Addressing the Growing Demand for Sign Language Interpreters
Well before they graduate, students in the UA's Educational Interpreting program have numerous opportunities to work in K-12 classroom settings with children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

By Yara Askar, University Communications
Nov. 12, 2013

Throughout Arizona and across the nation, there is a shortage of trained professionals who can interpret for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, and elementary and secondary schools have been highly affected.

Helping to address the shortage is the University of Arizona's Educational Interpreting program, designed to prepare students to become fluent in American Sign Language and to work with children in educational settings. The program was established in the 1970s. 

"The problem is that we have many interpreters, but what is needed are qualified interpreters," said Marie Tavormina, an adjunct instructor for the UA program.

And the demand for those highly trained interpreters is widespread.

Employment for interpreters and translators is expected to grow 42 percent between 2010 and 2020, at a faster-than-average rate compared to other occupations, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. The demand for interpreters is not only in the education sector, but also in the medical and legal fields and in video relay, or video interpreting, services.

The Federal Communications Commission established a Video Relay Service less than 10 years ago to allow hearing impaired individuals to communicate via video telephone. The service, provided through many agencies and call centers in the U.S., requires interpreters to be staffed 24/7, but many organizations have had trouble finding qualified individuals for the jobs.

Driving the national demand for interpreters is an increase in state laws requiring that interpreters be licensed and, in some cases, have completed four-year degree programs instead of two-year programs.

"Another reason for the shortage is that interpreting is an extremely difficult task and interpreters either burn out or are not qualified," said Cindy Volk, associate professor of practice and project director for the emphasis area.

To counter such challenges, the UA program offers some students tuition waivers and stipends. Students are also connected with mentors and have multiple in-class engagement opportunities to work with children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Students must complete an application process for the program prior to their junior year in order to be considered for acceptance. To be eligible, students must have completed four semesters of sign language and 56 units of general education requirements. Students also must have at least a 2.5 GPA. Students are then interviewed to test their sign language skills.

Each year, the UA program accepts 15 to 20 students who, over the course of the program, rotate through three required practicums in actual K-12 classrooms. UA students also receive training to become more culturally conscious and socially aware of the populations they will serve. At the end of the program, all students must take the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment. Each year, about 10 to 15 students graduate from the program.

The UA academic program is funded through a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Students who receive financial support through the UA program commit to working anywhere in the U.S. in K-12 public education for at least one year with children who are deaf. Students may either complete this work obligation or repay the monies.

Tavormina said another nationwide challenge is attracting more males to interpreting, although a shift is beginning to occur with more males entering the field.

Take Brian Zimmerman, for example. 

Zimmerman is a UA senior majoring in special education and rehabilitation and learned that he could have a career in interpreting.

He has found the course material engaging and challenging, noting that students in the program must take into consideration several different factors, simultaneously.

"You have to process what is being said, find the meaning of the word, take into account the environment – if it is meetings, interviews, casual friends, theater – find the effect or mood of the person's source language for that word, then finally interpret it into the target language," Zimmerman said. "We have to do this constantly while the speaker/signer is talking/signing."

The UA program is structured to ensure that students gain broad and varied experience before they graduate.

In the first practicum, students observe a professional educational interpreter. For the second practicum, students are paired up for mock interpreting. And during the third, students work with a professional educational interpreter to interpret for children who are deaf and hard of hearing. A fourth practicum is optional to students.

Upon graduating, Zimmerman hopes to move to Washington, D.C. to work in educational setting in order to complete the work obligation of his grant. 

"After that I want to do interpretation for the government and politics," Zimmerman said. "However with interpreting there are literally thousands of different fields of interpreting, so we can branch out."


Resources for the media

Cindy Volk

UA Department of Disability & Psychoeducational Studies



Marie Tavormina

UA Department of Disability & Psychoeducational Studies