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To Lawmakers' Surprise, No Qualifications For ASL Interpreters


Some state lawmakers want stronger qualifications for interpreters working with deaf and hard of hearing students. 

There’s a bill moving through the legislature that would update the qualification process for educational interpreters. That’s because currently neither the State nor the Board of Education has established criteria. Representative Lori Berman of Boynton Beach says it’s time to change that.

“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 the primary mode of communication for deaf and hard of hearing people in the US. ASL is comprised of hand signs and movements combined with different facial expressions and postures. Most every feature of spoken language is also present in sign language, so ASL has its own grammar, syntax and slang, as well as accents and regional dialects. Christine Sun Lee is a deaf artist, and she gave a TED talk comparing ASL to music. Here she is speaking through an interpreter.

“If you assign a different parameter to each finger as you play the piano, such as facial expression, body movement, speed, hand shape, and so as you play the piano. English is a linear language, as if one key is being pressed at a time. However, ASL is more like a chord. All ten fingers need to come down simultaneously to express a clear concept,” she said.

When it comes to interpreting ASL, there’s more to it than simply knowing the signs. Interpreters must receive and express messages in two different languages, in real time. A good interpreter conveys not only the words of another person, but the spirit behind those words. June McMahon represents the Florida Association of the Deaf, and she says interpreters play a vital role. Here she is speaking through an interpreter.

“We really need our deaf and hard of hearing children to be able to learn on par with their hearing counterparts. And if you put them in a classroom with somebody without appropriate interpreting skills, that’s just not going to happen,” she said.

The need for qualified interpreters in public schools isn’t a new one, but it is an indicator of broader changes in deaf ed. Over the past 25 years, many deaf and hard of hearing students have moved away from specialized schools and into neighborhood public schools. Gallaudet University researchers say these students are like “pebbles in the mainstream”, spread across primarily hearing communities. June McMahon says some schools aren’t keeping up.                               

“And I’ve seen literally somebody who’s taken two sign language classes apply for the job as an interpreter! And the administrators in the school don’t know sign language and they don’t have a clue, and they say oh you took two classes? You know sign language? Oh great! You know sign language! Come on, you can be our interpreter!” she said.

As deaf and hard of hearing people move between Deaf and hearing culture, there are miscommunications. Ironically, this disconnect was made abundantly clear when Representative Berman presented her bill to the House Education Appropriations Committee. Members of the Deaf community came to testify in support of the bill, but because of a scheduling issue, the committee didn’t provide any interpreters to speak for them. Greg Lieffers is a lobbyist for deaf rights. Here he is speaking to that committee.

“But this meeting was not agendaed until Friday night and the rules as outlined by Sunshine say you must have a confirmed meeting set up before you can get an accommodation. So Morgan made a request for an accommodation on Monday morning and there are no interpreters around that can come. So she’s without an interpreter, and so you’re gonna miss a compelling story,” he said.

Fortunately there was an interpreter in the audience who was able to speak for Morgan Eastman. Eastman says she excelled in Leon County Public Schools, until her qualified interpreter got sick.

“Up to that point I had an A in the class. And then there was an important test coming and my interpreter became ill, and somebody else had to substitute for her, and that person was not qualified. That week I was struggling to learn the material that was going to be on the test. We went ahead and took the test, and when I got the results I got an F on the test. I was really upset. I felt cheated, my education had been cheated,” she said.

Ultimately the Committee passed the bill unanimously. The bill has one more stop before heading to the House floor.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.