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RIT program helping people of color become sign language interpreters

Max Schulte

RIT’s Randleman program is raising money to help current and future Randleman students pay for sign language certification.

The program started in 2019, and provides students with mentors from similar cultural backgrounds. The goal is to increase diversity of sign language interpreters working with deaf people of color in areas such as education and healthcare.

The Randleman Endowment for Interpreter Certification is hoping to raise $50,000 by the end of the year -- money that will be matched by the federal government for a total of $100,000. 

Amberlee Jones, associate interpreter for RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, said sign language certifications cost hundreds of dollars and can often create a barrier for interpreters of color.

“We tend to be nontraditional students, people with careers, people, families, etc.,” said Jones. “So these financial roadblocks in obtaining certification can really stop us for retaining interpreters of color into our field.”

Many Randleman students travel from all over the country to work in the Rochester area.

There are no certifications currently required to be a sign language interpreter in New York state, but Jones said the certification can help interpreters retain their skills for when they return to their home states.

“Often, you can't lift up your hands to interpret in different states without some type of lesson, licensure or certification,” said Jones. “By the time they're able to save up for the certification, student loans come into play. So, a lot of people aren't able to stay in the field of interpreting and it's become a privilege.”

Ariana Jones, a current Randleman student, said the program gives both deaf and hearing people an opportunity to see BIPOC interpreters represented in the community. 

“Being surrounded by people who look like you and then going to interpret for those who look like you It’s a really special feeling to connect on a different level,” said Jones.

The Ohio native said she plans to use her skills to assist the deaf community in the criminal justice system.

DeAndre Spurlock, a recent Randleman graduate, said the endowment would give the program more exposure and possibly increase the number of diverse interpreters across America.

“Not even a lot of people knew this is a career and that in its self has been a barrier to letting more people of color into the field,” said Spurlock.

He said learning about deaf culture is pivotal in increasing the diversity within the interpreting field. 

“Interpreting is a means to end, but a better way to achieve that end is if more people know sign language and then you would need less interpreters,” said Spurlock.

RIT has already raised $40,000 for the endowment. The funds will pay for the certification of 10 students annually.

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.