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October 31, 2002

Worker signs up to be hearing aide for deaf students at West High

From: Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, IA
Oct. 31, 2002

Courier Staff Writer

WATERLOO - Senior Jeff Medd sat in his West High School art class on a recent Monday as the teacher instructed students about their projects.

The kids quietly listened to the teacher while gathering supplies for the day. Hunched over a drawing, the 17-year-old Medd kept his eyes on interpreter Josh McKenzie in another corner of the room.

Medd is deaf. McKenzie is his bridge to the hearing world.

He stands among the students' desks relaying the teacher's words using American Sign Language. Through body movements, facial expressions and signing with his hands, he communicates to Medd what others are saying.

McKenzie follows Medd throughout the school day. The pair can sometimes be seen signing to each other as they walk down the halls.

But it wouldn't be hard to confuse the interpreter with the student. After all, at age 18, McKenzie looks as though he could be enrolled in the same classes as Medd.

Some teachers have mistaken McKenzie for a student at first glance.

"I walk down the halls and the teachers say, 'You need to get to class, because you're late,'" he said.

He was hired last month by Area Education Agency 7 as Medd's interpreter.

"I was actually surprised that the school hired me, because I didn't have that much experience –- not certified experience," said McKenzie. He first learned sign language as a small child from his parents, who are both deaf.

"The only history I've had with interpreting was in church and in social situations (for his parents)," he said.

Leia Sparks, West's deaf and hard of hearing teacher, said it is not unusual for interpreters in Waterloo Community Schools to lack certification or college training. Most of them learned sign language because someone they know is deaf or hard of hearing.

"Experience is sometimes more important than a college degree," she said.

However, McKenzie's age and gender are unusual when it comes to those working as interpreters. West's other two interpreters have years of experience and are both women.

"As far as I know," added Sparks, "all of our interpreters are women in the district."

She believes working with another male has been good for Medd and provided better bonding opportunities.

"For most of Jeff's life, his interpreters have been women," she said.

The two other interpreters work with the school's five remaining deaf or hard of hearing students. McKenzie is dedicated to Medd because he needs someone who understands American Sign Language and doesn't read lips.

Medd indicates he is "more comfortable" working with another male.

"We talk; we get along," said McKenzie. "I try to help him understand his homework."

"I feel the male part is a good benefit," said Sparks. "Sometimes, the age concerns me because in the interpreting business, you have to understand that there's a fine line between being a friend and an interpreter."

A lifetime of experience
McKenzie never set out to be an interpreter.

He arrived in the area last July, intending to find a job and enroll at the University of Northern Iowa on the advice of a friend. He soon shifted his plans to taking classes at Hawkeye Community College.

After limited job success, he decided to return to Council Bluffs, where his family lives. But McKenzie's pastor at the Apostolic Pentecostal Church suggested he wait for something to turn up. Two weeks later, the church's assistant pastor told him about the opening for a deaf interpreter.

It was years of learning from his deaf parents that landed McKenzie the job, enabling him to attend college. He actually knew sign language before speaking a word. He picked up many speech skills from older siblings, but still had trouble in school.

"When I was in fourth grade, I had tremendous problems doing homework because my vocabulary wasn't very high," he said. "I had to go to a speech therapy class to learn how to speak verbally correctly."

Throughout his childhood, McKenzie's parents brought him to "deaf clubs," ensuring he met people with hearing loss and learned to communicate with them.

"My dad was a real advocate for deaf culture," he said. "He wanted me to know how it is.

"I think the culture has really made an impact on my life, because it gave me a chance to understand some things that were rarely understood (by hearing people)."

That doesn't mean McKenzie plans to make a career out of interpreting.

He intends to complete two years of college at HCC and then transfer to finish a degree in education, theology, business or another field.

Or McKenzie may decide interpreting for deaf people is where he can best serve.

"If I can be used in it," he said, "I would be an interpreter."

© The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier 2002