State Cuts 15% of Sign Language Interpreters
System needs reform. Proposed law is badly needed.
When Hurricane Irma hit Florida, Deaf residents were warned to expect “bears”, “monsters” and “pizza.” Why? The Manatee County Board of County Commissioners legally hired someone to interpret emergency information for the deaf and hard of hearing viewers. The problem was that they hired a “signer” only because he knew some signs and his brother is deaf. He was not formally trained in the specialized skill of interpreting between English and American Sign Language. But for those viewers relying on the message, his attempt at interpreting was dangerously negligent as they needed access to critical information during an emergency situation. What allowed this to happen? The simple answer is that Florida does not require individuals to hold a credential or license to provide sign language interpreting services in any capacity. Therefore, anyone who can sign a word, fingerspell their name, or even gesture can be compensated to interpret in the court systems, hospitals — and yes — even on national television.
Unlike Florida, Wisconsin is one of 17 states that requires interpreters to hold a valid license before working. However, Wisconsin’s current law is glaringly filled with loopholes and vague language, the result of which has born unintended consequences. For instance, unlicensed interpreters have worked for compensation, yet gone unpunished. Penalties are too weak for such violations. Further, there are restrictive-license renewal maximums that do not account for testing availability. Those unintended consequences are having a negative impact on consumers of sign language interpreting services throughout the state.
Under current Wisconsin law, it is legal for novice interpreters to interpret complex medical procedures, psychology appointments, and in the court system- settings where a Deaf person’s life and well-being could be at risk. Imagine if you were in a foreign country and suddenly needed emergency medical attention. An interpreter is called to the hospital, but he or she isn’t fluent in English. Suddenly, your access to critical medical care in contingent upon on that interpreter’s skill level. Unsettling, right? It’s the same concept with sign language interpreting for deaf consumers. Minimum skill verification for high risk settings can make the difference between life or death for a deaf person.
In 2010, when the current law was passed, Wisconsin’s goal was to align credentials with the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) certification exam. In order to be considered for a permanent, renewable license, all interpreters must pass that exam. Current law states that interpreters must achieve national certification within two license renewals, each cycle lasting three years. If they fail to do so, their license becomes null and void at the end of the second renewal period, without any option for an extension. When Wisconsin initially passed interpreter licensure, RID’s National Interpreter Certification (NIC) credential was separated into a three-tier certification system: NIC, NIC-Advanced, and NIC Master. It is important to note that at that time, the average exam pass rate was 77 percent nationwide. However, it was soon discovered that one of RID’s employees committed internal fraud and embezzlement while working in the certification division. Once RID learned of the news, they changed its certification system to grant credentials based on one comprehensive pass/fail performance exam – the NIC. After the change, they proceeded to boast of its validity. But according to the RID 2015 fiscal year report, the exam that RID was so confident in a couple years prior, reported a national pass rate of a mere 19.44 percent. To add insult to injury, in August 2015, RID announced its immediate suspension of all certification exams– including the NIC that is required to obtain a permanent license in Wisconsin. It wasn’t until over a year later, September 2016, that a separate testing entity (CASLI, Inc.) began administering the exam. While the NIC was again offered, it was only accessible in select cities. Plus, all other performance exams still remained unavailable– including the Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) performance exam.
Thankfully, in September 2016, Wisconsin’s Department of Safety and Professional Services recognized an alternative certification to the NIC– the Board for Evaluation of Interpreters (BEI)- Advanced Certification.
The BEI certification system is compiled of four exams. First, the English proficiency exam, which serves as a prerequisite to the following three certification performance exams: the Basic, the Advanced, and the Master. In order to achieve the desired certification level, an applicant must take and pass the written exam and the successive performance exams in sequence. An applicant cannot skip ahead, unless they already hold RID national certification.
Personally, with one year left in my second renewal cycle, I found that the nearest BEI testing site to me was either in Lansing, MI or Springfield, IL. Realizing that I would have to take and pass not one, but three exams in order to obtain a permanent license in Wisconsin, I felt daunted. Nevertheless, the six-year clock kept ticking for me and all pre-certified Wisconsin interpreters. While I successfully was able to achieve my BEI-Basic certification, it still wasn’t enough. Despite the fact I had already taken the BEI-Advanced exam a week prior to my cycle ending, a “results-pending” status was irrelevant. Thus, on September 1, 2017, I, and 28 other ill-fated individuals– nearly 15 percent of all Wisconsin-resident sign language interpreters –had their temporary licenses revoked. On August 31, 2017, we could legally interpret, but we lost the privilege overnight due to the language of the current law.
Since taking my first ASL class in high school in 2005, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in sign language interpreting. In 2011, after I graduated with a degree in sign language interpreting from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I logged countless hours of personal and mentor-guided study, observed professional interpreters on the job, and became an active member of the deaf and professional interpreting communities. Throughout my provisional license career, I have invested nearly $4,000 of my own money into both the RID and BEI systems for testing and membership fees. Thus, when I lost the ability to work in the career I’ve chased for almost half of my life, I was devastated.
Luckily, the newly proposed LRB 4250 bill would adopt the BEI certification tiering system in its entirety, allowing the state to provide the exam for resident interpreters. The bill will simultaneously grandfather in interpreters who already hold the RID certification and/or BEI credentials and place them into appropriate license categories. No qualified interpreter will be forgotten. Furthermore, the proposed revisions include granting permanent renewable licenses, thereby avoiding future significant drops in the interpreting workforce. Additionally, under the newly proposed law, “imposter” interpreters, or anyone else posing as a sign language interpreter, would face stiff fines and penalties thereby protecting consumers in critical situations. But most importantly, it will raise the quality and standard of services by appropriately placing interpreters in environments best suited to his or her skill level.
But until LRB 4250 passes, the consumers of sign language interpreting services will continue to be in jeopardy of receiving inadequate services by unqualified interpreters in high risk settings. To make matters worse, Wisconsin’s current interpreter shortage is negatively affecting business’ ability to fill interpreting service requests. In fact, a local sign language interpreting company, that wishes to remain anonymous, reported that the number of requested jobs the company could not fill has skyrocketed comparatively from 20 in September 2016 to 73 in September 2017-a 365 percent increase. Also, post-secondary institutions are being affected by the shortage. One in particular, who also chose to remain anonymous, reported losing over 100 hours of direct interpreting services per week. That institution was forced to turn to interpreting agencies, who are also struggling to satisfy the demand. Businesses who provide sign language interpreting services are interdependent.
There is something you can do to protect consumers, get Wisconsin workers back on the job, and establish a license that will be responsive to the rapid changes happening in the sign language interpreting field. Rather than accept a broken system, please write your legislators and urge them to support of LRB 4250. If you’re unsure how to locate your legislators, or want access to additional information, please visit the Wisconsin Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf’s website: www.wisrid.org/licensure.html