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More people of color are needed as sign-language interpreters; RIT/NTID tries to help

Mar 2, 2020

Karina Mendez Villanueva, one of the Randleman Program’s proteges, was recently hired as a full-time staff interpreter.
Credit Gabriel Ponte-Fleary/RIT

According to a national registry, only 13 percent of the more than 10,000 sign-language interpreters in the U.S. identify as people of color.

RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf is trying to change that.

About a year ago, NTID established a two-year preceptorship called the Randleman Program, which specifically addresses the need for diversity in the interpreting field. 

The program was named for Valerie Randleman, the first black interpreter in RIT's Department of Access Services.

Diversity is important when it comes to sign language interpreting, because the deaf community itself is diverse. Sometimes an interpreter will miss subtle cultural nuances if she or he is not from the same culture as the speaker.

The program coordinator, Kristi Love-Cooper, remembers a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event on campus when a member of a black fraternity was speaking.

"He was using language that, unless you have been around that culture, you probably will miss," she explained. "The interpreters who were not part of his culture did miss those little cultural nuances. The audience was made up of black deaf members who didn't have access to that information because the interpreter didn't understand the information."

Cassandra Flores said cultural competence matters in her field. Flores, a graduate of the Randleman Program, works as an apprentice interpreter at RIT. She hopes to earn her certification in the next several years and return to New Mexico.

Flores said it is crucial when interpreting to understand the implicit and explicit messages that need to be translated to a deaf audience.  Those cultural cues can be as subtle as facial expressions.

"With our job," she said, "we have to be in two cultures at once, sometimes even three."

For Flores, that cultural blend includes her native Spanish-speaking culture, the American culture, and the deaf culture. 

She felt fortunate to have support in her early studies in New Mexico from other Spanish-speaking colleagues.

"Learning ASL, I wasn't able to come up with the English word, but I could do it in Sign or in Spanish."

Love-Cooper said the need for diversity among sign-language interpreters goes beyond communities of color.

"We're looking for Asian-Americans as well as other diverse identities," she said. "The field is heavy with people who identify as women."

The Randleman Program strives to provide equity, Love-Cooper said. She developed an understanding of the importance of that particular goal through her early studies.  She was the only black student in her interpreting program, and her program director sent her to a National Alliance of Black Interpreters conference.

"That is what I think of when I think of equity," Love-Cooper said. "She didn't send everybody else in the class to a conference because they didn't need that. They had people that they could connect with in my cohort, whereas I did not. She provided something you might consider extra for me, but it was so that I could have a level playing field as my classmates."

Before NTID established the Randleman Program, 8 percent of the interpreters in the department were people of color. Today, that number is 14 percent.

Love-Cooper said more needs to be done to attract young students to the field. She thinks school districts, especially those with a higher percentage of students of color, could do a better job of exposing students to sign language.  Many people, she said, don't realize that interpreting is a career option.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.