Characteristics and Practices of Sign Language Interpreters in Inclusive Education Programs

By Jones, Bernhardt E.; Clark, Gary M. et al. | Exceptional Children, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Characteristics and Practices of Sign Language Interpreters in Inclusive Education Programs


Jones, Bernhardt E., Clark, Gary M., Soltz, Donald F., Exceptional Children


The successful inclusion of students who are deaf or hard of hearing in U.S. public schools (K-12) is a challenging goal. In the wake of increasing concerns about the full inclusion of children who are deaf or hard of hearing in general education--without adequate communication and social supports (Frishberg, 1990; Schrag, 1991)--research is needed to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the key individuals making inclusion possible. Long-standing debates on communication approaches render the issues of inclusion more complex. The issue of communication is a key factor in implementing inclusive education. The responsibility placed on an educational sign language interpreter is so great that the issue of roles, functions, and qualifications emerges as a concern for the field.

Little research has been conducted in the area of educational sign language interpreting performed in K-12 public school settings. As Stewart (1988) pointed out, interpreting in the elementary and secondary school setting has a short history.

ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES

We know little about the roles and functions of educational sign language interpreters, or of the particular communication approaches they use. A study of 71 K-12 educational interpreters in the state of Iowa revealed discrepancies between the responsibilities the interpreter perceived to be important to his or her job and the actual responsibilities the interpreter performed (Harris, 1989). In a smaller sample of 32 educational interpreters in western Pennsylvania, Hayes (1991, 1992) also found confusion regarding educational sign language interpreters' roles and responsibilities. Although these two studies asked important questions, little empirical evidence exists to show what educational sign language interpreters do within U.S. elementary and secondary school systems. Almost every description in the literature is based on individual or group recommendations about what educational sign language interpreters should be doing (Brazeau, 1991; CDE, 1991; Contrucci, 1991; Heavner, 1986; MCDHH, 1988; NYSDE, 1994; Salend & Longo, 1994; Wendel, 1993).

COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS

A second issue of concern is the mode of communication used by educational interpreters. Communication systems are not well understood by most educators. For example, interpreting between two languages (e.g., English and Spanish or English and American Sign Language [ASL]) and transliterating between spoken English and a manual code of English and vice versa are two distinctly different tasks (Frishberg, 1990). An interpreter faces a variety of interpreting and transliterating options, including: the needs of the students who are deaf or hard of hearing (language proficiency--in one or more languages); form or code of sign English preferred by the parents and school; and qualifications of the interpreter. However, "interpreting" and a "manual code of English (MCE)" are general terminology and do not help clarify exactly which language(s) or manual code(s) are most often used by the interpreter, or if educational sign language interpreters actually interpret (between English and ASL) or transliterate (between English and a manual representation of English).

Debate over communication systems is not new (Epee, 1801). Concerns about ASL and English-based sign systems predate the oral-manual controversy This can be an emotional and controversial issue in the field of education of deaf students and sign language interpreting. Schrag (1991, p. 12) asked, "How can we measure the effectiveness and efficiency of different modes of educational interpreting?"

The first question, however, should be, " Which modes of communication are used in educational interpreting?"

QUALIFICATIONS AND CONTINUING DEMAND

A recent issue is the qualifications of K-12 educational sign language interpreters. Use of the educational interpreter as the sole or primary support for students in inclusive instructional settings has not only increased the demand for interpreters, but it has thrust them into new and unique interpretation and instructional roles. …

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