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Characteristics and practices of sign language interpreters in inclusive education programs.

The successful inclusion of students who are deaf or hard of hearing in U.S. public schools (K-12) is a challenging goal. In the wake of increasing concerns about the full inclusion of children who are deaf or hard of hearing in general education--without adequate communication and social supports (Frishberg, 1990; Schrag, 1991)--research is needed to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the key individuals making inclusion possible. Long-standing debates on communication approaches render the issues of inclusion more complex. The issue of communication is a key factor in implementing inclusive education. The responsibility placed on an educational sign language interpreter is so great that the issue of roles, functions, and qualifications emerges as a concern for the field.

Little research has been conducted in the area of educational sign language interpreting performed in K-12 public school settings. As Stewart (1988) pointed out, interpreting in the elementary and secondary school setting has a short history.

ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES

We know little about the roles and functions of educational sign language interpreters, or of the particular communication approaches they use. A study of 71 K-12 educational interpreters in the state of Iowa revealed discrepancies between the responsibilities the interpreter perceived to be important to his or her job and the actual responsibilities the interpreter performed (Harris, 1989). In a smaller sample of 32 educational interpreters in western Pennsylvania, Hayes (1991, 1992) also found confusion regarding educational sign language interpreters' roles and responsibilities. Although these two studies asked important questions, little empirical evidence exists to show what educational sign language interpreters do within U.S. elementary and secondary school systems. Almost every description in the literature is based on individual or group recommendations about what educational sign language interpreters should be doing (Brazeau, 1991; CDE, 1991; Contrucci, 1991; Heavner, 1986; MCDHH, 1988; NYSDE, 1994; Salend & Longo, 1994; Wendel, 1993).

COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS

A second issue of concern is the mode of communication used by educational interpreters. Communication systems are not well understood by most educators. For example, interpreting between two languages (e.g., English and Spanish or English and American Sign Language [ASL]) and transliterating between spoken English and a manual code of English and vice versa are two distinctly different tasks (Frishberg, 1990). An interpreter faces a variety of interpreting and transliterating options, including: the needs of the students who are deaf or hard of hearing (language proficiency--in one or more languages); form or code of sign English preferred by the parents and school; and qualifications of the interpreter. However, "interpreting" and a "manual code of English (MCE)" are general terminology and do not help clarify exactly which language(s) or manual code(s) are most often used by the interpreter, or if educational sign language interpreters actually interpret (between English and ASL) or transliterate (between English and a manual representation of English).

Debate over communication systems is not new (Epee, 1801). Concerns about ASL and English-based sign systems predate the oral-manual controversy This can be an emotional and controversial issue in the field of education of deaf students and sign language interpreting. Schrag (1991, p. 12) asked, "How can we measure the effectiveness and efficiency of different modes of educational interpreting?"

The first question, however, should be, " Which modes of communication are used in educational interpreting?"

QUALIFICATIONS AND CONTINUING DEMAND

A recent issue is the qualifications of K-12 educational sign language interpreters. Use of the educational interpreter as the sole or primary support for students in inclusive instructional settings has not only increased the demand for interpreters, but it has thrust them into new and unique interpretation and instructional roles. It is difficult, however, to address appropriate qualifications without knowing the full extent of educational interpreter duties and functions. Unlike many other professional roles where duties are clearly circumscribed and protected under a recognized professional code of ethics, educational interpreters are subject to the directives of administrators who may see the roles of interpreters differently.

The findings contained in the Babbidge Report (Babbidge, 1965)--provisions in vocational education legislation, Vocational Rehabilitation funding of post-secondary students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (equal access to communication, interpreter training)--all contributed to the expansion of educational options for public school-aged students who are deaf or hard of hearing. It was not until the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-142), however, that the direct impact on students who are deaf or hard of hearing was felt in elementary and secondary education.

Between 1971 and 1979, U.S. residential schools for the deaf experienced an overall drop in enrollment of 9.8% (Schildroth & Hotto, 1994). With the massive shift in numbers of students who are deaf or hard of hearing from the residential setting to local education agencies (LEAs), the need for sign language interpreters for educational settings escalated. Stuckless, Avery, and Hurwitz (1989) calculated a "conservative estimate" of the number of students who are deaf or hard of hearing receiving interpreting services at approximately 10,000 and the number of interpreters working in the elementary/secondary educational settings at 2,200.

It has become apparent that the number of educational sign language interpreters is inadequate; the demand far outweighs the supply (Stuckless et al., 1989; Witter-Merithew & Dirst, 1982). Adding to this problem, few interpreters have any "formal training for working in an educational setting with deaf children, and virtually none had formal preparation as educational interpreters since interpreter training programs were not oriented in this direction" (Hurwitz, 1991, p. 20). Because the demand is high and the supply low, "Often individuals are hired with little or no expertise in the interpreting process" (Schrag, 1991, p. 10).

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

To address the quality of interpreting services provided for elementary and secondary students who are deaf or hard of hearing (and their hearing peers and teachers), we need to ascertain what currently exists in the field. The present study addressed the following questions:

* What are the primary demographic characteristics of educational sign language interpreters in K-12 public schools in the United States?

* What are the activities currently being performed by educational sign language interpreters?

* Do the duties performed by educational sign language interpreters vary among states?

* What sign system(s) is (are) most often used in K-12 public school settings by educational sign language interpreters?

* Do the sign systems used by educational sign language interpreters vary across states?

* What qualifications do educational sign language interpreters in K-12 public schools have?

* Is there a perceived need by K-12 educational sign language interpreters to improve interpreter preparation programs?

METHOD

Subjects

Participants were drawn from K-12 public school systems providing educational sign language interpreting services to students who are deaf or hard of hearing in the states of Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. The entire population of educational sign language interpreters working in these three states was considered the study population. This was done to ensure a large number of respondents in states that provided interpreting in both urban and rural schools. The K-12 school systems and cooperatives providing these services and the interpreters working within these districts/cooperatives, were identified in a variety of ways with the assistance of state departments of education, schools for the deaf, state commissions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and LEAs.

Survey Instrument

A review of related literature (Gustason, 1985; Gustason, Pfetzing, & Zawolkow, 1980; Gustason & Zawolkow, 1993; Harris, 1989; Hayes, 1991, 1992) and issue papers provided background information for the development of a survey instrument, the Educational Interpreting Questionnaire (EIQ). The instrument was based on others used by both Harris and Hayes in their studies of educational interpreters in Iowa and Pennsylvania, respectively Content validity was addressed by including items used in previous studies and issues raised in policy papers. Face validity was established on the basis of a content review by educational sign language interpreters in the field. Reliability data were not obtained because of the individualized response alternatives to items in the survey and the decision to minimize intrusiveness and maximize participation. Dillman's (1978) specific criteria for mail surveys were followed with a pilot study, determining the feasibility and appropriateness of the questions, wording, and format.

The EIQ consisted of three sections and contained a total of 57 questions. The first section addressed the kind and frequency of activities performed in conjunction with assigned duties as an educational sign language interpreter. Examples of activities among the 19 presented included interpreting in mainstream academic classes, tutoring, making teacher materials, doing clerical work for teachers, teaching signing to students with hearing and hearing impairments, and interpreting for individualized education program (IEP) meetings.

The second section elicited responses on specific aspects of sign language interpreting tasks in school, how the respondents viewed their role assignments, and the degree to which they believed they were able to meet the sign language interpretation needs of students.

The last section of the survey covered demographic information of respondents relating to such factors as race/ethnicity, gender, age, years of experience as an educational sign language interpreter, hourly pay rate, level of education, certifications and identifying characteristics of their employing agencies, and grade levels of students served.

RESULTS

A total of 322 surveys were mailed to educational sign language interpreters working in K-12 public school settings in the states of Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. There were no comprehensive lists of K-12 educational sign language interpreters in any state. Consequently, this number (322) was our best estimate of the entire population of interpreters for the three-state area. The overall response rate was 69% (222 responses).

Characteristics of Educational Interpreters

Table 1 summarizes the findings across the three states. The majority of K-12 public school sign language interpreters were white females, between 31 and 40 years of age. Two thirds of all respondents reported having 5 years or less experience, and earned between $9.01 and $11.00 per hour. More than 9 out of 10 interpreters worked full time, interpreting in academic classrooms on a daily basis.

[TABULAR DATA 1 OMITTED]

Duties and Activities

Table 2 shows 19 activities of the interpreters in the three states. Duties performed by K- 12 educational sign language interpreters included expected activities, such as interpreting in the mainstream academic classroom and in vocational classes. Duties also included noninterpreting activities such as tutoring, teaching sign language to hearing students, correcting assignments, and other teacher assistance tasks.

[TABULAR DATA 2 OMITTED]

Analyses of variance revealed that interpreters' activities in the three states were similar in 14 of 19 comparisons. The tabled (Table 2) means with higher values indicate more frequent activities. Some notable differences in duties were evident when the three states were compared. Interpreters worked virtually on a daily basis in academic classrooms (Item 1). Also among the more common duties were tutoring children with hearing impairments (Item 4), acting as an aide in self-contained classrooms for students with hearing impairments (Item 5), and helping students with hearing impairments with homework (Item 19). Interpreters also graded papers (Item 10), prepared teacher materials (Item 8), cared for hearing aids (Item 17), and actually taught classes (Items 12 and 13).

Some notable differences in duties were evident when the three states were compared. Specifically, K-12 educational sign language interpreters working in Missouri reported tutoring students significantly less often than did interpreters in both Kansas and Nebraska (Item 4). Taking scheduled planning breaks was found to be an activity that was performed differently in the three states. Respondents in both Kansas and Nebraska took scheduled breaks for planning purposes significantly less often than did respondents in Missouri. Making teacher materials was found to be a duty that Missouri interpreters in K-12 public schools reported performing significantly less often than the Kansas and Nebraska interpreters. Clerical work was an additional duty that K-12 educational sign language interpreters reported. Again, however, respondents from Missouri reported performing this duty significantly less often than did respondents in both Kansas and Nebraska. Teachers sometimes asked educational sign language interpreters to grade papers of students in the classroom. Missouri interpreters again reported grading student papers significantly less often than did interpreters working in Kansas and Nebraska. Finally, assisting general education students with their homework was a duty that interpreters in Missouri reported significantly less frequently than did interpreters working in Nebraska schools.

Sign Systems Used

Table 3 shows the sign systems used most often by educational sign language interpreters in the public schools in each state. English-based sign systems were most commonly used by interpreters in classrooms across the three states. Pidgin Sign English (PSE, New York State Department of Education, 1994) and Conceptually Accurate Sign English (CASE, Winston, 1989) together account for the systems that 55.7% of the respondents used. These two sign systems are Methodical Signs (Epee, 1801; Stedt & Moores, 1990). The Signing Exact English (SEE II, Gustason & Zawolkow, 1993) code was used by 32.7% of the respondents, most of whom worked in Kansas. Signed English (SE, Bornstein & Saulnier, 1984), another signed code of English, was reported as being used most by 6.5% of the respondents. These data clearly show that the notion of pure "interpreting" (between languages) exists in less than 5% of the K-12 classrooms in the three states.

[TABULAR DATA 3 OMITTED]

The mode of communication used by K-12 educational sign language interpreters was found to be different at a statistically significant level across states ([chi square] = 20.35, df= 6, p < .05). A greater number of interpreters working in Kansas reported using SEE II code than in the other two states. It also appeared that proportionately greater numbers of Nebraska interpreters used CASE/PSE.

Approximately 17% of the respondents in the study had a high school diploma or vocational certificate. Thirty-six percent of the respondents in the study had some college but no degree, 21% had a community college associate degree, 21% had a bachelor's degree, and 5% had a master's degree. A large majority of the respondents (63%) had no certification for sign language interpreting of any kind. Sixty-one percent of the respondents across states reported that they were either "not proficient" in signing or only "somewhat proficient" in signing before they were hired. Further, 56.1% reported that they were not evaluated for their interpreting skills before being hired for their positions.

Qualifications and Continuing Education

The present study clearly shows that several problems exist with regard to qualifications of educational sign language interpreters and the need for increased interpreting proficiency. Many educators and researchers have suggested that specific educational interpreter certification is necessary to assure quality of interpreter services (Contrucci, 1991; NYSDE, 1994; Sanderson & Gustason, 1993; Schein, Mallory, & Greaves, 1991; Stuckless et al., 19X9; Witter-Merithew & Dirst, 1982). Despite these views, almost two thirds of the interpreters working in public schools in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska had no certification of any kind to perform the job they were hired to do. These findings are not restricted to these three states. In a statewide survey, the Oregon Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf found that most Oregon interpreters (87%) working in K-12 public schools were not certified (Togioka, 1990). Kluwin (1994) found a similar lack of qualifications. One wonders how an IEP team can make an appropriate educational placement of a child who is deaf or hard of hearing without knowing whether that child's communication needs are being met.

Finally, fully 95.5% of the K-12 educational sign language interpreters across all three states reported the overwhelming need for continued training. This is perhaps the most important area of need; yet skill-upgrading opportunities for K-12 educational sign language interpreters are not readily available through their employers. Over one third (36.5%) reported that interpreter skill-upgrading inservice training is never provided. An additional 20.7% reported that inservice training is provided only once per year.

DISCUSSION

Minorities and males were underrepresented when compared with the population of students who are deaf or hard of hearing in public schools. This mismatch may be a consideration for IEP teams, as well as for interpreter education programs when recruiting students. Nearly all the interpreters in this study interpreted in academic classroom settings. In addition to these expected interpreting responsibilities, however, noninterpreting duties are required from interpreters in K-12 educational settings. The range and scope of these duties call into question whether significant amounts of time are spent performing noninterpreting duties at the expense of interpreting responsibilities.

It is now empirically clear, on the largest scale yet shown, that "transliterating" is what educational sign language interpreters perform in the classrooms and on the school grounds in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Educators should recognize, however, that for a conceptually accurate transliteration to take place, the educational sign language interpreter must have knowledge of ASL, if not fluency (Winston, 1985, 1989). To overlook this prerequisite would be to deny students who are deaf or hard of hearing an accurately communicated message (Johnson, 1991). Both CASE/PSE and the SEE II systems attempt to incorporate linguistic features of ASL (Gustason, Pfetzing, & Zawolko, 1980; Gustason & Zawolko, 1993; Winston, 1985, 1989). Gustason (1993) has suggested that interpreters should have good signing skills in ASL, as well as in the sign system expected by the local school district.

These findings show that Kansas contains a larger number of districts (agencies) that require the SEE II code be used when interpreting. These school districts appear less flexible regarding communication options available to students in attendance who are deaf or hard of hearing. If a school district or agency mandates a specific sign system, as 34% across the three states do, this limits communication options for some students who are deaf or hard of hearing. A system that might enable students who are deaf or hard of hearing to develop a better understanding of English grammar might not meet broader educational and social needs of the same student at all. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not mandate specific communication systems. It requires comprehensive assessment to determine appropriate communication needs. The Secretary of Education has stated:

The unique communication and related

needs of many children who are deaf have

not been adequately considered in the

development of their IEPs.... Any selling

which does not meet the communication

and related needs of a child who is deaf,

and therefore does not allow for the

provision of FAPE [free appropriate public

education], cannot be considered the LRE

[least restrictive environment] for that child.

(Alexander, 1992, pp.49274-49275).

The Commission on Education of the Deaf Recommendation 36, proposed in 1988, stated:

Educational interpreters

36. The Department of Education, in

consultation with consumers,

professionals, and organizations, should

provide guidelines for states to include in

their state plans such policies and

procedures for the establishment and

maintenance of standards to ensure that

interpreters in educational settings are

adequately prepared, trained, and

evaluated. (COED, 1988, p. xxi)

Perhaps the most distressing finding of the present study centers around the qualifications of K-12 educational sign language interpreters in the three states. There seems to be an erroneous assumption among many interpreters and educators, that mainstream educational interpreting is an easy place to start for people trying to use or improve their signing skills, because they work primarily with children (Winston, 1985). Winston rejected this assumption, stating, "The requirements of this job are much more than, not less than, community settings" (Winston, 1985, pp. 118-119).

Frequency of evaluation (or lack thereof) for interpreting skills raises yet more questions regarding quality of interpreting services provided including appropriate placement of students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Sanderson and Gustason (1993) proposed a set of guidelines that suggest a system of evaluation of interpreting/transliterating skills specific to the educational environment. Guidelines in the field are not new (cf. Anderson & Stauffer, 1990). The collaborative nature of the Sanderson and Gustason guidelines, however, should facilitate implementation. An example of an interpreting evaluation system that addresses these skill areas is the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment (EIPA) proposed by Williams and Schick (1992). Other assessments exist (Strong & Fritsch Rudser, 1985, 1986), but are not specific to the K-12 educational setting.

It is unconscionable to place any student with a teacher who is not qualified (i.e., certified). "Ninety percent of deaf children born to hearing parents will not be fluent during the critical years of language acquisition, so only the best interpreters should be working with them" (Sanderson, 1991, p. G7). Yet, students who are deaf or hard of hearing are regularly subjected to unqualified, noncertified interpreters. This practice is in direct contradiction to The Commission on Education of the Deaf statement:

It is vitally important to students who are deaf

that only interpreters possessing appropriate

qualifications be employed in regular

educational settings.... A lack of minimum

standards for interpreters and pervasive

confusion about their role has compromised

the educational services provided to many deaf

students. In regular classrooms, hearing

students generally communicate by speaking

and listening. For many deaf students,

however, interpreters are needed to facilitate

communications with their teachers and

classmates. EHA (Education of the

Handicapped Act) requires that deaf students

be integrated into regular classroom settings to

the maximum extent possible, but if quality

interpreting services are not provided, that goal

becomes a mockery (COED, 1988, p. 103)

IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE

The findings of this study and its corroboration of earlier investigations (Harris, 1989; Hayes, 1991, 1992) suggest some direct implications for practice in providing adequate educational programs and services for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

* State departments of education should coordinate the development and implementation of guidelines related to the roles and responsibilities of educational sign language interpreters with LEAs. Treating educational sign language interpreters as teacher aides for grading papers, tutors for students, and assistants for helping hearing students with their homework is questionable practice.

* State departments of education should provide to local schools specific guidelines for assessing the unique communication needs of students who are deaf or hard of hearing and closely monitor the decision-making process used by districts in communication assessment. English-based sign systems are the predominantly used systems by educational sign language interpreters; and transliteration, rather than interpreting between languages, is the common approach. It should be recognized, however, that for accurate transliteration to occur, the educational sign language interpreter must have knowledge of ASL, if not fluency (Winston, 1985; 1989). Overlooking this prerequisite in matching the specific students who are deaf and use ASL with the appropriate sign language interpreter poses a critical communication issue. Additional research on K-12 mainstream interpreting/transliterating is needed to provide a strong information base for future policy and programmatic decisions related to appropriate placement of students who have individual communication needs.

It is widely known and accepted in the field of sign language interpreting that proficiency in the languages (and modes) of communication necessarily precedes the acquisition of the skill of interpreting (Frishberg, 1990; Seleskovitch, 1978; Winston, 1985, 1988, 1990). The Commission on Education of the Deaf has stated it best:

Just as a person who completes two levels of

a foreign language in college would not be

qualified to interpret in the United Nations,

completing two levels of sign language does

not make a qualified sign language interpreter

in any setting. (COED, 1988, pp. 103-104)

* State guidelines for K-12 educational sign language interpreters should be developed, based on the recommended model standards for the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf/Council on Education of the Deaf (Sanderson & Gustason, 1993). A statement from the president of the National Association of the Deaf during the Education of the Deaf Act reauthorization testimony directly addressed the problem:

It is strongly RECOMMENDED that training

and certification of interpreters be made

mandatory. Furthermore it is strongly

RECOMMENDED that interpreters be

certified and qualified before being permitted

to work in a classroom. This is expected of all

professionals including teachers, speech

therapists and administrators, and thus the

standards should be no

different for interpreters who function as a

vital lite-link for deaf students. (Rosen. 1992,

p. 80)

If K-12 educational sign language interpreters are to be viewed as skilled professionals, standards must be in place. The Sanderson and Gustason (1993) proposed standards need to be studied and implemented. Without adequate interpreting services, the notion of "full inclusion" of all children with disabilities, as proclaimed by Wang, Reynolds, and Walberg (1990), is an empty promise for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and who depend on accurate visual input for learning to take place. Deafness requires a linguistic mediation of both auditory and visual communication. Communication needs must be adequately addressed by trained and qualified IEP educational teams attempting to serve the needs of this population. This communication must be accurate to ensure equal access to the myriad information, both auditory and visual, with which all schoolchildren deal.

* The U. S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs and state education agencies need to enforce the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [Sec. 6 13 (a) (3); [Sec. 614 (a) (1)] (1990), which mandates a Comprehensive System of Personnel Development (CSPD), with regard to upgrading the training and skills of educational sign language interpreters. Recommendations 36 and 37 of the Commission on Education of the Deaf (1988) could provide a specific focus for state CSPD efforts.

We present the preceding recommendations for consideration to stimulate a collaborative effort among federal, state, and local educators and advocates for students who are deaf or hard of hearing in our public schools. These recommendations particularly address the concerns for quality education in inclusive settings. Educational sign language interpreters can be a vital support service to many students who need interpreter services. Without qualified interpreters who are allowed to focus on interpreting, however, many students needing interpreting services are not allowed real access to general education--and full inclusion is a myth.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

BERNHARDT E. JONES, Director of Interpreter Education, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. GARY M. CLARK, Professor of Special Education, University of Kansas, Lawrence. DONALD F. SOLTZ, Health Sciences Research Associate, University of Colorado, Denver.

Address correspondence to Bernhardt E. Jones, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS 66210 (E-mail: bejones johnco.cc.ks.us).

Manuscript received January 1994; revision accepted April 1996.
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Author:Jones, Bernhardt E.; Clark, Gary M.; Soltz, Donald F.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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