Deaf Students Follow the Signs in CSUN Classes

<i> Solomon is a Studio City free-lancer. </i>

The professor is doing a good imitation of a whooping crane. He is so good he has the attention of everyone in the lecture hall.


Seated in the front row of the auditorium is a small group of students who rarely look up at the lecturer. Because they are deaf, their eyes are fixed on the gestures of a sign language interpreter.

At California State University, Northridge there are 80 part-time interpreters for the school’s 206 deaf and hearing-impaired students. Their work is coordinated by Communications Services, a division of the university’s National Center on Deafness. About a third are university students themselves; many others are graduates with signing skills learned at the school as deaf studies majors.


While on duty, interpreters are required to wear a dark blue smock which identifies them in the classroom and helps reduce glare for the observer. But beyond the dress code, the job requirements get more difficult.

According to Communications Services policy, interpreters are expected to communicate everything heard or said in the classroom. Lectures must be interpreted word for word along with students’ questions and dialogue in class films.

Interpreters are not allowed to edit messages. This includes profanity or ideas they may find disagreeable. Also, loud noises in the hall, aircraft overhead or anything disrupting the class must be communicated to the deaf students.

“The interpreter is the deaf student’s ears,” said Herbert Larson, administrator of the university’s Support Services to Deaf Students. “The interpreter doesn’t do the thinking for the deaf individual on campus. His function is more like a telephone wire.”

At CSUN, interpreters use a language called Signed English to translate classroom lectures. In Signed English, every word, including conjunctions and articles, is communicated using the grammatical structure of speech.

Dan Levitt, one of Communication Services’ two full-time senior interpreters, said becoming proficient in Signed English actually requires learning two languages--both sign and English. Good interpreters hone their English vocabulary skills and do not ponder the meaning of a difficult word as a professor rushes through a lecture.


In the lecture hall, Levitt said, interpreters are usually on the spot just as much as the professors.

Interpreters admit that the stress of the job gets to them sometimes. Concentrating on a professor’s every word is not easy, nor is sitting on a hard chair, constantly moving hand and facial muscles for up to three hours. Some complain of tendinitis in the wrist and carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition which causes weakening of the hand.

“You really have to build up your stamina for this,” said interpreter Ray Lawrence, 31. “At the start of each semester--when I’m just back from vacation--I come home exhausted.”

Also, interpreters said that by working at the university level they encounter challenges far greater than other professionals in their field.

Lawrence remembers one particularly harrowing session when he was called to interpret for a physiology class “with terms three-feet long.”

Susan Tieman, 36, a former English teacher, recalled having trouble the first time she signed a biology class. The professor, she said, explained kidney functions and blood flow through the circulatory system.


And Shelly Hoffman, 30, an interpreter for three years, admitted that an assignment to a human sexuality course had her consulting sign language textbooks for the correct translation of certain terms.

But Lawrence said the challenge and the reputation of the Northridge campus also lures many interpreters to continue working there.

In the 1960s, the National Center on Deafness pioneered programs for mainstreaming deaf students into academic life. It was one of the first colleges in the nation to hire full-time interpreters for deaf students, Larson said.

Most interpreters have at least three years of sign language training before applying for a position at the university. All must audition, and their work is videotaped and then carefully evaluated by Communication Services Supervisor.

Gary Sanderson, coordinator of Communication Services, said about half of those tested pass the initial screening.

Depending on experience and skill level, part-time interpreters are paid between $5.64 and $17.20 an hour. They are also regularly evaluated on their job by Communication Services supervisors.


According to Sanderson, his office can fill just about every deaf student’s request for an interpreter. This includes requests for interpreters at campus meetings or even field trips. One interpreter went as far as braving a water-skiing expedition.

Also, Communication Services often provides note takers for deaf students since it is difficult to watch an interpreter and write at the same time. When note-takers are not available, deaf students are advised to ask a hearing student to make a copy of their notes.

Mary Anne Pugin, 36, a hearing-impaired student who has just begun graduate work at Northridge, said she the interpreters at the university do a good job. It would be extremely difficult, she explained, to rely on just lip reading during lectures. All her concentration would be directed to the professor’s lips and she would miss important messages communicated through body language, Pugin said.

Perry Connolly, 40, another hearing-impaired student beginning graduate work at the university, said there is a disadvantage for the deaf student who must watch the interpreter and therefore rarely makes eye contact with the professor. However, he added, he much prefers the situation at the Northridge campus to his former university in New Mexico. There, sign language interpreters were rarely available and he often relied solely on note takers for his classes.

To some professors it might be a bit disconcerting to have an interpreter in their class. To alleviate such feelings, Communication Services representatives attend faculty department meetings at the beginning of each semester to explain the role of both the interpreter and the note-taker to the classroom.

“We’re really just the links between the deaf student and the hearing,” said Shelly Hoffman, looking tired as she put away her interpreter’s smock. There had been complex terms such as “gender identities” and “cognitive development” in the lecture she had just interpreted.


And that’s not to mention the whooping cranes.