GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A 2019 survey from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights found that 7.4% of people across the state live with some form of hearing disability — being completely deaf or hard-of-hearing — and there aren’t enough certified American Sign Language interpreters to meet the demand.
Grand Rapids Community College has seen the need and is taking action. It is working to add more courses and partner with a nearby school to address the interpreter shortage.
Justine Bryant is a certified ASL interpreter and was hired by GRCC as an affiliate assistant professor this summer. As an interpreter, she sees the need for more help.
“(The shortage) means somebody is going without that communication and that could be detrimental to someone (especially) if it’s a medical appointment or a legal appointment or whatever it may be,” Bryant told News 8. “There’s just a massive, massive shortage. It’s here in Michigan. It’s here in West Michigan. It’s nationwide.”
GRCC hopes to attract students interested in getting certified as an ASL interpreter and serve as the first leg of their journey. Students would attend one year at GRCC, take a couple of ASL courses and some generic requirements before transferring to Lansing Community College and eventually another school to complete a bachelor’s program.
“At GRCC, we currently have sign language classes that are Level One and Level Two — a finger-spelling course and then an introduction to deaf culture course,” Bryant said. “At LCC, students have three options. You can get an associate’s degree in interpreting. They also have a certificate in interpreting. And then they have a three-in-one program with Siena Heights University (in Adrian) … to complete their bachelor’s degree.”
It just so happens to be the path that Bryant took to get where she is today. She earned associate’s degrees from GRCC and LCC before finishing her bachelor’s degree in ASL interpreting and transliterating at Siena Heights in 2015.
Bryant considers her career as an interpreter and a professor rewarding, presenting new challenges and ever-changing environments.
“When I was in high school, I was volunteering at an event and I was running the check-in table and someone came up to the table and they were using American Sign Language. It was something that I had never seen before,” Bryant explained. “I don’t have any deaf family members or anything like that. It was my first experience, and at that point I thought it would be pretty good to learn.”
It wasn’t until taking classes at GRCC that she found her calling.
“When I came to college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do because I loved all of these things. … I loved art, I loved psychology, I loved math. I didn’t know what to do with that and what to do with those passions until I found sign language, because now that I interpret and that I’m teaching, I can incorporate all of those topics into my daily work,” she said.
Bryant recommends people who are looking to work professionally as an ASL interpreter commit to completing a bachelor’s program.
“The thing that’s a little bit tricky with sign language interpretation is just because you get a degree in interpreting doesn’t mean you can legally do that. Here in (Michigan), once you get a degree, you have to pass certification tests. So you have to hold both,” Bryant said. “It does vary state by state, but here in Michigan we do have to pass certification tests in order to legally work.”
Bryant stands behind Michigan’s strict regulation process, saying it’s important to make sure members of our deaf and hard-of-hearing communities can trust interpreters.
“For me, personally, I am pleased with the restrictions because that way I know that my deaf friends and my deaf colleagues are getting the service that they need because they have certified interpreters who are qualified to do the work. It’s not just anybody who says they know how to sign,” she said.