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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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More Than Meets the Eye: Revealing the Complexities of an Interpreted Education

Melissa B. Smith

Chapter 1
At First Glance: Taking a Look at Deaf Education and Interpreting in K–12 Classrooms

Sign language interpreters are the channel through which many Deaf and hard of hearing students access and participate in academic and social interactions in public schools.[1] Yet, “educating children with the use of an interpreter is an educational experiment” (Schick, 2004). To complicate matters further, research has shown that interpreters perform multiple roles in the classroom (Antia & Kreimeyer, 2001; Jones, 1993, 1994, 2004), yet very little is known about what K–12 interpreters actually do. Moreover, there has been no research on the factors that inform their moment-to-moment decisions. This volume presents the results of a study that was designed to discover the range of activities and responsibilities performed by educational interpreters and to illuminate the factors they consider when making decisions.

Signed languages are visual languages. The importance of this quality was emphasized almost 100 years ago by George Veditz, a prominent leader in the Deaf community and former president of the National Association of the Deaf. Veditz (1912) delivered a passionate argument in support of American Sign Language, even in the face of intense political pressures, punctuated by the 1880 decision in Milan, Italy, to ban the use of sign language in schools for Deaf children. In this address, he characterized Deaf people as “first, last, and of all time the people of the eye.” The fundamentally visual nature of American Sign Language and the people who use it validated his case for the preservation of this language at a time when it seemed on the verge of eradication. Nearly a century later, some Deaf leaders are celebrating the process of discovering what it truly means to be Deaf (Ladd, 2003) and championing the essential aspect of vision as being at its core (Bahan, 2004, 2008; Lentz, 2007).


Some Deaf and hard of hearing students attend special state residential schools, but the passage of legislation requiring that children with special needs be integrated into public schools dramatically increased the demand for educational interpreters. Since the implementation of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990 and now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), most Deaf and hard of hearing students go to schools with students who can hear rather than to segregated schools for Deaf children. Some of these students are placed in self-contained classrooms with all Deaf and hard of hearing students. Many others are mainstreamed in classes with hearing teachers, hearing peers, and a sign language interpreter.

In mainstream contexts, Deaf and hard of hearing students rely on interpreters for primary access to communication within the academic environment, including access to curriculum and instruction as well as social interactions. The IDEA legislation mandates a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all children. If specified in an Individualized Education Program (IEP), Deaf and hard of hearing students must have qualified sign language interpreters who interpret between the spoken English and the signed communication that takes place in the classroom. The definition of qualified varies from state to state, and some states have not yet established clear and specific standards of qualification for sign language interpreters in public schools.

The Gallaudet Research Institute’s 2002–2003 Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth reported that 23.4% of approximately 40,000 Deaf children in U.S. elementary and secondary settings used sign language interpreters. Another 16.5% had instructional aides in the classroom. In the 2003–2004 survey, there was little change: 23.1% reported working with sign language interpreters and 17.8% reported working with instructional aides. Since employees who interpret as part of their daily job duties may sometimes be classified as instructional aides, the actual percentage of Deaf students who rely on interpreting in the classroom may be even higher than reported. According to the same report, approximately 60% of Deaf and hard of hearing students were identified as being integrated with hearing students for at least part of the day. Over 35% of Deaf and hard of hearing students in California were at least partially integrated with hearing students. In the 2007–2008 national survey, 22.9% of students receiving instructional support services reported accessing instruction through sign language interpreters (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2003, 2004, 2008).

1. The term Deaf, with a capital D, is used to denote affiliation with and value of American Sign Language and Deaf cultural norms. Throughout this volume, students who use the services of sign language interpreters in public schools will be referred to as Deaf and hard of hearing students.
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