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Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action

Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action

Could upgrading standards and curricula help Interpreter Education Programs produce graduates with higher levels of competence? Reflecting on the current state of interpreter education, Cindy Volk sounds a national call to action to reconsider how we educate and prepare sign language interpreters.

I’m worried. I’m worried that my mom will not have a qualified sign language interpreter when she sees the doctor for her serious medical problems. I’m worried that my mom will be misunderstood when she makes a VRS call to contact doctors and other medical personnel regarding these medical problems. I’m worried that when my mom is in the hospital, the interpreter is either not qualified or one is not provided. I’m worried.

[Click to view post in ASL]

As the director of a bachelor’s degree interpreter education program, I realize that no matter how hard I and the other faculty work to make this an excellent program, there are still some students graduating that I would not want as an interpreter for my mother. I worry about their ASL to English skills, and in particular whether or not they can read fingerspelling and numbers. When I receive a VRS call from my mom and the interpreter says “Hi, is Cathy there?”.  I worry.  Certainly these areas of concern are prioritized in our program. We are continually updating the program, attending conferences, conducting and reading research, and consulting with Deaf faculty and the Deaf community. However, even a four year program is sometimes not enough to produce a qualified interpreter.

A National Call to Action

I believe that we need a national call to action to address how we are educating sign language interpreters in the United States.

There is too much inconsistency across interpreter education programs. Those of us in the business of educating sign language interpreters need to address these inconsistencies:

  1. Most of our interpreting programs are at the two year level. This simply isn’t enough time to prepare a qualified sign language interpreter. There are many excellent two-year programs.  However, two years just simply isn’t enough time. Some two year programs are encouraging their students to complete some type of bachelor’s completion degree in order to be able to sit for the national examination. This perpetuates the idea that less education in the area of interpreting is acceptable. It isn’t. Our profession has moved beyond the two year training level.  It’s time to face that reality.
  2. Students are not always fluent in ASL and English before they enter an interpreting program. We need to demand this level of skill and screen for fluency in ASL.  We need to agree upon what level of fluency is required. For a two year sign language interpreting program, this means the student has at least two years of coursework prior to entering the program, but then after four years, does not achieve the bachelor degree required for the national examination. This isn’t fair to students.
  3. We need more Deaf individuals involved in interpreter training as faculty and mentors.
  4. We need to figure out a way of screening a student’s aptitude for becoming an interpreter.
  5. CCIE (Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education) needs to consider distinguishing between AA, BA, MA, and PhD programs in their accreditation process. Currently there is no distinction.
  6. We need to figure out a way to model and teach deaf-heart.  It is lacking from many of our students today.  We also need to dialogue about how to educate students regarding the level of professional behavior that is expected of interpreters once they are working.
  7. The “school-to-work gap” is wide and difficult for students to navigate in our current system. Many students graduate from programs but are not yet ready for certification or for employment.  We often bemoan this gap, but as educators we need to seriously consider what can be done in our programs to shorten or eliminate it.

Who’s Guarding the Gate?

In the infancy of the interpreting profession, the Deaf community played an important role in “gatekeeping” – selecting candidates for the interpreting profession for various reasons and turning others away based on community standards and values.  Over time, much of that responsibility has been turned over to interpreter education programs.  As Damita Boyd states in her February 2014 StreetLeverage article, Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter Education Programs, interpreter education programs are currently seen as the gatekeepers to the interpreting profession. If this is true, we need to do a better job of guarding who is coming in and out of the gate.

Here are some ideas about how we can better guard that gate.

  1.  Develop a national curriculum for educating interpreters. We need to come to consensus regarding the length of interpreter education programs, entry requirements, outcomes and the curriculum in these programs.  In Chapter 7 of Legacies and Legends: History of Interpreter Education from 1800 to the 21st Century (Ball, 2013), Dr. Ball describes what is needed for the future of interpreter education. CIT (Conferenceof Interpreter Trainers) should assume a leading role in shaping this future.
  2. Establish groups of educators, practitioners and stakeholders who are interested in raising the bar in sign language interpreter education. Witter-Merithew and Johnson (2004) recommended that we establish Communities of Inquiry who will work together to advance the professionalization of the field of interpreting which would lead to a national plan of action. It’s been ten years since their recommendation. It’s time to act on it.
  3. Consider the idea of particular programs specializing in certain areas, i.e. educational interpreting, VRS (Video Relay Service) interpreting, medical interpreting. Students who want to work in those areas would have to attend that program. This could be at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
  4. Determine ways for interpreting students to be involved in the Deaf community in meaningful ways. Our program at the University of Arizona requires all interpreting students to have a deaf mentor. Students must develop a reciprocal arrangement with the mentor and “pay back” in some way, i.e. money, babysitting, cooking, errands. They meet with their mentor weekly and reciprocate weekly. This is a good start, but we still need to do more.
  5. Develop outcomes that are necessary for any sign language interpreter graduate (Ball, 2013). Patrie and Taylor (2008) developed outcomes for graduates of bachelor level programs in the area of educational interpreting.  Similar outcomes need to be developed for other areas in interpreting.

In the End

As many interpreter educators near retirement, I hope we can pursue meaningful improvements in how we educate sign language interpreters. This could be our gift to the next generation of interpreter educators, students, and especially to the Deaf community.  A small group of us will be meeting in the next few months to further develop some of these ideas. Will you consider establishing similar groups in your own communities?  Will you consider being a guardian of the gate?  If so, maybe I’ll be a little less worried.

Interpreter Education Month


Ball, C. (2013). Legacies and legends: History of Interpreter Education from 1800 to the 21st Century. Interpreting Consolidated. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Boyd, D. (2014).   Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter Education Programs. See more at:

Patrie, C.J. and Taylor, M.M. (2008). Outcomes for graduates of baccalaureate interpreter preparation programs specializing in interpreting in K – 12th grade settings.  AlbanyNY: The State of New   York, State Education Department. Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID).

Witter, Merithew, A., and Johnson, L. (2004). Market disorder within the field of sign language interpreting: Professionalization implications.  Journal of Interpretation, 19-55.