Sarah Latchney is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She studies environmental toxicology. She’s also deaf.
Latchney learned early on that deaf students have to work exceptionally hard to get the same recognition as their colleagues who can hear.
“It’s been a part of me to go the extra mile to stay on the same path as my hearing peers,” she said.
When Latchney goes to scientific conferences, she often finds a striking lack of interpreters who can translate the vocabulary of her research between signed and spoken English.
“I talk about electrophysiology or genetic and epigenetic principles that regulate neural stem cells in the hippocampus. If I’m at a conference using local interpreters that have no science background, they get lost,” she said.
But to a hearing audience, an interpreter’s confusion often comes across as the fault of the deaf presenter.
That means missed opportunities for scientific progress, and a continued misconception among the hearing community that deaf researchers are less capable than their hearing colleagues, said Steve Dewhurst, a vice dean for research at URMC.
“Science is about communication,” Dewhurst said. “You go to a scientific meeting, and the purpose of the meeting is to exchange ideas. You hear other people’s ideas, you present your own, you get feedback on what they think of your data and your ideas. That’s how your ideas get stronger.”
When that communication falls apart, said Dewhurst, good ideas go unheard, simply because they were developed by deaf researchers.
Now, the University of Rochester is developing a new master’s degree program aimed at training a cadre of interpreters who have both experience in the deaf community and a strong background in scientific research.
The developers of the AIMS program, which stands for ASL Interpreting in Medicine and Science, hope some of its graduates will become what they call “designated interpreters” -- people who work full-time with a single deaf researcher, learning the ins and outs of their work and their vocabulary.
Wyatte Hall, a research assistant professor at URMC’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, has been working with a designated interpreter for five years.
For this interview, he signed, and his interpreter, Marlene Elliott, spoke his words aloud.
“Interpreters are one of our main methods of communicating,” Hall said. “We live in a hearing world, so we need access to that world. It’s not easy to do that alone.”
Because of Elliott’s familiarity with Hall’s work, he doesn’t fear that she’ll misrepresent him, he said. “When I’m giving a presentation, I can relax and be myself.”
Elliott expressed reservations about being named in this story, saying she’d prefer to remain behind the scenes. “Dr. Hall’s work is his,” she said. “My role is an interpreter.”
Still, Hall and other faculty at URMC named her as a leader in the effort to establish the AIMS master’s program at the university.
Having a designated interpreter enables Hall and other Deaf researchers to join their colleagues in settings beyond formal academic presentations.
Shazia Siddiqi, a post-doctoral fellow in URMC’s obstetrics and gynecology department, has a designated interpreter in her lab who translated this interview.
“We’re very interactive and collaborative. The setting is open. Everyone’s talking over one another and learning from one another, and that’s where the designated interpreter is handy,” Siddiqi said. “I might be taking notes and they hear something important. Maybe someone has had a baby, and I can say congratulations.”
What might seem like inconsequential interactions to her hearing colleagues are actually important ways for her to network and build the same professional and social connections that they do, said Siddiqi.
Not having the ability to build those relationships has direct economic consequences, Siddiqi said. Fewer than 40 percent of people with a hearing-related disability worked full-time, according to a Cornell University analysis of U.S. census data.
“We’ve known that for years,” Siddiqi said. “It’s really a sad part of our reality.”
Building the ranks of designated interpreters will help dismantle the stigma that deaf professionals face, Siddiqi said.
“Having those resources makes opportunities more accessible,” she said. “I feel like I have the same experience as my hearing peers. I can follow my passions.”
This story is part of Dialogue on Disability Week -- a partnership between WXXI and Al Sigl Community of Agencies -- in conjunction with the Herman and Margaret Schwartz Community Series.