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Body Language: The Role of the Education Interpreter

For many deaf and hard-of-hearing students, educational interpreters are an essential link to learning.


By John Rosales

Like many hearing impaired students, Dominicia Dunston attends classes filled with hearing students and keeps up with the help of an educational interpreter. It’s the person she relies on to clarify the nuances of Shakespeare and the finer points of the causes of the Civil War. It’s the person who sits with her during every class translating the teacher’s spoken English into sign communication.

For Dominicia, it’s paraeducator Wanda Newman.

“Miss Newman helps me a lot because she signs in English and American Sign Language,” says Dunston, a senior at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Maryland. “Usually, interpreters translate everything the teacher says in English, but most of us deaf and hard-of-hearing students prefer ASL for greater understanding.”

ASL is a manual or visual language distinct from spoken English, with its own syntax and grammar. Information expressed is not with combinations of sounds but with combinations of hand shapes, palm orientations, facial expressions, and constantly changing body movements.

“We [interpreters] bridge cultures, we are language role models,” says Newman, who started as an interpreter in 1982 and has been at Friendly since 1990. “And for that you need training, professional development, and extensive study.”

Requirements to serve hearing impaired students vary across the United States. Roughly 25 states have minimum performance standards, and evaluate interpreters using nationally recognized assessment tools, like the one designed by the National Association of the Deaf. Twenty-one states require a specific score on the nationally recognized Educational Interpreters Performance Assessment (EIPA).

In Michigan, for example, a law passed in 2005 requires that school interpreters be certified and licensed through the state’s department of education, which means passing the EIPA. Interpreters with this level of knowledge have the ability to communicate the nuances as well as the direct objectives of the curriculum, says Percy Brown, president of the Ann Arbor Education Association for Paraeducators (AAEAP).

“They learn how to transmit in-depth educational information in math, chemistry, and history,” he says. “Students can read the book, but if the student has a question about the lecture, the student asks the teacher and the interpreter.”

Educational interpreters belonging to AAEAP did not have a job description until 2004, the same year they bargained to gain their own job classification.

“We also inserted a professional development clause in the contract that allowed us to develop a specific pay scale,” says Brown.

While the No Child Left Behind law specifies that only “highly qualified” educators staff schools, the federal law does not mention educational interpreters or define what highly qualified means in the service of deaf students. Some school districts don’t require certification or training beyond high school.

Newman says even with a highly qualified interpreter, translating the lesson content and tidbits from the social life of a hearing classroom can be challenging.

“You shouldn’t hire someone who just finished high school and knows a little bit about signing,” says Newman, a Maryland State Education Association member who completed her EIPA, passed the National Interpreter Certification exam, and is a member of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. 

“If you take two years of Spanish in high school, are you ready for a job at the United Nations? I don’t think so.”


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