Florida House Passes ASL Interpreters Bill Unanimously

Feb 19, 2016

Currently there are no standard qualifications for American Sign Language interpreters in public schools. But Thursday the Florida House passed a bill unanimously that could that.

Credit New Jersey State Library/ flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/njlibraryevents/2565175174/

“Our hairdressers are required to have licenses, right? But not our interpreters? I mean, you have interpreters working with deaf children, can you imagine? Does that make a whole lot of sense to you?” she asked.

That’s June McMahon with the Florida Association of the Deaf, speaking through an interpreter. After hearing concerns like McMahon’s, Representative Lori Berman of Boynton Beach is working on a bill that could make a difference.

“Florida is one of only five states that has no standard for sign language interpreter qualifications in K-12 programs,” she said.

American Sign Language or ASL is a living language, with its own grammar, syntax, dialects and slang. Terri Schisler is an interpreter, and she says sign language is just as complex as spoken language.

“So it doesn’t limit a person to be able use sign language, it’s equivalent to use any other spoken language. Which is hard for a lot of people to realize that it’s not a simple form of communication. It’s not basic language where we can communicate basic needs. It’s a robust language all of its own,” she said.

When it comes to interpreting ASL, there’s more to it than simply knowing the signs. Schisler says a good interpreter conveys not just words, but the spirit behind those words.

“In French or Spanish or any other spoken languages, I may be saying the words but I don’t really understand the meaning of what I’m saying. So you can’t just interpret the words, you have to understand the cultural, the cultural implications of what’s being said,” she said.

The need for qualified interpreters is not a new one, but it is a symptom of broader changes in Deaf education. Over the past 40 years, more deaf and hard of hearing students are moving away from specialized schools and into their neighborhood public schools. Here’s June McMahon again.

"They’re in classrooms primarily with hearing students, with an interpreter. So if the interpreter isn’t certified, often the deaf children are really left struggling because they don’t have good language access and that’s critical," she said.

Gallaudet University researchers call these students “pebbles in the mainstream”, scattered across primarily hearing communities. That’s why qualified interpreters are so important. Interpreters are a link between the Deaf world and the Hearing world. If that connection breaks, the whole system shuts down. Here’s Schisler again.

"Maybe only the interpreter at school is the only person in the whole school who can communicate with that child really well. So they have limited access to people and that can be very detrimental to the child," Schisler said.

Many deaf students have to choose between the cultural experience of Deaf education, or the comforts of home in a hearing community that truly may not understand them. State lawmakers want to ensure that either way, those students are getting the robust education they deserve. The House passed Berman’s bill unanimously Thursday. The Senate version still has two more committee stops before it’s ready for a floor vote.