Sign Language interpreters find wide-open market

Janet L. Bailey, founder and president of Sign Language Associates Inc., a private interpreting firm in Silver Spring, says she was "never destined to be an interpreter for the deaf. I was just looking for a job."

But there are indications that Ms. Bailey, whose firm grosses $3 million a year and has 40 full-time staff and more than 200 part-time workers, thoughtfully segued into her role as the third party in communications between the deaf and hearing.


Ms. Bailey learned American Sign Language as a child when she went along with her mother, who took an introductory ASL course.

"My mother quit, but I continued. I was hooked," said Ms. Bailey, a speech graduate of Huron College in Huron, S.D. She later worked in public relations at Gallaudet University in Washington, (for deaf students) and did graduate work there in linguistics.


In 1982, Ms. Bailey opened her firm. "Interpreting is a profession," she stressed. "You have to be fluent in ASL before you can become an interpreter. ASL is a language. Interpreters are the communication between two people who don't share a common language."

She adds: "Until recently, interpreting was done by well-meaning children of deaf adults and others out of the goodness of their hearts. While it definitely is a caring profession . . . people should not go into it because they feel sorry for anyone. That's not a good reason to do anything. You must have respect for the consumer."

Ms. Bailey is not hearing-impaired, nor are the other interpreters. She warns that the work requires highly honed skills, certification and accreditation.

She holds a comprehensive certificate and a specialist certificate from the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, also with headquarters in Silver Spring. Ms. Bailey is its president.

Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act has opened job opportunities for ASL interpreters, and shortages are reported throughout the country.

The 7,000 hours of interpreting Ms. Bailey's firm does involves work at hospitals, courtrooms, staff meetings, training sessions and employment-related situations. Interpreters also work in government relations and education and with deaf women in childbirth.

Ms. Bailey estimated there are some 10,000 ASL interpreters in the United States but warns that most do not have credentials. The majority work free-lance and earn $25 to $50 an hour, depending on where they are. According to a 1994 national survey by her firm, Ms. Bailey estimates annual income for certified interpreters at about $36,800.

"Opportunities are wide-open," she said. "It's a wonderful field because you're providing access for nonhearing people."


Courses in the field are offered at community and four-year colleges nationwide. In 1993, Columbia College in Chicago started a four-year undergraduate degree program in interpreter training.

"Our hearing students learn how to become interpreters by learning ASL and spoken English," said Lynn M. Pena, director of the program. "I see incredible job openings out there. There are not enough interpreters to fill all the free-lance positions."

Columbia's program, which costs $3,835 a semester for full-time students, includes courses in English, ASL, deaf culture, interpreting techniques and practical and ethical issues in interpreting. Currently, 94 students at Columbia are majoring in the subject.

Ms. Pena has a bachelor of science degree in deaf education from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and a master's in interpreting ASL from Gallaudet, where she was first in her class.

"I always thought being an interpreter was intriguing and I always wanted to be in education," said Ms. Pena, who began working with the deaf while in high school in LaPorte, Ind.

"I love interpreting," she says. "In almost any aspect of their lives outside the deaf community, communication has to be facilitated for deaf people. It's exciting to be on the cutting edge, at the


very beginning, of an exciting profession."

The phone number for the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf is (301) 608-0050; for Sign Language Associates, Inc., (301) 588-7591; and for Columbia College, (312) 663-1600.