Unpassable: why a private company controls national sign language interpreter licenses
February 26, 2016
Sign language interpreters across the country are having a hard time getting the certifications they need to work legally. A few states like Texas offer their own testing and licensure processes.
However, many others rely on the Registry for the Interpreters of the Deaf, a private company not associated with the government, for their licenses.
“RID is the only national organization that specifically focuses on sign language interpreters in the United States,” said Anna Witter-Merithew, the interim executive director of RID.
Now, some interpreters argue that RID is rigging the game in its favor since it is the only nationally recognized certification agency in the country.
Stephanie Vance used to be an interpreter with Las Cruces Public Schools. New Mexico offers a five-year provisional license for interpreters before they are required to pass the national test.
“If you don’t get it within those five years you are no longer allowed to interpret in the state of New Mexico at all. If they catch you they fine you over $1,000 and can put you in jail for 364 days,” Vance said.
She took the national test three times and failed it every time. Vance lost her interpreting job with Las Cruces Public Schools and, instead, was offered an educational assistant position.
“But that cut my pay by over half,” she said. “It was a good portion of my family’s income to just be taken.”
RID wasn’t always in charge of the testing and certification process. The National Association of the Deaf started back in 1880 and was the original group to begin offering these types of testing and certifications.
RID came along more than 80 years later in 1964. For a time, there were two tests offered to interpreters. Then in 2008, the tests merged and RID took over.
“I do find it very odd. I just it’s hard to see them be the judge, jury and executioner because they take the payments for the test, they decide if you pass the test, they do it all,” Vance said.
Over the years, a number of criticisms over the non-profit arose; first, over the tests themselves. In order to qualify for a certification, an interpreter first must hold a bachelor’s degree. Then they must apply to take the National Interpreter Certification Knowledge exam. Once they pass that, they take the performance and interview exam.
The cost of the tests is one big area of contention. For RID members who pay annual dues, the knowledge portion of the exam costs $325 the first time an interpreter takes it and then $275 each time they retake it.
Then the interview and performance exam costs $410 the first time and $360 for each retake. Meanwhile, non-RID applicants pay $100 more for each test, each time. And, each time the would-be interpreter fails the test, they must wait six months before retaking it.
“Honestly I couldn’t afford this last attempt so one of my friends a paid for this last attempt for me because they wanted me to try it one more time to see if I could actually pass the test. I am sure that other people couldn’t take it because of financial issues,” Vance said.
The pass/fail rate for those tests has also been an area of criticism. While the NIC knowledge portion has an 89 percent passing rate, the NIC performance exam has only a 19.44 percent passing rate.
Several interpreters KFOX14 spoke with who did not want to be identified said they are convinced RID purposely fails people to earn more money from the testing.
“For me it defies logic because we are losing money on every single test so offering more tests does not help us fiscally it hurts us,” Witter-Merithew said.
The interpreters who failed the test also argued that they received little feedback once they got their failing grade.
“It invites for people to try to tweak that type of behavior to study to the test rather than to the standard of the test,” said Witter-Merithew.
“I get that but to make a test that is so impassable then what’s the point of even attempting to take the test,” Vance argued.
Instead, Witter-Merithew said the quality of the interpreters themselves is going down.
“They determined that in general the quality of interpreter graduates has diminished,” she said, quoting a study by the National Consortium of Interpreters Education Centers.
Once the applicant passes both the NIC knowledge and performance exams, they must become an RID member to keep their certification and pay $160 annually in dues.
That interpreter then must earn eight continuing education course credits (CEU’s) to keep their license. Those credits are created and maintained by RID.
According to RID’s website, one of its CEU courses costs $15 and earns an applicant one-eighth of a credit, meaning interpreters would need to spend $960 every five years to keep their certification.
RID does offer bulk courses during its seminars and conferences. However, Vance argues that the cost to take those CEU’s then includes travel expenses along with enrollment in the conference.
However, last August RID’s testing and certification process came to a screeching halt, when the company announced an indefinite moratorium. Witter-Merithew said the organization was forced to make this bold move because it was bleeding money and has been for years.
“We knew from previous years finance reporting that we were losing about $150,000 a year in the testing process,” she said. “Over the past 15 years we’ve accrued over $1 million in loss.”
Witter-Merithew said much of the issue is over the tests themselves.
“Our performance testing is very unique. There’s no other profession out there that has to assess the way that we have to assess,” she said. “It’s a very labor-intensive process and to date we have not identified A vendor who without a lot of are in the investment is able to create that technology that would allow us to do it more efficiently.”
The organization gave interpreters until Oct. 1 to sign up for the tests and Jan. 1 to take the tests.
“It wasn’t like the moratorium happened and the decision was made just that day,” Witter-Merithew said.
Witter-Merithew said RID experienced a massive influx of more than 1,000 people apply for the tests. That’s more than the company usually gets in an entire year, according to Witter-Merithew.
“I really just saw scrambling and panicking and what are we going to do because how they enforce the law without a certification affects the ability to have the interpreters,” said Jennifer Dahlgren-Richardson, a deafness resource specialist with VOLAR.
The organization says it hopes to have the moratorium lifted soon but, “As of right now we don’t know,” Witter-Merithew said. The group hired a risk assessment firm to help work through its finances and look for ways to work more efficiently.
“We will be presenting those proposals to the board during its March face-to-face meeting,” Witter-Merithew said.
However, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with hearing impairments are guaranteed, “qualified interpreters or other effective methods of making aurally delivered materials available.”
The ADA’s definition of a qualified interpreter is someone who, “is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.”
Nowhere in the ADA does the law require interpreters to be certified in order to work legally.
Regardless, Borderland interpreters say the moratorium and RID’s overall testing policies could cause a migration of people from New Mexico to Texas since the state has its own licensing policies.
Vance said at least one of her friends already made the move.
“Her license expired in October and she was working for the schools and Sept. 30 was her last day and she quit and now she works in El Paso,” she said.
Dahlgren-Richardson said she hopes New Mexico and Texas can work together to prevent a shortage.
“One of the things we here in El Paso hope is that we hope to set up reciprocity with New Mexico so that they can they can temporarily have our certification and be allowed to work over there but as of right now New Mexico is not accepting Texas certifications.”
However, RID argues that the moratorium is not impacting the interpreting community as much as some might think.
“There is no one who we are aware of who because of that moratorium lost their job,” said Witter-Merithew.
She said RID did an impact study on the enforcement of licensure laws in the wake of the moratorium. It said many states are holding off on enforcing those laws until testing resumes.
As for Vance, four times taking the performance exam is enough for her. Vance is waiting for results from her latest retake that she did in December. But, she said if she fails this time she’s done.
“I don’t want to be told that I’m not good enough again. It’s heartbreaking to have somebody else who you’ve never met and who you will never meet say ‘nope you didn’t pass.’ It’s hard,” Vance said.