UI sign language officials push for interpreters, major


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Some University of Iowa officials are pushing to establish an interpreter-training program in the university's American Sign Language Program. If the program is implemented, it will make the UI the first state Board of Regent' school to have such program.

Rebecca Furland, a UI American Sign Language visiting assistant professor, organized the program's first deaf summit this weekend to kick-start the discussion.

"Some of the [sign-language] staff have been thinking about what a [interpreter program] might look like at the UI," said AmyRuth McGraw, a UI lecturer who attended the summit. "This is just the start of the conversation."

Participation in the UI program has increased almost 10 times since its founding in 1994.

While two deaf students at the UI require a daily interpreter, neither of them are provided through the school.

"We could train interpreters here at the UI, beginning with language instructions and technical training related to interpreting skills," she said.

The training program would focus on which area of study students are interested in and how sign language can be effectively applied to that field. This, said UI communication sciences and disorders Professor Richard Hurtig, would be a huge step for the sign-language program and the deaf community as a whole.

"What we have to really say is that we have to have the most rigorous standards — who would you want to treat you, represent you in court, interpret needs [that require a] high level of skill?" Hurtig said. "What we have to realize is we can't train an interpreter for all things; we're going to need to have people that are specialized."

Currently, three colleges in the state — Scott Community College, Iowa Western Community College, and Kirkwood Community College — have the interpreter-training program.

UI officials created a deaf-studies certificate in 2003 and added a minor in 2008. Many of the university's sign-language members and communication experts said they want to see a deaf studies major added in the near future.

"Maybe the next time we have a conference, we can say we have a deaf-studies major," sign-language Associate Professor Douglas Baynton said.

Hurtig said he agreed.

"It's remarkable how for we've come in just a few years," he said.

A Gallaudet University study estimated Iowa's deaf population to be around 115,000 in 2010, or approximately 4 percent of the state's population. Joe Murray, an assistant professor of American Sign Language and deaf studies at Gallaudet University, said there are almost 70 million people considered deaf worldwide.

"If [the world deaf population] were a country, it would be the 20 largest country — you're learning how to communicate with 70 million people in the world," Murray said. "Surely that changes you; it has to change you."

While American Sign Language developments are an important undertaking, said Gallaudet University history instructor William Ennis, this generation's American Sign Language students and deaf instructors need to be mindful of their responsibility to keep the programs running.

"You as students — you will be teaching deaf children," he said at the summit. "You're going to have an impact on the deaf community and that puts me in a cold sweat. I'm biting my nails over it. It's a huge responsibility and it comes with learning [sign language]. It doesn't mean you're saviors, but it's a responsibility, and you have to think about it."

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