way to Deafness, and demonstrates that their classmate is as capable as they are. Building this kind of positive cohesion between students from different linguistic backgrounds can improve the classroom experience for everyone present. The hearing students may also be able to pick up some ASL themselves, and engage with Deaf students as peers.

So You’d Like to Be an ASL Interpreter?

Learning ASL, just like any language, is a challenge; to gain enough fluency to become an interpreter takes years of study and practice. (Many interpreters have grown up bilingual, or had exposure to native-level ASL in their youth, which eases the process.) It’s not impossible, but you have to be really dedicated to succeed. The work requires endurance, as it is not only tiring on the mind, but also on the hands and fingers. Additionally, for classroom settings, it’s helpful to know something about the subject(s) you will have to convey to Deaf students. At the elementary school level, this might not matter so much, but what about world history or physics? Finally, ASL has various dialects, and students within the Deaf community may have unfamiliar “accents” to their signing. Prospective educational interpreters must be conscious of this diversity, ready to handle any unknown words in a given student’s repertoire.

Yet training and practice will help ease these concerns, and make dealing with them second nature. It’s an important profession, in which you get to see firsthand the positive impact you can have on the lives of others. And if you decide to simply hire a classroom interpreter instead, no problem—just remember how hard they work to do what they do!

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