Classroom Interpreting

Parents - Case Studies: Exploring Different Perspectives on Educational Interpreting

An Interview with Kenya Lowe, Miss Deaf Michigan 2004

1. How did you learn to advocate for your self with educational interpreters:

I actually learned the hard way.  In college I received interpreters who were not qualified to interpret for me.  This made me very frustrated as I tried to balance a major university, and complete independence.

First, I explained my frustration to my parents.  They advised that I go to the department and explain that having a qualified interpreter is my right. So I went to the department, and explained that the individual interpreting for me was not qualified. The interpreter did not have an appropriate QA certification to interpret for me.  I explained my need for someone with more experience considering it is my native language and I’ve already mastered it.  How can one interpret ASL with a  “beginning” level of understanding of the language, to a Deaf individual who has an “advanced” level of understanding of the language? That interpreter will prevent me from getting all the information I need to pass my course.  That is not equal access to an education!  I don’t have a chance at success with a mediocre interpreter. What’s more, I’m PAYING for the course! I have a right to the best service so that I can pass my class!

2. If you’re having problems with an interpreter who can you go to as a student?

When I was in high school my parents were the people I felt most comfortable going to regarding “interpreters.”  I believe there needs to be a center within Deaf programs where students who use interpreters can discuss their dissatisfaction with an interpreter.  That center needs to have representatives who are knowledgeable about interpreters, and remain neutral regarding the issues so that the students feel comfortable being honest about how they feel towards an interpreter.  I do not think students today feel they have a right to stand up against an interpreter they are not comfortable with.

3. Does the role of the interpreter change from elementary school to middle school to high school?  Why?

It should change.  A child in elementary school has different needs than a young adult in high school. In elementary school, I was placed in a public school without an interpreter.  I wore an FM system and missed everything.  I was given speech therapy and taught to rely on lip-reading the teachers. They often forgot about me when they turned their backs to write on the board.  I relied a lot on watching what other students were doing and “following” the class.  I did a lot of “guessing” and “putting the pieces together”- figuring things out on my own. I educated myself through trial and error. Looking back, I missed a lot of important things in education.  I’m terrible with Geography.  I have always hated maps.  The teachers always turned their backs to point to locations, and then explain something while they were pointing to a certain area.  I tried reading the paragraphs in the book about those areas, but I still ‘missed’ something. Students laughed at comments made by a student behind me. I never laughed.  I always ‘missed’ the jokes.  Children chatted in line, and had a good time, while I stood in line and faced forward like the teachers instructed.  In elementary school I was lonely.  At that age, you want friends and to ‘belong’ or feel a connection. I don’t recall having a best friend in elementary school. I was different from everyone. I had a brown box, strapped to my chest that the hearing children liked to make fun of.  My books, journal, and coloring crayons were my friends.  I’m happy that I enjoyed reading at a young age.  I think reading saved my life.

In high school, that’s where you learn independence.  I already learned at a young age that in order for me to survive in school I have to figure things out, and put the pictures together on my own.  In middle and high school having an interpreter would mean that I needed to be placed in special education. The schools also felt that my speech was “so good” I did not really need an interpreter.  I was not at an age where I really knew what I needed.  Besides, aren’t these professionals?  They have years of experience in the field of Deaf education, certainly they would know better than my parents and me what I needed.

But my parents disagreed with the ‘professionals.’ They did not feel I needed to be placed in special education, so I was placed in classes once again, without interpreters.  Once again, I relied on lip-reading, and “figuring things out.”  I was independent and aggressive enough to approach teachers before or after class if I did not understand something. Well, my parents were going to kill me if I didn’t pass my classes, but they were not going to ‘help’ me pass my classes, so I had no choice but to succeed by my own wits. J

I was also fortunate to have a father who worked in my school, and his tough love style was helpful.  He had all the books I was using in class, and he knew all my teachers.  So when I got home from school, using ASL, he always grilled me about what I was learning, and challenged me.  He forced me to research things on my own, too.  After I researched, he challenged me again.  He always asked, ‘Why do you think that?’--forcing me to think outside the box. If I didn’t understand something, he explained it clearly in ASL.  Having a language at home helped me get through school.

I did not have much interaction with my peers in class.  I rarely participated in class.  And when I had classes that required participation points, I HATED those courses.  I had to work harder in those courses to make sure I knew who was talking, and about what.  I dreaded the teacher calling on me.  I felt stupid when I did not have an answer.  The teachers always thought it was because I didn’t pay attention in class.  Really, I didn’t always have an answer because I didn’t always know what everyone was talking about.

The first time I had an interpreter was in high school.  I was failing geometry.  That’s when my father told the school I needed an interpreter in that class.  He did not want them to take me out of the class, and place me in the Deaf program.  He wanted me to remain in the regular class, with the interpreter.  So I was given an interpreter for the first time, and I was embarrassed.  Now, I don’t ‘blend’ in, I thought.  I’m definitely “different” now.  I had spent my whole life relying on educating myself, now, I was able to watch someone translate what teacher was saying, and I understood. The problem was I didn’t know how to handle it in school. How do I take notes, watch the interpreter, look at the teacher writing on the board, see the student who’s giving the answer, etc...  It was overwhelming for me.  I was frustrated.  It was very difficult to multitask at first.

I did not know how to fully utilize the tool that was given to me.  And there was no one to go to explain my frustration.  Once again, I learned to figure it out, and make it work somehow.  Some children are not that fortunate.

4. What advice would you give hearing parents about prepping their deaf children to use educational interpreters?

 It would be nice if ALL hearing parents of students using ASL were fluent in American sign language so that they could see for themselves if an interpreter is satisfactory or not.  It is not a perfect world. Most hearing parents do not know ASL, so they tend to rely on the ‘professionals’ to provide their children with the “appropriate” interpreter.  Sometimes the ‘professionals’ don’t even know what they are doing. First, parents need to be educated about their children’s rights. Then, those parents need to educate their children.

Parents should make sure their children understand that it is their responsibility to let them or a teacher know if they do not understand what the interpreter is signing. 

Children who use interpreters also need to know what the interpreter's role is. They need to understand what it means when an interpreter violates confidentiality or violates an ethic. My father always said, “It is your fault if you sit and ‘pretend you understand something, when you don’t.  You look like the fool.  It is your education; you are responsible for making sure you receive it. too.”

5. Fame or Shame:  Worst or Best examples of educational interpreting:

BEST:  I had an interpreter who had very good ears J .  During the break, she would interpret conversations around me.

WORSE:  I had an interpreter who dressed in clothes that I felt made me stand out.  When you’re young, you want to blend in, and not be noticed.  She was always recognized because her clothes just did not match my personality and my age.  I really did not like that interpreter and dreaded class when she came. Why couldn’t she dress normal like the rest of us?

6. Straight talk to high school seniors:

Ladies and Gentleman:  I cannot stress the importance for you to step up to the game.  We are crying for stronger Deaf Leaders in our country.  Your first step to being a leader is taking control of your education.  You cannot afford to be passive individuals.  Remember interpreters work for YOU. YOU DO NOT WORK FOR THEM.  If it weren’t for you, they would not have a job.  With that in mind, make sure they provide you with the BEST job.  Do NOT SETTLE for ‘good enough’.  Raise the bar!!!!!  Change the system! 

The world expects you to become strong leaders; you need to expect your resources to be the BEST so that you are able to be a strong LEADER!!!

The world is yours... there’s absolutely no room for failure..... And honestly: no excuse.

Good luck. 

Kenya Lowe