ASL interpreters need higher wages

Supporters of American Sign Language interpreters in Eugene Chapter 1 raise their hands to show applause at a Eugene School Board meeting.

Supporters of American Sign Language interpreters in Eugene Chapter 1 raise their hands to show applause at a Eugene School Board meeting.

More than 60 purple-clad Eugene Chapter 1 American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and their supporters made a strong case for fair wages at the Eugene School Board meeting on Wednesday, May 18.

Many were wearing T-shirts carrying the slogan “Fair Compensation Means Quality Education” and holding signs explaining how ASL interpreting opens up a whole world for Deaf and hard of hearing students. Attending in solidarity were many current and former Eugene students who benefited from the interpreters’ expertise, parents of Deaf and hard of hearing students, teachers and experts in the field. Head to our Facebook page to see photos.

The room buzzed with excitement, yet was nearly silent as speaker after speaker implored the board to pay ASL interpreters fairly. As each speaker concluded testimony, the audience raised their hands and slightly waved them — the ASL sign for applause.

Erika O'Brien, left, looks on as Tara Smith testifies on the need for higher American Sign Language interpreter wages. Both work as interpreters for the district. Compensation lags far behind other employers, including nearby school districts.

Erika O’Brien, left, looks on as Tara Smith testifies on the need for higher American Sign Language interpreter wages. Both work as interpreters for the district. Compensation lags far behind other employers, including nearby school districts.

Wages for ASL interpreters in schools have not kept up with the outside market, which means many interpreters leave in order to make ends meet, taking their years of knowledge and student rapport with them. This causes shortages, high turnover, and less experienced staff, which in turn creates inequities in education for their students.

For example, three of the six new hires for the 2015-16 school year have already left the district. The staff averages about 18 interpreters, yet 22 have left the district since 2012.

“We have high turnover and then we don’t have enough interpreters,” said Sammie Eilert, an ASL interpreter. “We are here to help the board understand we aren’t just here for money. But we do want to be compensated fairly for the service we provide. We genuinely care about the students we serve. That’s why we have stayed despite the inadequate pay.”

Eugene interpreters have a starting annual salary of $24,192 per year. Becoming a certified ASL interpreter requires a college degree, passing a national certification skills exam and professional development hours each year. Obtaining these usually requires student loans, adding to the burden these skilled school employees carry.

A nationwide shortage of certified ASL interpreters creates serious demand for their skills, yet salaries in the Eugene School district lag badly behind other area school districts as well as other sectors.

For a Deaf or hard of hearing child, their educational fate lies in the hands of these skilled interpreters. One mother said that “when my daughter doesn’t have an interpreter, it destroys her spirit.”

JulieAnn Sutton, a senior at Sheldon High School, testified at the board meeting through an interpreter.

“I am in student government and so many other activities because of them,” Sutton said. “Without them, I would have a lonely, miserable life. I need a quality interpreter. Period.”

Erika O’Brien and Tara Smith read from a letter the interpreters wrote to the board, emphasizing that their students have a legal right to their services.

“Imagine learning from a muted television with which you cannot question, clarify or interact,” O’Brien said. “Education in this form is impossible. And that does not even consider the loss of social interaction and general knowledge about what is going on around them. This is not a good recipe for high achievement, proficiency, collaboration with their peers or strong self-esteem.”

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