“I interpret for the Deaf and the Hearing”: A Profile on the Deaf community at UConn

The UConn American Sign Language club puts on a show for students and community members during Deaf Awareness Day on Thursday night. Students from the ASL 4 class worked for months to create a play version of "Hercules" in American Sign Language for the audience to enjoy. (Maggie Chafouleas/The Daily Campus)

Whether an American Sign Language interpreter is signing in front of thousands of people or over a video call, an interpreter is there to help communication for both the deaf and hearing.

At the University of Connecticut, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has a unique American Sign Language and Deaf Studies program where students can learn the art behind American Sign Language (ASL) from professional interpreters and/or deaf faculty members, UConn American Sign Language studies professor and national certified sign language interpreter Linda Pelletier said.

As an interpreter, Pelletier is a freelancer who typically works in the education or medical field, she said. Based on her 25-year experience as an interpreter, Pelletier stressed that she is not solely an interpreter for the Deaf community, despite common misconceptions.

“It’s important to note that I am interpreting for the Deaf and the hearing. There is often the assumption that I am just interpreting for the Deaf,” Pelletier said. “I am interpreting for anyone who does not know American Sign Language or with English. There can be times that I am interpreting for crowds of a thousand or simply between two individuals.”

The Academic Affairs Committee approved of the Bachelor of Arts degree program for American Sign Language Wednesday that will allow students to study to become interpreters and learn about the Deaf community. Pelletier said she is happy to see the demand for undergraduates to get this experience.

“There is still a need for sign language interpreters so I constantly continue to strive those who have a genuine interest to pursue it further,” Pelletier said.

The ASL classes are taught by Deaf faculty members. Doreen Simons is one of the department's full-time Deaf faculty members. As an American Sign Language and Deaf studies professor, she has been teaching “since forever” but has been teaching at UConn for the past 20 years. In her classes, she uses a mixture of sign language and visuals.

“I use pictures. I point. I use myself. I talk about the best colors to use,” Simons said. “Just like you teach other classes, you pick up along the way.”

In her classes there is a mixture of Deaf and Hearing students with a variety of majors.

“Communicating with the deaf is a great skill to have,” Simons said. “It’s another great way of supporting the language.”

Although Simons uses American Sign Language, the method of communication depends on the person.

“It depends on an individual. Some read lips. They need to find what is suitable for them,” Simons said. “I communicate with ASL but it depends on the person.”

When communicating with someone who is Deaf, an interpreter is solely for translating the two languages, Simons said. Both the Deaf and the Hearing need the interpreter.

“The interpreter is not for me only. Most people think it's for the Deaf,” Simmons said. “The interpreters are standing by me but they are only for communication. They don’t add opinion.”

The most difficult part about being an interpreter is maintaining the same linguistic and cultural meanings that the Deaf are signing, Pelletier said.

“To render the message faithfully, as they often say, and accurately can be very challenging and extremely rewarding,” Pelletier said.

If a live interpreter is unavailable, members of the Deaf community can use Video Relay Service, an interpreting system that is done through video call, Pelletier said. Either party, Deaf or Hearing, can call a specific number that will connect the two with a live interpreter via webcam.

“That is available 24/7 free of change. You can call anyone, anytime,” Pelletier said. “[It’s good to] know that there are interpreting services to facilitate communication between ASL and English. Even if a live interpreter isn’t available, it is an option to communicate by way of phone.”

For students, faculty, staff and visitors alike, UConn Interpreting Services works to make sure deaf and hard-of-hearing members of the UConn community can have the same opportunities at all university events, of UConn Interpreting Services director Audrey Silva said. Silva described their method as equity access, meaning that for someone who needs help gets exactly what they need.

“I have seen cartoons of the people watching a ball game in front of a fence. Equal access is that everyone has a milk box. Equal means everyone gets one even if I’m tall and you’re short. Equity means you get two [to help you see] and I get one because I am tall,” Silva said. “Equity is a way of understanding the fact that we work to tailor the communication access to the individual or the event.”

For the approximately 65 students who are registered through the Center for Students with Disabilities as deaf or hard-of-hearing, UConn Interpreting Services works to find the best aid for their needs, whether it is an interpreter or a computer-assisted real-time translation, Silva said.

The computer-assisted, real-time translation is a live-captioning system in which an interpreter takes in the sounds and translate them into words on a computer screen,” Silva said. “This system can be used in classes by transmitting the lecture to the student’s device or for big events, like a basketball game.

For anyone who wants to attend a UConn event who needs assistance, Silva said that all they need to do is fill out an online form from the Interpreting Services website. The Interpreting Services tries to predict when aid will be needed, like commencement, but filling out the form guarantees that aid will be provided.

“The attendee would say ‘I’m deaf’ and the ticket holder reaches out and makes that request... Anyone can use that form at any time. Trying to be proactive. We even have a spot to say ‘I’m not sure,’” Silva said. “We expected the audience and make the appropriate recommendation. It’s not just for the students, it’s for everyone.”

Beyond the academic arena, UConn ASL Club supports and helps builds a positive relationship between deaf and hearing students, Danielle Rubin, UConn ASL Clubs’ vice president and sixth-semester speech, language and hearing sciences major, said.

In addition to biweekly meetings, one of the activities UConn ASL Club does is visit the American School for the Deaf about once a month, Rubin said.

“The activities change each time from gym activities to homework help, but the most important thing is to get to know the students, practice our signing and be immersed in the culture,” Rubin said. “It is important to have Deaf community members come to the club so that we get to know more about Deaf culture from people who actually live it.”

Rubin said that she thinks the club is important to have at UConn because it makes the connection between the two communities stronger and more educated.

“It fosters the love of ASL, the language and the culture,” Rubin said.

Pelletier said that every day is different when she is interpreting and she thoroughly enjoys working with the Deaf community.

“It’s a beautiful opportunity to meet a diverse group of individuals,” Pelletier said. “The deaf community is vibrant and it is exciting to work with individuals who are not deaf.”


Rachel Philipson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.philipson@uconn.edu.