Spoken in silence

March 22, 2024, 3:27 a.m. | By Sophia Li | 3 months, 3 weeks ago

How sign language interpreters are paramount, yet unavailable

Blair’s bustling, cramped hallways don’t just have students scrambling to get to class. Striding between classrooms are the backbone of education for the hard of hearing and deaf: Blair’s American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters.

ASL interpreters are specially trained professionals who are bilingual in English and ASL, facilitating communication between individuals who use sign language and those who don’t. Even in the United States, not all deaf or hard-of-hearing people communicate through ASL. Interpreters may also transliterate by combining signs and finger-spelling in English grammar or interpret orally by using silent lip movements to repeat spoken words, often used for hard-of-hearing individuals who prefer lip reading.

Robert Mather, a retired lawyer who practiced for decades despite being deaf presents to foreign language students in the media center on disability law. Photo courtesy of Thea Womack.

Expressive for education

At least 30 million deaf people, not including partially deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, live across the nation, with over 1.2 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals populating Maryland in particular. As the largest and most diverse school in the state, academic inclusivity for deaf and hard-of-hearing students is severely lacking. In an educational setting, especially in public schools like Blair that do not have designated programs for deaf students, sign language interpreters are absolutely vital for accessible learning. Interpreters not only communicate STEM jargon, literature analysis, and history lectures to hard-of-hearing students; they also keep their clients up to date with social aspects of school by delivering class jokes and confidentially spreading gossip. 

For sign language interpreter Nathalie Zintchem, her work with students could vary from focusing on a singular student, like she does today, to hopping from class to class, student to student. She gets the most enjoyment and fulfillment from her job by interpreting funny moments in the classroom. “I always wanted to provide access to make sure [my client laughs] the same way you laugh at jokes. [In class, when] something silly is happening, [the student can] get that and [they] can look at that,” Zintchem says. 

These interactions are necessary for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to participate in open communication—communication that is mandated by law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 requires that state and local governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools provide qualified sign language interpreters or oral interpreters and reasonable accommodations to individuals such as students, who are deaf or have hearing loss. These accommodations must apply to all school programs and activities, including not only classes, but also extracurricular programs and summer school. Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans are particularly prevalent among hard-of-hearing students, and encompass disability-related accommodations and tailored instruction strategies for an equitable education. 

Still, legal accommodations only cover the bare minimum and barely tackle the red tape that many hard-of-hearing students find themselves in. Sophomore Casey Pendergast, the Co-President of the MBHS Disability Rights and Support Club and a hard-of-hearing student, emphasizes the stigmatized and taxing process to request accommodations that go beyond interpreters. “There’s a lot of burden on students to ask for accommodations, but there’s also a lot of burden on the teachers to read through 40-page documents listing all of these accommodations. The county system does not make it easy at all, for teachers to read the accommodations… a lot of the time 504 plans and IEPs won’t be thoroughly looked at or thought about,” Pendergast says. 

While deaf students are assigned one or several interpreters for regular scheduling, including an entire day's worth of classes, last-minute interpreter requests are nearly impossible for Blazers with hearing disabilities. Senior Savannah Brown* discusses the arduous procedure of requesting interpreters for events beforehand. “I have to contact admin so they can pull an interpreter for the activity, but it’s not always a guarantee. It takes about two months [for the school to complete the request], so if it’s a last-minute event, it’s incredibly hard to find an interpreter,” Brown says. 

Absence of ASL

The convoluted process that deaf and hard-of-hearing students undergo to request accommodations is only exacerbated by the sign language interpreter shortage found across the United States. In 2020, the MCPS Board of Education stated in a county testimony that they were currently “experiencing a severe shortage of interpreters to provide the appropriate services critical to providing access to communication and instruction.”

As the largest public school employer of educational interpreters in the state, MCPS predicted in the same testimony that the county would experience an even greater shortage if certification became a requirement for a school setting. Those predictions may come true, as in May of 2023, Maryland governor Wes Moore signed the “Maryland Sign Language Interpreters Act” to establish a licensing and regulatory system for sign language interpreters in an attempt to mitigate fraudulent interpreters.

Many deaf and hard-of-hearing students are almost entirely reliant on their interpreters to communicate and learn in school; with the shortage, not every student may receive their accommodations, and the full extent of their education. Even at Blair, Zintchem notes that the ASL interpreter shortage very much impacts Blazers, such as with scheduling issues. “Some days I’m going to be sick, I call out sick, and they can’t find anybody for the day. So it takes a toll [on my clients],” Zintchem says. 

When there are less interpreters to provide to deaf and hard-of-hearing students, oftentimes these same students miss out on core extracurricular experiences. Brown details her struggle in participating in debate in her sophomore year. “My sophomore year, [the school] often didn’t have interpreters available for me, like [for] debate club. I wanted to go to a debate club meeting, but they couldn’t find an interpreter, and it was a once-a-week club meeting,” she says. 

This shortage is further magnified in one of the largest deaf communities in the United States: the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. D.C. is home to Maryland School for the Deaf and Gallaudet University, the world’s only university designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. “This is one of the biggest communities of deaf people, if not the biggest community of deaf people in the country. So we’re really strapped for interpreters, not just for school, but everywhere,” Zintchem says.

Sign language interpreters are more core to the educational experience of deaf and hard-of-hearing students than any core curriculum will ever be. They bridge the gap between the language of hearing people and hard-of-hearing and deaf people. Nonetheless, communication should also be happening outside of our peers’ interpreters, too; mutual understanding is so much more than spoken word or written text. It may seem foreign and unnatural to seek communication in new avenues besides talking, but Pendergast stresses that the stigma of hearing disability, and any disability for that matter, needs to cease. 

“There’s this level of fear that inherently comes from knowing that it’s something people don’t want to talk about. I think school should be making a much greater effort to make it clear that if you’re hard-of-hearing, if you’re deaf, it is a matter of your identity. And it’s okay to have and it’s okay to talk about it. And it’s okay for everyone else, to be comfortable with it and to ask questions, and to support you when you ask for support,” she says.

*All interviews with Brown were done so in the presence of multiple ASL interpreters. 

Last updated: March 22, 2024, 3:28 a.m.

Sophia Li. Hey, it's Sophia, SCO's blog editor and fact checker! I love eating hot pot and any other spicy foods. More »

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