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Unheard but not unseen, ASL interpreter hears with hands for USF students

When Angie White was a senior in high school, she had a problem rolling her R’s in Spanish class.

Her guidance counselor called a conference with her parents, telling them that their daughter was “just not college material.”

“That’s why I went to college,” White said, “to prove her wrong.”

At Hillsborough Community College, White needed to fulfill a foreign language requirement set by the school. But she chose not to take a second stab at Spanish.

During her first few classes, she fell in love with American Sign Language.

Today White is a ASL interpreter for the University of South Florida’s Student with Disability Services. She is one of seven staff interpreters hired through SDS.

Working five days a week from morning to afternoon, White travels around campus translating lectures for deaf students. Stationed at the front of the class within clear audible range of the professor, White must properly translate words into signs, mouth phrases and spell out terms, while keeping up with the pace of the lecturer. The task involves more than just translation.

In one psychobiology course, White rattles off signs for letters that spell words like “physiological” and “amphetamine.” For a political science course, White plans ways to sign concepts like “pork-barreling” and “gerrymandering”—terms that will undoubtedly appear on deaf students’ tests.

It is her duty to not only communicate the words, but also their meanings accurately. In any given class, White likely pays more attention to the lecture than anyone in the room.

Only 41 USF students have reported deafness or hearing loss at the Tampa campus, eight of which use ASL interpreters.

Peggy Kledzik, coordinator for Sign Language interpreters at USF, said though not all of USF’s deaf students use them, interpreters are the best option for fluent students.

“Depending on the severity of the hearing loss, classroom accommodations can range from the use of a personal FM system to an interpreter or a CART (Computer Assisted Reading Technology) provider,” Kledzik said.  “Interpreters are generally the preferred accommodation for students who have used American Sign Language from an early age.”

White estimates that during a lesson she is anywhere from three to seven seconds behind the professor teaching. As she signs the teacher’s previous statements, she stores what he or she has just said in the back of her mind.

White said pairing this process with accompanying signs, appropriate body language and facial cues takes countless hours of practice.

Having worked as an interpreter for 19 years, White’s translating career has not always taken place in the classroom. She’s accompanied deaf clients to doctor’s offices and even on cruises.

Jackie Haig, a senior majoring in communication sciences and disorders, is one of the eight deaf USF students who use interpreters.

She said USF interpreters help her all over campus.

“They translate at workshops, events on campus such as round-up pep rallies, and my dorm meetings,” she said in an email. “Really anytime when a large group is together.”

Not all interpreters jell with their deaf clients. Haig said she has had interpreters she’s loved and others she’s loathed. Her reasons ranged from poor signing skills, to over explaining the lectures.

“They are not there to teach, just to translate,” she said. “Others stop signing when you aren’t looking, some yawned non-stop—inappropriate behavior.”

Off campus, interpreters translate between people on other sides of the country. White also worked for seven years as an interpreter for a Video Relay Service (VRS).

Non-deaf callers can contact VRS to connect with a waiting interpreter. The interpreter is then patched through to the deaf recipient’s video phone for a real-time sign language relay of the caller’s words.

While working for VRS, White has eavesdropped on an eclectic array of interesting conversations.

“I’ve done drug deals, booty-calls, I’ve called to say granny’s passed away, I’ve ordered pizzas, Chinese food,” she said. “I hate ordering Chinese food.”

VRS interpreting involves a seemingly contradicting mix of both emotional investment and detachment. When a caller is angry, White had to raise her voice to reflect the facial expressions of her deaf caller, and vice versa.

By the same token, once a call ends, White has to level her emotion to prepare for a brand new conversation that might be completely different in tone and subject matter.

“I’ve done really good with the VRS with not getting too emotionally involved,” she said. “But you have to be ready for anything.”

This detachment carries over into the classroom. Haig said that, though she relies heavily on her interpreters to learn, they maintain a purely professional relationship.

“It’s strictly business,” White said. “We rarely talk about outside of class topics.”

Haig said she prefers interpreters to the technology offered by SDS.

“As a deaf person who signs, what other better way is there to communicate than to use an interpreter?” she said. “Using CART, is too slow. Note takers are too slow. I need on the spot access when the teacher is lecturing.”

Though she and her interpreters are not friends, Haig knows how valuable they have been to her.

“I would never be able to know what my teachers were saying without them,” Haig said. “I would still be able to learn but not as well since I wouldn’t be picking up on everything.”

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