MOUNT ZION – Lydia Henson spends her work days going from high school class to high school class with student Chandler Hudson, interpreting into sign language the things the teachers and other students say in class.
Hudson is hearing-impaired, and Henson is the only certified educational interpreter in the Macon-Piatt Special Education District.
“This is not unique to Macon-Piatt,” said Kathy Massey, assistant director of special education. “We all have trouble finding interpreters who are certified, and I think part of it is the continuing hours on campus. We’re always looking for standard approval issued by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.”
Most students with hearing impairments don’t require a full-time interpreter, Massey said. She has a hearing impairment herself, and with the help of hearing aids and some accommodations, she attended regular classes as a child.
Most students today are the same way. In cases where interpretation is necessary, a teaching assistant trained in Signing Exact English can help out.
SEE is preferable to American Sign Language, Massey said, because signing word for word helps students learn to read and communicate more easily than if they use the unique grammar and vocabulary of ASL.
“We believe, in Macon-Piatt, in total communication, signed American English, correct pronunciation, exact grammar and lip reading,” Massey said. “Honestly, if you are going to be in a world that is hearing, trying to use communication strategies that work for you instead of a language that most people don’t know.”
Becoming a certified interpreter, whether for sign or spoken language, is not easy. Henson studied at St. Louis Community College and had to pass a difficult exam, both written and practical.
And it would be very unusual for her to be in a life or death situation.
Medical interpreters are under even more stress than educational ones.
Horror stories abound of a family member or unqualified interpreter mistranslating – or the patient misunderstanding, and a test that wasn’t ordered – a treatment refused, a medication taken wrongly, and permanent damage done.
“We hear countless stories,” said Izabel Arocha, executive director of the International Medical Interpreters Association. “It can be very simple, such as the nurse saying you’re going home today, and nurses tend to think patients understand. The patient understood ‘You can go home now.’ ”
In that case, the hospital had to call the patient back because she had not been released. In another, Arocha said, a Muslim patient refused chemotherapy because of religious prohibitions against having a pump attached. The person translating had failed to make clear that the chemotherapy would be delivered by injections.
Hospitals can’t always afford or find interpreters for every situation to keep on staff, which is why remote interpretation has been instituted in many places, she said. The interpreter works via phone or video. The use of bilingual family members or staff who are not certified interpreters has decreased.
“The patient can refuse an interpreter, but it’s not informed consent, and if the patient is discharged or signs consent without a qualified interpreter, by law it’s not informed consent. Many hospitals are creating beefed up policies [as a result],” she said.
Becoming fluent enough in another tongue to handle life-and-death situations takes time and commitment.
George Osborn of Decatur served as a Chinese language interpreter in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He took a 37-week course taught by native speakers at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., graduating in 1969. The emphasis was on listening then, but today the course is longer, requires reading and writing comprehension, and also requires an extended enlistment. He spent two hours a day outside of class in mandatory homework and labs.
Osborn spent most of his time listening to radio traffic among Chinese vessels, recording on a reel-to-reel tape and typing. The stress, he said, was extreme.
“Our greatest fear was that China would actively intervene on the side of the North Vietnamese, so we were constantly on the lookout for any indication of troop or vessel movement in that area. There was a lot of pressure on us to ‘get it right,’ because lives were always at stake,” he said.