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BOTW: In Search of Quality Communication

Should interpreters for the deaf be licensed?
Jordan Smith, 10:15am, Sat. Apr. 13, 2013

Pop quiz time. Which of the following jobs does not require a license: a.) doctor; b.) lawyer; c.) barber; d.) legal or medical interpreter for the deaf.

If you guessed D, you're right – and that's a huge problem, say deaf individuals and advocates for the deaf who testified on April 2 before the House Human Services Committee in support of House Bill 2072 by Austin Dem Rep. Eddie Rodriguez.

HB 2072 would turn the state's voluntary certification program for deaf and hard of hearing interpreters into a professional licensing requirement. That in turn would assure hearing disabled consumers have access to high quality interpreters, including in the most critical settings – think hospitals, jails, police stations, or in court. The bill would place the regulation of deaf interpreters to the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, and would give DARS the authority to investigate and, importantly, to penalize scofflaws.

Disability law requires equal access for the deaf and for the use of "qualified" interpreters. The problem is that there is no definition for qualified – and "therein lies the problem," said DARS' Lori Breslow who spoke before the committee as a resource witness. Indeed, substandard interpreters can wreak havoc. Consider the case of Esther Valdez, who was arrested by Austin Police in June 2009 for ignoring police orders – commands she couldn't hear because she is deaf; Valdez was never provided with an interpreter during her three-hour encounter with the cops. The department has a checkered history in dealing with Austin's sizable deaf community and has twice been subject to federal lawsuits brought to address the communication breakdown. Austin Police don't regularly call for interpreters, we reported back in December 2010 in a cover story about Valdez's case, instead opting to call on fellow officers who have limited signing skills; in 2010 none of the three officers paid a bilingual stipend for their supposed signing skills were actually certified. Currently there are four officers receiving bilingual pay; none are certified.

The bill was prompted by ongoing communication issues not only in Austin but across the state, says Amber Farrelly, a lawyer and certified interpreter whose client load is roughly 80% deaf and hard of hearing clients. Farrelly was one of the lawyers who handled Valdez's case. Non-certified interpreters, which does include police officers, and who generally work for lower wages than their certified counterparts, are "literally putting peoples lives at stake," she said, and when bad communication leads to a bad situation, the deaf person has little recourse because there is no investigation and policing function. The majority of interpreters are qualified and take their work very seriously, agrees Billy Collins, who has been working as an interpreter for 41 years. But just like any other profession, there are bad apples – in this case, non-certified interpreters who sell themselves as having better skills than they actually do. "This is causing more harm than good," he said.

Advocates agree that transforming the unregulated certification program into a licensing scheme would do wonders to take the profession to the next level. Indeed, David Myers, who spoke on behalf of the Texas Association for the Deaf and is a former commissioner of the Texas Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing said that requiring licensing for interpreters has long been a goal for the state – it's been discussed since at least 1996 – and is timely now because of more recent advancements in standardized testing for interpreter candidates.

In the end, said Rodriguez, passing this bill ensures that deaf residents of Texas had the "same quality of [communication] services as everybody else."

The bill – a bipartisan measure with Austin Dem Rep. Elliott Naishtat and Houston GOP Rep. John Davis joining Rodriguez – was passed out of committee on April 9 and now moves to the whole House for consideration.

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