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October 24, 2002

Deaf interpreters find job rewarding, unique

From: Tuscaloosa News, AL
Oct 24, 2002

By Markeshia Ricks
October 24, 2002

The passage of the Americans with Disability Act has created great demand for qualified American Sign Language interpreters.

ADA calls for employers, schools, hospitals and many other establishments to provide interpreters if they are requested to accommodate patrons who use sign language to communicate.

A daunting task, considering the National Center for Health Statistics reports that there are more than 400,000 deaf adults and children and 20 million more who are hard of hearing.

But for the small number of people who interpret in Tuscaloosa, it is a rewarding experience unlike any other.

Ted Kotis, a professional interpreter for the deaf with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, said he loves his job even though it wasn’t his first choice for a career.

When Kotis completed a degree in speech and hearing science, he said he thought he would pursue a career in oncology. He never dreamed he would become a professional sign language interpreter.

“I was taking a refresher course at the University of South Alabama and I overheard some students talking about a sign language course they were taking and how much fun it was," he said. “They told me the professor didn’t mind visitors, so I visited the class and ended up taking the course."

During that first course, Kotis was introduced to a new world without even leaving Alabama.

“The professor would invite members of the deaf community to come to the class instead of just teaching from a textbook," he said. “It was like meeting someone from a different country."

The more Kotis interacted with the deaf community, the more he wanted to be involved, and one of the best ways for a hearing person to be involved is to be able to communicate.

After 10 years as an interpreter in Mobile, Kotis came to Tuscaloosa to work for the ADR.

“Working for ADR is the best interpreting job in the state," he said. “I know the other staff is focused on helping the consumer."

Fellow interpreter, Liz Spiller, caught the interpreting bug at an early age after interacting with a childhood acquaintance.

“My dad is a lawyer in town, and one of his law partners daughter is deaf," Spiller said. “I grew up fascinated with communicating with her."

Spiller was so fascinated that she started teaching herself some of the basics of signing while she was in high school and got into an interpreter-training program at the University of Alabama.

During her sophomore year, Spiller finished her program and worked as a professional interpreter while she finished her degree in deaf education.

Now, seven years later, Spiller is a freelance interpreter and loving it.

“Being a freelance interpreter is kind of like living on faith, but there is such a need for interpreters," she said. “But in order to practice you have to have a license, and it is very hard and costly to get a license."

The Alabama Licensure Law requires interpreters who work for money to have a license or permit.

Where a person can interpret and the level of testing completed determines whether a person will have a license or a permit.

A permit allows a person to interpret everywhere except courtrooms. A licensed person can interpret anywhere.

To obtain a license or a permit an interpreter must complete an application, provide an affidavit that documents appropriate levels of certification, plus pay a $50 nonrefundable fee.

The license or permit must be renewed each year. The exams from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the National Association for the Deaf can cost $200 or more per test.

Exceptions to the licensure law are for religious and volunteer interpreting.

Interpreting without a license or permit is a class C misdemeanor and carries up to a $1,000 fine.

The salaries for interpreters vary greatly, but interpreters in West Alabama can make about $35 a day.

However, Kotis said there are less than 30 interpreters who serve the area, and even fewer are full-time interpreters.

Spiller, who has worked as interpreter in the medical field, said there is a big need for interpreters in the mental health system.

“The deaf need more interpreters, but you have to be careful when you interpret in the medical field," she said. “If you interpret something wrong, it could be very harmful."

Spiller said most interpreters in such sensitive environments have to be nationally certified, which leads to another round of costly tests.

Kotis said there is also a need to clarify the interpreting styles, so interpreters can be matched up appropriately with clients.

“There are two sides of interpreting ó American Sign Language and transliterating," he said. “ASL is not English and it is not in the same word order. Transliterating is English and more English signing."

Kotis said an interpreter who uses transliterating with a deaf person who uses ASL is less effective in interpreting because they are not using the same language.

The prerequisites to becoming a professional interpreter may seem overwhelming, but both Kotis and Spiller feel it is rewarding work.

“Deaf culture is amazing, and I love being involved with it," she said. “You have to be accepted into it, it’s not automatic."

Both Spiller and Kotis are members of the Tuscaloosa division of the Alabama Chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, a professional organization that provides support for interpreters, training and testing that is required to obtain certification.

The local chapter hosts workshops that can be used toward the 20 hours of continuing learning credits that every professional interpreter must have each year.

The two agree that training is the only way to go in professional interpreting.

“Get professional training," Spiller said. “Get into an interpreter training program. There is one in Mobile and there is a great two year degree program at Bishop State Community College."

“In the past it was good enough to have deaf parents," Kotis said. “But the profession is demanding education, and it is really the best thing for the people we serve and the profession."

For information, call the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services at (800) 331-5562 or (205) 554-1300 (V/TTY).

© 2002 The Tuscaloosa News