Wed | Jan 27, 2021

Denying the deaf - Jamaica desperately short of interpreters

Published:Wednesday | July 19, 2017 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
Interpreter Antoinette Aiken at work during the sitting of the Senate last Friday.
Executive director for the Jamaica Association for the Deaf Dr Iris Soutar (left) and interpreter, Cicely Fisher.

A shortage of interpreters for the local deaf community is threatening to derail efforts to meet the communication needs of these Jamaicans and has forced those needing this service to look overseas.

Executive director for the Jamaica Association for the Deaf (JAD), Dr Iris Soutar, said that while the society has been making efforts to interact more with deaf persons, there are only about five interpreters in the island who are fully competent.

She is urging young people to consider interpreting a viable career option given the increasing demand for these individuals.

"We run an interpreters registry and there are times when we are not able to fill all the requests (for jobs)," Soutar told The Sunday Gleaner.

"Many of the individuals that provide that service have other jobs and they are only available as interpreters on a part-time basis, and so this is now posing a challenge for us.

"The reality is that our advocacy is paying off, and increasingly people are trying to be responsive to the communication access needs of deaf persons, and so they are trying to include the use of interpreters in these public functions or wherever they have seminars or community gatherings where they want feedback," added Soutar.

The organisation has been unable to fill one of two vacancies for an interpreter for one of its projects, despite putting out an advertisement more than a month ago. An interpreter can make as much as $120,000 per week.

Soutar said the shortage of interpreters has forced her organisation to use interpreters from the United States, but that generally creates a challenge.

"What those persons will come with is more American sign language and ... we have to make sure that they have been immersed in the Jamaican community for a reasonable length of time, so they pick up the Jamaican sign language," she said.


Swamped with requests


Interpreter Antoinette Aiken said she is swamped with requests for her services and is hoping that more persons will consider going into this area full-time to meet the demand.

The 29-year-old interpreter has been offering her services since she was 19 years old, and finds that it has been a very lucrative career. She had initially started doing sign language to communicate with her deaf parents.

"I am in high demand. In any given week, I can be triple booked and it is three different settings," said Aiken, who does sign language during the sittings of Parliament.

She also interprets for advocacy groups and at functions put on by corporate entities. She also interprets for deaf university students.

"It is a good way to earn because you are paid by the hour, which is very rare in Jamaica," said Aiken.

Executive director of the Combined Disabilities Association, Gloria Goffe, finds that while the church, for example, has been training individuals to do sign language, what is taught is often not sufficient enough for individuals to communicate with the deaf community.

"A lot of them are doing it in the context of the church, so they might teach you to pray, they might teach you to say 'hallelujah' and 'amen', they might teach songs, but are they teaching their congregation to communicate with the deaf population?

"The deaf is a part of the population and will always be a part of the population. Sometimes people say that they are isolated in their own world, but they are isolated in their own world because of us," said Goffe.

In order to meet the demand for interpreters, the University of the West Indies started offering a degree in sign language, through its Department of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy in 2014, but Soutar believes that there is a need to start teaching students sign language earlier.

"Our thrust right now is that we want to include Jamaican sign language as a curriculum subject in the School for the Deaf. Once we have mastered that, we expect to extend it to all schools. So in the same way we would have Spanish or French as a foreign language choice for students in schools, we would want to include sign language as a subject," said Soutar.