Wednesday, January 19, 2011

South Carolina tries to find more ASL interpreters for court system

From The State in S.C.:

When deaf people need interpreters in a South Carolina courtroom, there are just a handful of qualified people to serve them.

It is hard to find people who not only know American Sign Language but who also understand the legal system and all of its specialized language and protocol. As result, deaf people may not be on a level playing field when it comes to understanding court proceedings, and the justice system moves more slowly because the few interpreters that are available stay busy.

“A person who can sign is not qualified to walk into the courtroom and interpret, just like you wouldn’t want a lawyer who has only had a couple of law courses, said Anita Steichen-McDaniel, executive director of the S.C. Association of the Deaf.

To fill the need in Richland County, about two dozen people who speak American Sign Language took a four-day workshop earlier this month on interpreting for the legal system. The course was organized by the S.C. School for the Deaf and Blind’s Walker Foundation and was paid for by a $12,995 grant from Richland County Council, said Kathy Stoehr, the school’s director of interpreting services.

In Richland County, the number of interpreters is so limited that the school for the deaf could only accommodate one-third of the requests for courtroom interpreters in 2009, Stoehr said. The Midlands court systems would have to draw interpreters from Charleston, Spartanburg and Greenville. She hoped the workshop helped the participants better serve Richland County courts and inspired them to seek national certification for courtroom interpreters.

Silence filled the classroom in Columbia as instructor and students used their hands to communicate. The instructor, Carla Mathers, who is a Maryland lawyer and sign language interpreting expert, explained a courtroom scenario: What to do if a judge and two attorneys hold a confidential conference at the judge’s bench, but people in the courtroom can hear the judge’s side of the conversation? Does the interpreter start signing the conversation to his client?

Mathers explained that in this instance the interpreter should not sign the conversation.

“You let the judge know, ‘I can hear your comments, sir, and so can the other hearing people around us,’” Mathers said.

The interpreter’s chief responsibility is putting the deaf person on a level playing field, she said.

“We need to put the deaf person on the same plane magically as if they can hear,” she said.

The shortage of sign language interpreters came to light after the S.C. Supreme Court’s Access for Justice Commission held a series of meetings throughout the state to listen to public comments about equality in the courtroom. Deaf people from across the state attended those meetings, said Robin Wheeler, the commission’s executive director.

In South Carolina, there are 50 people listed as having some type of certification through the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Those people are allowed to interpret in the state’s courtrooms.

But Desiree Allen, who manages interpreters for the S.C. Court Administration, said there were only 10 people on the statewide list of available sign language interpreters for the courts.

“The No. 1 barrier is people were unfamiliar with the court system itself, and the terminology itself, because attorneys use legalese,” Wheeler said.

Wendy Harmon of Greer is the only S.C. resident who is a nationally certified courtroom interpreter. Sometimes, a court hearing needs more than one sign language expert, especially in cases where an interpreter already has helped the police with interrogations. A separate person unfamiliar with the case would be needed to help the defendant, she said.

“I don’t want to be the only interpreter with a specific certification,” Harmon said. “Hopefully, we’ll get more people who don’t see it as scary and daunting.”