Extreme shortage of sign language interpreters

800 deaf or hard of hearing people in Southwest Louisiana are serviced by just three sign...
800 deaf or hard of hearing people in Southwest Louisiana are serviced by just three sign language interpreters. (Source: KPLC)
Updated: Apr. 12, 2017 at 7:13 AM CDT
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LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Imagine going to a doctor's appointment and not being able to communicate critical health information or to a job training, only to leave not hearing anything that was said.

That is a reality for some 800 deaf or hard-of-hearing people in Southwest Louisiana and there is an extreme shortage of sign language interpreters to bridge that communication gap.

For Larry LeBert, his life as a deaf person has been full of challenges in a world built for a hearing population.  He lost his ability to hear after suffering a fall from a high chair as a baby, causing irreparable nerve damage.

LeBert struggled in school, and to be a part of any conversation, for much of his childhood.

"I never passed a grade until I was nine, when I went to Louisiana School for the Deaf and from there, I started to learn my ABCs," he said.  "I picked them up within a week and I learned to do the sign language within a month."

LeBert never failed a class again. He even went on to graduate from college and work for decades in area industries.

Sign language allows LeBert to seamlessly communicate with others fluent in the language and there is even technology now, like video phones, to connect him with a hearing person on the other end.

"The hearing person answers regularly and I can see on the screen the interpreter signing what the hearing person is saying," said LeBert.

But there are some situations, like doctor's visits and auditorium settings, where LeBert needs the services of a sign language interpreter.

"If I'm going to a doctor, if I'm in the hospital, court setting, sometimes for particular meetings," he said.

Through SLIC, or the Southwest Louisiana Independence Center, LeBert is able to schedule an interpreter, like Cam Sharpe, to go along to an appointment.

The only problem: Sharpe is one of only three certified interpreters in the region, servicing 800 people.

"800 deaf or hard-of-hearing and only having three interpreters, makes it very difficult to make a schedule for 800 people and different appointments," said LeBert.

LeBert and Sharpe have worked together several times over the years and Sharpe says her favorite part of being the ears for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is that instant connection.

"You do get a connection.  You know immediately if your work has been successful or not," said Sharpe.

Sharpe has several degrees as part of her certification, but that is not necessary with SLIC's program.

Interpreters must show their fluency in front of a nationally certified interpreter and screened to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"If someone wants to become an interpreter, they need to ask, 'are they a visual learner?' If they can learn visually, then it's somewhat easier to pick up.  A person who is more auditory-based learning, it's harder, because it's a visual language."

That interpreter, even if just for an hour, helps eliminate the divide between the deaf and hearing worlds.

"I'm hoping that people who are seeing me will become motivated to become an interpreter, because we are in great need of more interpreters," said LeBert.

To connect with the hearing services offered by SLIC, click here.

Call the SLIC office at 337-477-7194 to learn more about how to become a sign language interpreter.

Click here to connect with the National Association of the Deaf, the nation's leading civil rights organization for the deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf is a wealth of information for people interested in becoming a sign language interpreter.

LeBert is part of the Deaf Grassroots Movement of Louisiana, which will be part of a rally on May 4 at the Louisiana State Capitol, advocating for rights for the deaf and hard of hearing.