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Lack of ASL interpreters hurting Iowa's deaf, hard of hearing communities

A counselor for deaf vocational rehabilitation says that, for roughly every 20 deaf people, there are only two interpreters.

DES MOINES, Iowa — There is an American Sign Language interpreter shortage in Des Moines — and that is leading to a lot of problems.

Local 5 spoke to ASL interpreters and asked them what drives them to do the valuable work of strengthening communication between the hearing and deaf worlds.

"My parents are deaf. American Sign Language is my first language. English is my second language. I did not speak English very well," said Peggy Chicoine. 

Chicoine is the director at Life Interpretation, an organization that provides ASL interpreters to the deaf and hard of hearing. 

"There are a lot of rewards of being an interpreter. You see change, you see setbacks, you see a person who understands their medical situation," Chicoine said. 

Over her lifetime, Chicoine has been an interpreter for every aspect of life — from kids at school to doctor's appointments. 

"Just to see them thrive and succeed and to see them understand and take care of their own health and not rely on their family members and be independent feels so good," she said. 

The appreciation is mutual for folks who are deaf. 

"I don't think I would be who I am today without an interpreter," said Leah Cone, a deaf teacher at Capitol View Elementary.

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"I refuse to allow this to happen to other deaf and hard of hearing like it happened to me," said Polly Brekke, a deaf education coordinator at Des Moines Public schools. 

Brekke knows the challenges of being deaf without an interpreter, as she adjusted to an all-sign language school at Central College in Pella — at the time, it was the only school in Iowa providing a space for deaf culture, which motivated her to become an interpreter.

Kensie Channon, who is also deaf, is a counselor for deaf vocational rehabilitation. She helps other deaf people secure employment. 

Without interpreters, Channon thinks that "many people would be vulnerable, unhappy, or may or may not know the terminology that is used within our world."

Channon says signing is all about learning deaf culture and facial expressions are key.

"I would watch the interpreter like every day to learn. If I didn't have one, it was really hard in the classroom to follow. And I lip read some, but when the teacher is talking, they're walking around the room," Cone added. "Or they had their head on the board and I can see the back of their head, I can't lip read. So I always watch the interpreter. I depend on the interpreter a lot."

Experts say the shortage in Iowa is largely due to limited educational opportunities yet rigorous certification requirements — something interpreters say is causing many sign language translators to leave the state. 

Channon said that, for roughly every 20 deaf or hard of hearing people, there are only two interpreters available.

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"We are losing communication access and equitable access," Brekke said.

Channon added that, if we don't invest in interpreters, then deaf communities will feel marginalized. 

"They feel like nobody cares. And you're really overlooking a unique population in the world. And now I'm expecting my second child. What is my communication with my children going to look like? They're going to go off to school, you know, I need interpreters for their parent-teacher conferences, to be able to know what is going on with their education," Channon said. 

"The hearing people need the interpreters as well as the deaf people. Deaf and hard of hearing and deaf-blind individuals. We are growing throughout this world. There are more of us than people realize. They need to start being aware that we are here," she added. 

To learn more about becoming an ASL interpreter, check out Life Interpretation's website or reach out to the Iowa Association for the Deaf

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