Resources for Graduation Event Professionals

The importance of sign language interpretation at commencement

SLI (1 of 1)-1.jpgEditor's Note: At many graduation ceremonies across America you’ll likely see a sign language interpreter standing next to the stage on a platform or elevated position interpreting the graduation for a community of students and families. A Gallaudet Research Institute summary estimates 3.4% of the American population between 18 and 34 are hard of hearing or Deaf, around 2.3 million Americans. Providing a sign language interpreter for hard of hearing or Deaf students and graduate families is an integral part of an exemplary commencement experience.

We had the opportunity to interview one of these interpreters, Jaclyn Kollar, to learn more about sign language interpretation at commencements and the community she serves. Jaclyn is a sign language interpreter and provides interpretation at Middle Tennessee State University. This interview is between Austin Livingston, our Director of Business Development at GradImages, and Jaclyn.

GradImages: Tell us a little about yourself and your background. I see you have a Bachelor of Science degree from Maryville College in Sign Language Interpretation and Translation, what led you into this field?

Jaclyn Kollar: I became interested in sign language at an early age when a music teacher taught my class a song in sign. From there I taught myself words from books and videos from the library. My church has always incorporated signs to the songs at Vacation Bible School and when I was a teenager I took over learning the songs and teaching the children the signs and gestures for the songs. When it came time to choose a college I found one that offered sign language classes. Maryville was the closest college to my home in Smyrna, Tennessee so that is where I went. I majored in Sign Language Interpreting and graduated Cum Laude in 1998. I earned my National Certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) with Certificate of Transliteration (CT). Transliteration is using ASL signs in English word order but still going from "spoken to spoken" modes.

GI: You work for an agency. Tell us a little about that agency, its history, the areas it serves, when and how you started working for it, etc.

JK: Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing ("Bridges") mission is to unite the Deaf, the hard of hearing and the hearing communities through education, services and support, empowering individuals to achieve their full potential. We will soon be celebrating 90 years of service to the community. It is a non-profit agency that provides interpreting services to the Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky area. They provide youth services that include summer camps and after school programs. They do community outreach where local firefighters, police and emergency services can learn how to better serve the Deaf and hard of hearing community. They also provide teachers beginning level American Sign Language training.

GI: What is a typical work schedule like for you? What kind of events do you cover as a sign language interpreter? Not just for Middle Tennessee, but everywhere?

JK: I have a regular class schedule at MTSU with one student this semester. I also interpret for doctor's appointments, business meetings, job training's, and church services. I have a 19 month old daughter that I try to stay at home with as much as possible but I do freelance to keep my skills up to date and bring in additional income for my family.

GI: How far in advance do you know your schedule? In other words, are the events you cover known about well in advance? Is there a lot of last-minute, unexpected work?

JK: My class schedule is determined at the beginning of the semester, but could change last minute if the student makes changes to their schedule, the teacher makes changes to the schedule, etc. Things like Graduation and Convocation are scheduled months in advance. The community jobs are usually posted a week or two in advance but a lot of jobs are added last minute. We have a 48-hour cancellation policy so if a client doesn't show up for a class or appointments we are still paid since our time was reserved for that day and time.

GI: Jaclyn, if I am a new event coordinator and I need to find a sign language interpreter for my ceremony, but my school does not have someone like you or your agency, where should I start? Are there any accreditations or certifications I should look for when searching for an interpreter?

JK: The coordinator could do an internet search for an interpreting agency and find someone. There are two main certification entities that interpreters can get their national certifications from. Registry of interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). Many states offer state level certifications as well. Local agencies, like Bridges in Nashville, already have a list of local and certified interpreters they could send. There are some nationwide agencies that fill assignments all over the country. That agency would use the RID/NAD websites to locate a certified interpreter in the area where the job will be.

GI: Is there any type of planning or coordination that takes place between you and the University prior to commencement? For example, do you know approximately how many Deaf or hard of hearing graduates are expected to be at commencement? Or approximately where they may be sitting?

JK: I get a copy of the script a few days before commencement but that does not include the guest speaker’s speech. I know beforehand if there are Deaf graduates. If there are, then I arrive a little earlier to interpret the announcements made during line up. I do not know where they will be sitting since we have never had anyone request to sit closer to the interpreter. They sit where they are assigned in the lineup. I do not usually know if there are any Deaf attendees in the audience. I try to sign a little bigger during commencement so my signs can be seen from farther distances.  

GI: At MTSU, you are standing on the left side of the stage as viewed by the audience. Are there any procedures or decorum that dictate where a sign language interpreter should stand during commencement?


JK: This was the placement decided years ago and probably before I started interpreting MTSU's commencements. The important things are that the interpreter can be seen by the Deaf attendees, that we are placed in close approximation to the speakers and that we are not blocking anyone during the ceremony.

Listen Display ReceiverGI: While on stage, you are wearing an earpiece which, I assume, is connected to the audio system and helps you hear what’s being said over the public address speakers. Is that earpiece something that the school is expected to provide? Or is that equipment something you bring with you?

JK: We just recently gained access to the earpiece that I wear during events in the Murphy Center and it has made a tremendous improvement in my ability to interpret more accurately. MTSU provides the technology for the interpreters.

GI: Is there anything about commencements that makes them either more difficult, or perhaps easier, to do your job that other types of events where you interpret?

JK: Standing in one spot and interpreting on the stage is very tiring. Like I mentioned before, I try to make my signs bigger which also leads to fatigue. I still get a little nervous being in front of so many people. Being in such a big arena makes the acoustics difficult to hear at times but having the earpiece has helped.  


GI: While graduates are being individually recognized on stage, their names, of course, are not interpreted. Are there any other parts of a commencement ceremony that are typically not interpreted to sign language?

JK: Some schools want the names interpreted during the commencement ceremony. I am grateful MTSU is not one of them! Each name would have to be finger spelled and if I was required to do that I would have to have a team interpreter with me to take turns every 15-20 minutes due to fatigue. I will ask any of the graduates who are Deaf if they would like for me to come to the foot of the stage and sign their name as it is announced. All other parts of the ceremony are interpreted.  

Sign Language Alphabet

GI: If I’m a commencement coordinator at a university, would it be helpful to send my sign language interpreter a copy of the speeches beforehand? (E.g. keynote and president’s speeches) Just so he/she knows roughly what to expect? Or is that not really necessary?

JK: It is very helpful to have the speeches beforehand. Even if they change them a little here and there it helps to know the general idea of what they will be saying. The keynote speech is not usually available prior to the ceremony. I do arrive early to look at a program and to read their bios. If I know who the speakers will be, I will research them on the internet before the assignment as well.

GI: How difficult is it for a sign-language interpreter to keep up with a speaker who is talking very fast? In other words, is it helpful if commencement coordinators advise their speakers who are normally “fast talkers” to slow it down a little?

JK: In my experience a fast talker will be a fast talker even if you ask them to slow down. It really is not a problem for me to be able to keep up. It is actually more challenging to interpret for a slow talker than a fast one. I have to understand the whole concept of the speaker before I can interpret so if someone is taking a long time to get to their point I sometimes just have a stand there and wait for their complete thought.  That becomes awkward when people begin to think, "Why isn't she signing?"

GI: Let’s say a deaf graduate is also valedictorian or award recipient and wanted to address the audience at commencement but physically could not do so. Is it appropriate that the sign language interpreter would do a reverse translation, of sorts, into the public address microphone? Is that something that a sign language interpreter would be expected to do and comfortable with?

JK: If the Valedictorian, award recipient or keynote speaker were Deaf then the interpreter would sit in the front of the stage with a microphone and voice for them. Having their speech ahead of time would be helpful just as having the hearing speaker’s speeches is. Many interpreters are more comfortable working from the spoken language to sign language rather than the signed language to the spoken. It would be good to know if the interpreter would be voice interpreting before the ceremony so they could prepare.  

Editor's Note: Check out this awesome speech by Evan Mercer, a deaf valedictorian at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia

GI: Is their anything else that commencement coordinators can do or plan for, which will help the ceremony’s sign language interpreter do his/her job most effectively?

JK: Having a seat reserved for when they are not interpreting, having a bottle of water for them, providing a working earpiece and a copy of the script are all helpful.

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You can learn more about Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing as well as their services here.

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