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Sign Language Interpreters for Deaf Clients

History, Roles, Responsibilities and Relationships

By Jenelle Rouse and Ann Barrow, Ph.D

Updated June 19, 2009

This paper is about Sign Language (SL) Interpreters for Deaf people. It offers an examination of the history, roles, responsibilities and relationships of SL Interpreters and their Deaf clients. Benefits and drawbacks for clients and interpreters will also be discussed. The conclusion suggests that greater sensitivity, increased funding, and public awareness campaigns, for example, are needed to offer hearing persons a chance to view their Deaf counterparts as equal and deserving of funding.

History of SL Interpreters

While the actual existence of the very first interpreter is unknown, it is suggested that the role of an interpreter began with cave persons. A Deaf cave person would ask a hearing person to act as an interpreter for both the Deaf and hearing, cave persons (Humphrey et al., 1996: 91). The concept of the term, interpreter, came into existence in the 20th century in which time it was used to refer to an intermediary, helper, friend or counsellor (91). Historically interpreters were viewed as volunteers, who were often relatives, friends or employers. The demand for interpreters of high quality arose after World War I (44). In the late 1960s, professional practitioners or interpreters emerged from the pool of volunteers.

In Canada, the "Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) was incorporated in 1940 to impartially serve and support Deaf, Deafened and hard of hearing people, parents of Deaf and hard of hearing children and to educate the hearing public." SL Interpreters began to be recognized as providing a valuable service in the early 1970s. This led to the establishment of the Ontario Association of Sign Language Interpreters (OASLI) in 1982. Many SL Interpreters settle for basic certifications first offered in 1989 that remain viable today. The basic certification has four segments that observe student-interpreters - performance skills as assessed through a live interview: Comprehensive Skill Certification (CSC), Reverse Skills Certification (RSC), Interpreting Certification/Trans-literating Certification (IC/TC), Oral Interpreter Certification: Comprehensive (OIC: C) and Partial Certification (OIC: CPC).

Currently, there is a need for SL Interpreters to fill the chasm between the significant numbers of Deaf persons and the availability of interpreters. In point of fact, many interpreters do not possess the linguistic skill necessary to effectively translate. As a result, they often provide misinformation that creates further confusion and frustration between Deaf persons and hearing persons (Humphrey et al., 48).

Interpreters Not Always Needed

One common misconception of the hearing world is that Deaf persons desire the presence of an interpreter in all situations. Deaf persons, by necessity, require the presence of an SL Interpreter when engaging in medical, legal, professional, educational and other matters requiring full participation in the hearing world. However, the absence of SL Interpreters does not prevent communication from taking place. There are alternative ways of communicating with each other including: gestures, lip-reading, writing and text messaging. [Guide note: also computers, e.g. notepad]

Educational Interpreting in Canada

Concerning SL Interpreters roles in Canadian, educational settings, Marty Taylor (1988) asserts that their presence for Deaf clients will enable the latter to "achieve equal accessibility" (38) for those seeking academic success. To aid students in all educational levels, interpreters are required to hold a specialist certificate in one of the following: Specialist Certificate: Legal (SC: L), Specialist Certificate: Performing Arts (SC: PA), or Masters Comprehensive Skills Certificate (MCSC).

The stages of obtaining one of these certificates begin at having to pass a written test questioning the student's knowledge of: the history of the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC) and other related organizations, the practices of SL Interpreting, and the language and culture of Deaf persons (124). After an individual completes the written portion of the test, s/he undergoes the performance part of the exam referred to as the Test of Interpretation (TOI). Once an individual has completed all requirements for the specialist certificate, s/he is granted one by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). In so doing, s/he joins the rank of other professional SL Interpreters. Interpreters are then qualified to work with diverse clients in a vast array of settings: one-to-one, small and large group discussion.

Interpreter Training in Canada

The following list of institutions currently offer training courses for SL Interpreters: George Brown College, Ontario, Douglas College, British Columbia, and Red River College, Manitoba. Many institutions offering training courses for SL Interpreters have been forced to close as a result of failure to attract and maintain classroom numbers.
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