A higher standard

U of L sign-language interpreter program off to a rocky start due to strict state regulations

Instead of passing notes in junior high school, Amy McDonald used sign language. This youthful fascination with using her hands to communicate led her to pursue a career in sign language interpreting and culminated when she entered the University of Louisville’s fledgling American Sign Language Interpreter Studies program.

But McDonald is still waiting for that career to begin. Since her graduation last May, McDonald says she and the nine other first-generation graduates of U of L’s interpreter training program have yet to be licensed by the Kentucky Board of Interpreters for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, due in part to a set of tougher regulations adopted in June 2012. She says some of her fellow graduates have since moved elsewhere to put their degrees to work in states with less stringent interpreter regulations, like Indiana and Georgia.

Under state law, interpreters cannot work for money without receiving licensure from the Kentucky Board of Interpreters.

In a November 2012 meeting of that body, McDonald delivered a speech asking that the new regulations — including a score of “high proficiency” on one of five nationally recognized interpreter exams — be revised due to the burden they placed upon the “guinea pigs” that graduated from U of L’s program.

She has taken one of the tests, the Sign Language Proficiency Interview, twice, each at $100 a pop. After making two trips to Danville (the only location offering that particular test at the time), she failed to meet the new standard on both occasions. Upon trying to obtain information about one of the other nationally recognized exams, she says the state board never answered her emails.

“I would like to remind the board that the longer we go without the use of our learned interpreting skills, our skill-set will diminish. It’s hard for me to understand how our wings can be clipped before we can truly learn to fly,” she wrote in her speech. “Also, being the first graduating class from U of L, we were the ones working the kinks out of the system.”

In hindsight, McDonald questions whether U of L adequately prepared her and fellow graduates for a new and burdensome regulatory environment, a situation that’s left her making ends meet by working at Penn Station. “I didn’t pay $40,000 to go to school so I could make sandwiches all day.”

According to a 2005 National Health Interview survey, there are approximately 750,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in Kentucky, with 110,977 residing in Jefferson County. The data is the most recent of its kind, because the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask about a person’s hearing.

Up until 2008, the University of Louisville did not offer a program in sign language interpretation. For about a decade prior to that, U of L partnered with the state’s oldest ASL program at Eastern Kentucky University, funneling its graduates through programs offered at the Louisville campus. When that partnership ended, and U of L decided to implement its own program, all of the ASL program’s personnel and infrastructure went back to EKU, leaving U of L to start, in the word’s of EKU sign language professor Laurence Hayes, “at square one.”

“It’s hard to start any program, no doubt about it,” Hayes says, adding that the new testing regulation has likely affected EKU’s licensure rates, as well, but that it’s all part of “where we’re heading.”

In 1989, Hayes was the only faculty member in EKU’s sign language program, effectively rendering him the only faculty member of his kind in the state. Where U of L’s program is now reminds him of where EKU was back then.

“I have a lot of empathy for what U of L is going through,” he says, “because when this program started here, it was similar to the situation U of L finds itself in. You’re running really hard to keep up, to help your program grow, to go through all those growing pains. If we’ve been doing this for 24 years and they’ve been doing it for (five) years, we’re probably going to be in a better position” with the regulations.

While the state’s universities aren’t failing the deaf and hard of hearing population, he says, they could be doing more.

Toward that end, Virginia Moore, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, says the new regulations were needed to cultivate a higher standard of interpreter. She says McDonald and her classmates should have been aware of the regulations when they were proposed and pointed to the fact that the head of U of L’s sign language interpreter program, Timothy Owens, is also chairman of the state Board of Interpreters.

“(Owens) indicated to me he made sure the class knew about the regulations during that year,” Moore says. “This is a profession just like teachers and everything else in that you have to build up to it. Just because you come out of an (interpreter) program doesn’t mean you can interpret for a courtroom situation, to a family who’s been given bad news about cancer. As a student in a classroom situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can walk into those situations as an interpreter, it means you have a good basis for it.”

McDonald maintains she and others were “blindsided” by the new regulations, which were adopted barely a month after her graduation in May of last year. They replaced an older, less rigorous set of regulations, which required only a transcript and a bachelor’s degree in interpreter studies. The new rules mandate, in part, that interpreters seeking a license must now place at a high level on a nationally accredited exam.

Neither Owens nor U of L returned repeated requests for comment. However, Owens, in his dual role as chairman of the Kentucky Board of Interpreters, issued this statement with assistance from the board’s attorney: “The board does not seek to impose extraordinary barriers to licensure for new graduates,” the statement read in part. “The board is cognizant of the difficulties, economic and otherwise, that many new graduates face. These difficulties are not limited to the occupation of interpreting. Nonetheless, the board’s primary duty is to protect the (deaf) consumer by ensuring that those who are licensed as interpreters are qualified to perform the services required.”