Group hopes to improve communication with deaf residents
BY CARLYN RAY MITCHELL
McALLEN September 3, 2006 — A group of students sat wide-eyed, eagerly believing they could learn to break the sound barrier.
It was not the pursuit of the intangible physical phenomenon. Rather, the students were perfecting their ability to interpret the most physical forms of communication: sign language.
Their instructor, Lynne Wiesman, was one of only a handful in the room with the ability to hear. Most were deaf or hard-of-hearing.
The group’s common denominator is the desire to make a small impact on a big problem facing the Rio Grande Valley’s deaf community: a severe shortage of certified deaf interpreters who can not only aid the deaf in speeches and cultural events, but, more importantly, through the court system.
“Supply is low; demand is high,” said Wiesman, a Texan with an master’s in business administration who travels the country mentoring professional deaf interpreters.
The American Disabilities Act requirement that qualified interpreters be available in public places puts a high demand on existing certified interpreters. It also is difficult to find willing and able bodies to take on the difficult challenge of translating physical movement into spoken word and vice versa.
“It’s not necessarily due to (lack of) interest, it is due to difficulty. People can’t get past a certain level,” said Wiesman, who began signing as a child with her deaf grandfather and reached proficiency by attend-ing the Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf at Howard College in Big Spring.
It is not uncommon for hearing individuals to be enchanted by the graceful movements of sign lan-guage and want to learn for themselves, she said. Then the reality of the language’s difficulty sets in, which Wiesman attributes to the high dropout rate of beginning American Sign Language courses.
It might be why only 13 chairs in the classroom at the Valley Association for Independent Living were full. The group has studied together for nearly five months for certification exam which, if passed, will give them the green light to interpret in court.
Workers at VAIL say it is hard to pinpoint exactly how many certified deaf interpreters would ease the strain currently felt by the few interpreters who do exist here. What is known is that every day they have to turn down requests for interpreters.
However, Hidalgo County is home to more than 15 percent of the state’s deaf population, which totals just more than 48,000.
Statewide, there are 1,865 working certified deaf interpreters, according to the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services in Austin, but because the certification process is a hierarchy of skill, not every “certified” interpreter is able to interpret at the court level.
VAIL first discovered the problem a few years ago when expanding the services the nonprofit offers to the Valley’s disabled.
“We went into the interpreting business, and we weren’t finding any interpreters, so we decided to grow some,” said Pat Zenor, VAIL’s deputy program director, who learned signed language when no one else in her family was able to communicate with her deaf nephew.
Interpreters are the only true channel between the silent world of the deaf and the hearing. While tech-nology has computerized the interaction in recent years, experts say no substitute exists for human in-terpreters, who can pick up on regional slang and subtleties of language no machine can.
“There will always be a need for a live body,” Wiesman said.
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