Sign Language

There’s no shortage of work for interpreters who know sign language

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OU News Bureau

About one in ten people in Michigan is deaf or hard of hearing, making students taking American Sign Language more in demand than ever.

There are as many as 1 million deaf or hard-of-hearing people in Michigan, according to the Department of Civil Rights section of Once the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, deaf people earned the right to request and be provided an interpreter in many situations.

Yet with the severe shortage of certified interpreters, even requesting ahead of time bears no guarantees.

“We could use hundreds and hundreds more interpreters,” said Paul Fugate, who teaches ASL classes in the West Bloomfield School District and at Oakland University. Fugate also teaches classes in the interpreting program at Baker College, works as an

interpreter for Deaf Community Advocacy Network and runs, a website that uses video to teach sign language.

Fugate said Deaf C.A.N. employs about 40 interpreters, and is the largest interpreter agency in Michigan. People can contact the agency, which will pair them with an interpreter. He said that each interpreter could easily work 120 hours a week and still have more to do.

Paul Fugate shows his class the sign for big, meanwhile explaining the difference between the signs for big, huge and gigantic. PHOTO/DANIELLE KOPACKI

In Michigan, Madonna University has the largest ASL program and offers a bachelor’s degree where sign language studies students, while gaining fluency in ASL, can concentrate either on deaf studies or interpreting.

Interpreters are needed in fields such as education, medical and legal, according to the Michigan Coalition for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.

The shortage of interpreters, Fugate said, is due to a lack of awareness. Those interested in sign language soon realize sign language is not signed English.

“I think when they start learning to sign, and they find out it’s not only just the alphabet and a few signs, it’s harder than it looks,” Fugate said. Sign language has different grammar than spoken English, and deaf culture is unique, as well.

Depending on the student, it takes two to four years to complete the necessary courses in an interpreting program, Fugate said. To become an interpreter, students must pass at least a state-level test and, optimally, a national test. Getting paid to interpret without a license is a misdemeanor and can result in a fine up to $10,000, along with possible jail time.

Fugate said he often gently pushes his students to continue taking sign language classes.

“I always poll the class about who wants to become interpreters, and there’s always quite a few students who raise their hands,” Fugate said, “and I hope they do because it’s an awesome career.”

Fugate, who is nationally certified twice over, has interpreted for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., James Earl Jones, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Al Roker, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and Bon Jovi. He explains to his students that as interpreters, they can also have opportunities to meet celebrities by interpreting for events.

Anthony Wiggins, with Fugate’s encouragement, enrolled in Oakland Community College’s Sign Language Interpreter Program. Fugate is especially excited about Wiggins’ choice because 90 percent of licensed sign language interpreters are women.

“What inspired me so much about the interpreting field was Paul and also seeing his enthusiasm, not only as an instructor, but as a member of the deaf community,” said Wiggins, who first took ASL classes just to learn sign language, but ended up immersing himself in the culture, as well.

Wiggins will graduate from Oakland University in December 2012, and will finish the interpreter program in January 2014. He hopes to become a social worker, tailoring specifically to the deaf community.

“If you’re interested in becoming an interpreter, and you’re serious about it, go for it,” Fugate said. “It’s just awesome. I cannot imagine doing something else.”

As a final class project, students in Fugate’s ASL II course at Oakland University worked together to translate and perform a class song. This group chose “We Are Young” by Fun featuring Janelle Monáe.Video courtesy of Steve Wiseman.

“We Are Young” fun. -ASL Interpretation

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