Deaf studies program one of only four in Canada

NSCC courses tackle national shortage of sign language interpreters

This story has been updated since initially published.

Nova Scotia Community College deaf studies students Cheryl MacLeod, left, Monica Clarke, Heather Wilson and Nolan Fraser sign the letters D-E-A-F outside their classroom. Photo: Felicia Latour

On a bustling college campus of more than 2,500 students, seven sit in the same classroom, every day, in total silence. Their small numbers offer proof of Canada’s shortage of sign language interpreters.

The seven make up the total enrolment for this year’s deaf studies program at Nova Scotia Community College’s Waterfront Campus. The college has offered the one-year program since 2007.

After completing their studies, many students go on to complete the college’s two-year interpretation program towards becoming interpreters of American Sign Language and English. The college is only one of four schools across Canada that offers both programs and remains the only one east of Ontario.

Sarah Lewis, a graduate who has worked in the field for almost 13 years, is filling a temporary position as the college’s staff interpreter.

The introduction of the deaf studies program in 2007 has made a difference, Lewis says.

“These students have it much better. They have a whole year to learn the language and learn the culture and then focus on that mental process of interpretation and I can see it’s a real benefit to them.”

The program is an intensive year of study in which students learn to become fluent in American Sign Language and study various aspects of deaf identity.

A combination of deaf and hearing instructors encourage students to immerse themselves in the deaf community and attend events such as dingo, or deaf bingo, and deaf dodgeball. At the end of the year, students put on a deaf showcase featuring American Sign Language comedy and music performances.

Lewis says job security is never an issue, especially for those who are willing to move around the Atlantic Provinces. “New Brunswick is crying for interpreters. As far as I know, there are no interpreters on P.E.I.,” she says.

Jessica Bezanson recently graduated after completing both programs last spring, and has since worked as a community interpreter in the Halifax area. She currently facilitates communication between deaf and hearing Nova Scotians in everyday settings like the doctor’s office, banks and church.

“Those programs are the reason I’m doing the work I’m doing today,” she says. But students such as Bezanson are a rarity. Of the 26 students enrolled in 2010, her first year, only six emerged as certified interpreters on graduation day.

The Canadian Association of the Deaf reports “a critical lack of interpreters in Canada, and a widespread lack of understanding of their role.” Only 726 people are registered with the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada, including Bezanson, yet the number of deaf or hard of hearing Canadians exceeds three million.

Bezanson says students drop out of deaf studies for a number of reasons, the biggest one being the sheer difficulty of learning the language. Deaf instructor Melba Blunden says the biggest challenge for hearing students when learning to sign is their unfamiliarity with creating the required hand shapes.

Bezanson adds other deterrents of the program include tough ethical standards and lack of maturity, but mostly an unwillingness to develop their signing skills.

To appreciate deaf language and culture, she says, “you have to immerse yourself in the community and socialize as a student.” Unlike other languages, “there’s no deaf island you can go live on. Where do you go with a visual language?”

Update: Jan. 21, 2015: Clarified wording regarding the career path of interpreters and their roles in the community. Also clarified wording in two sidebar items