UNC Exceeds National Training Goals to Diversify Sign Language Interpreters in Legal Settings

Three decades ago, while sitting in the pews next to her family at church in Wichita, Kansas, LaVerne Lowe had her first introduction to practicing American Sign Language (ASL).

“A man got up and started signing a song and it just hit me,” Lowe said. “It was beautiful.”

The moving form of communication stayed with Lowe from then on and she knew she had to learn how to sign herself.

“I was hooked,” she said.

As a child growing up in Arizona with two deaf parents, Letty Moran started signing when she was very young. She turned her skills into a career of service to other members of the Deaf community by becoming a first-generation Mexican American Heritage Signer. Parents of at least one signing deaf person are called native language signers.

“It was never a career for me, it was a willingness to lead the way and open doors for others,” Moran said.

Although Lowe and Moran’s path to becoming sign language interpreters was different, once they started their careers, they noticed the same thing: those who worked alongside them rarely looked like them.

“Once I stepped onto the court, I realized the need for performers of color,” Lowe said. “I remember an African American woman who needed an interpreter and when I walked into the room her eyes grew wider and wider. She had an expression that said “we are the same” and I could see her stress level dropping. It moved me.

According to the Interpreters for the Deaf Registry’s 2019 Annual Report, of the 14,452 members, only 11% identified as Black/African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Native American, or Hispanic/Latin. This under-representation is particularly visible in the legal framework where there is already a need for qualified interpreters. The shortage of interpreters of color, as well as the shortage of heritage language users, are issues that faculty in UNC’s Department of ASL and Interpretation Studies (ASLIS) are working to address. resolve since 2017.

After receiving a five-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration and a contribution of more than $185,000 from UNC, a program called CLIMB Project has been created. The CLIMB project stands for Cultivating Legal Interpreters from Minority Backgrounds.

“The broader picture of training interpreters to be more competent in a legal setting for the deaf community is hugely important and the CLIMB project has gone even further,” said Kelly Decker, CLIMB project educational coordinator . “The program has truly seen every participant wherever they are, whoever they are and created content in the program for heritage signers and performers of color that has never been done before, ever.”

The goal of the CLIMB project, which ended last month in December 2021, was to train 150 legal interpreters from underrepresented communities. The need for this specialized training became clear when 340 people from 42 states applied to be part of the CLIMB project. A total of 217 people were accepted, including Lowe and Moran.

“It surprised me how many allies are out there who know there needs to be change. It was really reassuring,” Moran said.

The program was divided into 19 legal modules which covered a wide range of topics. There were also two internship opportunities for participants to engage in simulated legal interpretation exercises.Both were originally envisioned as a face-to-face initiation in which participants would engage in one-to-one live mentoring with an experienced legal interpreter. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, courtrooms have become inaccessible and initiation has been redesigned in a virtual environment. This pivot was what courtrooms looked like in the fall of 2021.

“It brought the right amount of jitters,” Moran said. “It gave us the opportunity to learn and get great feedback.”

Of the 217 people enrolled in the CLIMB project, 176 successfully completed the training, 79% of whom were interpreters of color, deaf and/or heritage signature. Seventy of the 176 who completed the initial training went on to further training as mentors within their local communities, which became a secondary program. Moran and Lowe were among the 70.

“This program has opened doors for someone like me and that’s huge. UNC has recognized that and is in touch with what is needed,” Moran said.

Since the CLIMB project ended, Lowe has taken on a few jobs as a legal interpreter at a municipal court and plans to continue to do more. Moran recently accepted a teaching position at a community college. Both credit the CLIMB project with pushing them beyond their comfort zones and leading them to success. Decker says in its simplest form that this was the goal when creating the program.

“The CLIMB project has increased the number, diversified and improved the quality of trained interpreters working in legal contexts. The ripple effect of the CLIMB project has only just begun. There are so many possibilities,” Decker said.

Although the five-year grant ended last month, materials on fictional legal experiments, an ASL legal dictionary, and other resources are available online. CLIMB registrants completed over 250 hours of professional development over a nine-month period.

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