When Carole Collier is in the classroom, she doesn’t wear stripes. Or busy floral prints. And even if she had a five carat diamond ring, she wouldn’t wear it (to work, anyway).
Such fashions are eye catching and that’s exactly why she doesn’t wear them. As a sign language interpreter, Collier knows that anything that distracts from what her hands, face, and body are expressing can affect how a deaf student receives information. And as the coordinator of services for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Student Disability Services, Collier makes her top priority ensuring that non-hearing students have the same chances of success in college as hearing students.
Collier’s path to her current position, which she has held for the past eight years, began 30 years ago when she was (almost literally) a woman on a mission.
When a deaf woman visited her church, Collier thought it unfair that this new member didn’t have a way to communicate with most of the congregation. So Collier wrote her a note, asking her to teach her sign language.
“Within six weeks, I was interpreting our church’s music service,” Collier remembers, “although, admittedly many of the hymns looked very much alike because of my limited sign vocabulary.”
Over the years, Collier’s American Sign Language (ASL) skills grew as she met and interacted with more deaf people, serving as a volunteer interpreter while she learned more about ASL and deaf culture. To this day, Collier is grateful to the deaf people who first welcomed her into the deaf community.
“Many of those who taught me have now passed away, but I still appreciate that they taught me and trusted me,” she says. “If the deaf decide to trust you, they give you a little bit of their language and culture, and then they keep giving a little more. If you violate that trust, you’re out.”
Collier’s first experiences as an ASL interpreter taught her important lessons that have served her well in her career, most of which has been spent doing sign language interpretation and providing services to deaf and hard-of-hearing post-secondary students.
“Reliance and trust are huge factors on both sides of the relationship,” she says.
In her position at Student Disability Services at The University of Iowa, Collier has worked with up to 50 deaf and hard-of-hearing students each year, arranging sign language interpretation services and other accommodations that enable nonhearing students to fully participate in their college experience.
“Carole fills a need on campus that no one else fulfills,” says Dau-shen Ju, director of Student Disability Services. “Her assistance to hearing-impaired students has made higher education a possibility, not a luxury, at the University.”
Collier has similar admiration for the 15 interpreters she hires to work with students.
“We have some tough classes that they have to interpret, “ she says. “Things like calculus and matrix algebra can be challenging to sign.”
Interpreters work with the students to determine the best method of visual communication for each situation. ASL is a complete language. It is not just a collection of signs that represent English words; rather, it uses physical movements to illustrate ideas and concepts in ways that are unique to that language.
“Sign language is made by the whole body for the eyes,” Collier says. “There are concepts you can express in ASL that can be difficult to articulate in English.”
Not all deaf and hard-of-hearing students use ASL, though, so interpreters use fingerspelling (hand shapes to spell words), a manually communicated English (signs following English grammar and syntax rules), or something in between (a pigeon sign language). Other tools include speech-to-text production (essentially subtitles to classroom lectures on a student’s laptop computer), note takers, or assistive listening devices.
“It’s a physical activity, but the biggest part of interpreting is the mental piece,” Collier says. “Flexibility is a must. You don’t know what’s going to happen in a class. You don’t know what a student’s going to need.”
One thing that students shouldn’t receive from their interpreters is any indication of an interpreter’s feelings. The slightest roll of an eye or smirk from an interpreter can cloud the way a student receives and understands a classroom situation.
Collier tries to remain relatively invisible when interpreting, but she also enjoys being part of the deaf community.
“Language forms a common culture in any community, but it’s more pronounced with the deaf community,” she says. “The deaf community has its own mores and heroes. It’s a close community.”
Collier can easily relate tales of deaf students who have inspired her over the years. There’s the student who worked with Collier and her colleagues to figure out how best to absorb information in highly technical courses. There’s the student who lost his hearing just before enrolling at Iowa and who, in spite of not having known ASL, combined accommodation techniques to succeed in his classes. And there’s the student who joined the Peace Corps and worked to learn other spoken languages in spite of being unable to hear.
“’Deaf people can do everything except hear,’” Collier says, quoting I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University. “The students are outstanding. They aren’t super human, but to understand a class through a third party interpreter is pretty amazing.”
by Anne Remington
ANSWERS: ASL signs in photos are, from top to bottom: assisting, sign language, interpretation.