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American Annals of the Deaf

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More Than Meets the Eye: Revealing the Complexities of an Interpreted Education
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The premise of mainstreaming lies in the belief that Deaf and hard of hearing students who use sign language interpreters in K–12 settings have access to and can participate fully in K–12 school activities. While Deaf and hard of hearing students deserve the same quality education that is afforded to hearing students, studies show that although Deaf and hard of hearing students may be integrated in classes with hearing peers, they are not truly included (Kurz & Langer, 2004; Komesaroff & McLean, 2006; La Bue, 1998; Lane, 1995; Power & Hyde, 2002; Ramsey, 1997; Russell, 2006).

Research clearly shows there is still a long way to go before Deaf and hard of hearing children and adolescents truly have access to the resources and support that will allow them to achieve their fullest potential. These children have long been denied the opportunity to access, let alone fully participate in academic and social activities leading to school success. Like English-language learners, students in impoverished or rural areas, students with special needs, and other children who do not have access to the cultural capital of mainstream American society, they have been systematically excluded from rich opportunities for learning.

The premise of inclusion is that Deaf and hard of hearing students will be provided the same quality of instruction and opportunity for learning as their hearing peers (Schick, 2004). Along with academic, linguistic, and cognitive development, socioemotional development through participation and peer interaction is another schooling outcome that deserves attention. School environments are structured “communities of learners” (Lave & Wenger, 1991)[2] in which Deaf and hard of hearing students must be afforded full membership. If Deaf and hard of hearing students are relegated to mere bystander status, then the promise of inclusion is hollow.


Although very few studies have been conducted in K–12 classrooms with working interpreters, the extant literature indicates the urgency of research in this area. Because most Deaf and hard of hearing children are born to parents who are not fluent in sign language, these children may not be not proficient users of any language, including sign language, when they reach school age. Even if the children have limited language proficiencies, do not know sign language, or do not know how to use interpreters to navigate the school system, they may still be assigned an interpreter for all or part of the day. This means that interpreters in public schools may very well be the children’s first adult language models. Along with the tremendous responsibility of being a competent language model, interpreters often provide the primary, if not the exclusive, avenue of students’ access to academic content and social discourse.

It is important to carefully examine what interpreters do in the course of their work with Deaf and hard of hearing students in mainstream K–12 classrooms and what needs arise from the interactions taking place among interpreters, students, and teachers, as well as the strategies, knowledge, and skills interpreters employ when making decisions about their work. This knowledge will provide a starting point for examining the degree to which access and inclusion are possible via an interpreted education. In addition, it will provide a better understanding of the potential effects interpreters have on the educational experiences of Deaf and hard of hearing students in public schools. Improved practice alone cannot guarantee enhanced learning outcomes, but exploring the pitfalls and possibilities of an interpreter-mediated education is a step in that direction: Empirical investigation of the work of interpreters in mainstream settings is vital to gain a clearer picture of ways in which to improve the state of Deaf education. Only through a better understanding of the work of K–12 interpreters can we begin to acknowledge their influence on the school experiences of Deaf and hard of hearing students. A deeper understanding of the responsibilities of the job is necessary to improve both the education of interpreters and practice of interpreting in educational settings.


A substantial number of K–12 interpreters report not having been adequately prepared for employment when they were hired (Jones, 1993, 2004; Togioka, 1990). One area of confusion is the distinction between the roles and responsibilities that should be taken on by interpreters in K–12 settings and those that should remain with the classroom teacher or other members of the educational team. My own observations are consistent with these reports.

As the director and full-time faculty member of the American Sign Language-English interpreting program at Palomar College, I often hear from graduates regarding the challenge of interpreting in K–12 settings. More than half of the students who graduate from our interpreting program find employment in educational settings,[3] and many former students have informed me that they did not feel prepared for the jobs they obtained after graduating with an associate’s degree in interpreting. The lack of preparation that has been reported continually for the past 20 years (since, e.g., Gustason, 1985; Stuckless, Avery, & Hurwitz, 1989) is of grave concern. Of equal concern is the fact that due to the time constraints imposed by a 2-year program, the curricular requirements are extremely demanding and the program so time consuming that it is quite common for less than half of the students who enter our interpreting program to complete it successfully. Clearly, a 50% retention rate does not provide evidence of effective teaching and scaffolding, nor is it a sign of reasonable expectations for students. It is, however, a statistic that must be acknowledged. Half of interpreting graduates will likely serve at some point in their early careers as language models for Deaf and hard of hearing students, significantly affecting those students’ learning experiences and therefore their post–high school career and higher education options. As an educator of interpreters who often gain employment in K–12 settings, I have an acute interest in the role that interpreters play in the education of Deaf children and hard of hearing children, and I am committed to high standards in the education of interpreters.

2. Wenger and Lave coined the term community of practice to describe an apprenticeship model of learning, in which the community acts as a living curriculum for the apprentice. “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, 2006).

3. In the Palomar College interpreting program, students must complete four 4-unit semester-length ASL classes before they can enroll in two years of interpreting coursework, for a total of four academic years of coursework.

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