Drake Political Review | Let's Talk Politics

Missing: Iowa’s Sign Language Interpreters

Communication access for deaf Iowans suffers under decline of interpreters and training programs.
graphic of three hands signing out the letters "ASL"
Art by Amanda O’Brien

The interpreter training program at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs began and ended with Carolyn Cool. She was a graduate of the program’s first class of young sign language interpreters in 1980. Cool immediately started her career interpreting in the legal and medical fields across central Iowa. 

Then, 12 years later, she returned. To live in her hometown. To work at Iowa Western. To teach new interpreters everything she knew in the same place she learned it.

“It just was like the ideal job,” Cool said. “I remember saying to my husband one time, I don’t know when I get paid and I don’t know how much money I make because that was so irrelevant to me and I had so much fun going to Iowa Western every day.”

Much of that fun was building relationships with students. At Iowa Western, she not only mentored in the classroom, but ensured students learned directly from the Deaf community. 

“You have to love working with people to do this job,” she said. “You just have to. You gotta be able to have these relationships and develop relationships with diverse groups of people.”

Since American Sign Language differs from English in syntax, grammar and more, immersion with native ASL speakers was vital for students. Iowa Western’s program bonded these two communities; one Deaf, the other hearing. Students regularly attended Deaf social events and welcomed visitors to their classes.

But in 2015, the program took a drastic turn for the worst. Cool walked into the May board meeting prepared to have the program’s five-year review. She said the numbers showed “we had green lights to keep going.” She left that meeting with the knowledge that the interpreter training program would close due to budget and enrollment concerns. 

Cool was shocked—and she was not alone. No one else knew either. Not the advisory board; not the local employers of graduates; and not the Deaf community. 

Iowa Western wasn’t the only closure. Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny shut down its program in 2010, and Kirkwood Community College closed shortly after Iowa Western. That leaves one interpreter training program in Iowa: Scott Community College in Bettendorf. Interpreters and Deaf community members say these consecutive closures exacerbate Iowa’s existent interpreter shortage. And without new programs, they know it will worsen.

But the closures also represent something more—something more than what most hearing people see. Beneath the surface lies a deprivation only felt by Deaf people. Deprivation of services. Advocacy. Rights. Interpreting keeps all of these alive. So as the field crumbles, the Deaf community faces sinking further from people’s minds.

One decade leaves Deaf advocacy depleted

In 1980, seven employees of the Division of Deaf Services Commission of Iowa addressed accessibility issues statewide. Now, just one staff member remains. Again and again, safe havens for this community withered away with little notice beyond Deaf circles.

Staffing stood steady until the 2000s. Then, budget cuts. In 2010, the whole Department of Human Rights faced a financial trimming. To cope, it consolidated the Deaf Services division and six others into one. Deaf Services lost nearly 20 percent of its less than $500,000 budget that year.

Jeff Reese, an interpreter and director of Life Interpretation, witnessed the changes through his wife and then-executive officer Kathryn Baumann-Reese. He said the state office last had substantial staff in 2012, the year she passed away from breast cancer.

In Kathryn’s time, the office employed two consultants. They were the boots on the ground, ensuring businesses knew their responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Reese said the role provided a reliable place for Deaf people to bring concerns. 

Without this infrastructure in state government, advocacy often comes down to the people who will always care: Deaf people and interpreters. 

“[We’re] still advocating for accommodations, which you think we would be past by now,” Reese said. “But you’d be surprised at how many people have no idea what their responsibilities are, especially with the Deaf community.”

Gretchen Brown-Waech knows all the obstacles to accessible communication as a lifelong Deaf Iowan. And sometimes she said sharing the importance of equal communication means making it about abled people.

“Educating people about how using an interpreter benefits them is sometimes more useful than talking about how Deaf people have rights.” Brown-Waech said. “Because a lot of people don’t actually care that Deaf people have rights.”

But among all who pay little attention, Brown-Waech said interpreter training programs foster the ones who care. Students not only learn a language, they learn to bridge two cultures that otherwise live apart.

Iowa’s interpreter shortage, defined

When Iowans cannot access sign language interpreters, they miss essential information. Going to the doctor, doing their job or getting a job becomes frustrating in a way no hearing person understands.

Deaf Iowans live with the consequences of too few interpreters, including those who are crime victims. Court interpreters are stretched particularly thin. Just six people interpret ASL in Iowa’s courts, according to the Iowa Judicial Branch interpreter roster. So Deaf victims attend court proceedings with no guarantee of equal communication about their own cases. 

Jennifer Upah-Kyes, executive director of Deaf Iowans Against Abuse, strives to change this outcome for victims who call every day. But currently, she said it goes the other way “a lot more often than we want it to.”

In a 2018 survey by the Census Bureau, roughly 120,000 Iowans said they were Deaf or had a serious hearing difficulty. Almost 300 sign language interpreters hold an active permanent license to work in Iowa, but about one-third of those live out of state. Interpreters might hold multiple state licenses for flexibility, but no data exists that confirms where they actively work.

Out of the 300 total interpreters, 86 received their license since 2015. Fewer than half have an Iowa address. 

Upah-Kyes also taught at Kirkwood’s interpreter training program. She knows programs are the only thing replenishing the field. Without them, Deaf victims remain without a voice.

Amid the shortage, hope for a program prevails

Approximately 60 interpreters work as independent contractors for Life Interpretation. The caveat: Reese said that that number barely changes year to year.

 On a daily basis, the shortage leaves Iowa’s interpreters juggling schedules. Usually, that’s manageable. But as more of the workforce reaches retirement, they are collapsing under a swelling need and a dire lack of replacements. 

“We’ve had to recruit interns from out of state and hopefully we can get them to stay after they’ve done their internship,” Reese said. 

Rachel Johnson, assistant ASL professor at Iowa State University, said now is the time for Iowa’s revival—and she’s trying to stoke those flames. The goal is to launch a new interpreter training program at ISU, but starting one from scratch is difficult.

“It really takes a great deal of partnership and collaboration and vision, everybody being on the same page with it,” she said. “And that’s the hard part.” 

Despite the state’s history, Johnson and her colleagues will not be dissuaded. She sees how a program could restore the last decade of losses. Awareness, restored. Interpreters, restored. 

The community is raring for it. Eager students want it. Some hearing people will continue to ignore the problem. But Johnson knows in the end, “[it] could only be good.”