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Healthcare interpreters give voice to patients

St. Kate’s interpreting program is grounded in the liberal arts to prepare students for work in a variety of fields, including healthcare and the performing arts.
St. Kate’s interpreting program is grounded in the liberal arts to prepare students for work in a variety of fields, including healthcare and the performing arts.
Photo by Catherine Tsen '11

American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters do more than simply translate words of a spoken language into ASL or vice versa. They relay concepts and ideas between the languages, and they can even prevent awkward or embarrassing situations from arising.

“For in-patients, there are not always interpreters present 24 hours a day, so nurses and nursing assistants rely on gesture, pictures and written communication to get by,” says Julie Olson Rand, a 2008 graduate of St. Catherine University’s ASL and Interpreting department. “When I’m present, I am able to convey the patient's wishes, which protects their dignity and privacy.”

For example, helping to fulfill a female patient’s request for a female nurse to help her in the bathroom. “Without the ability to communicate that preference, the nursing staff might have assigned a male nurse,” Olson Rand explains.

Olson Rand, who works part-time with Allina Hospitals & Clinics, provides sign language interpretation between patients and their care providers. This includes doctor visits, in-patient stays, and educational programs offered through area hospitals. She works closely with a team of more than 40 interpreters (spoken language interpreters for more than 100 different languages and a small group of ASL interpreters).

“In working with Allina, I've noticed that medical interpreting is less often ‘life and death’ situations and more about giving a voice to deaf and hard-of-hearing patients,” she says.

Taking the lead
In 1983, St. Kate’s started the nation’s first and only interpreter education program focused on preparing American Sign Language/English interpreters for healthcare. By early 2000, it began offering a Bachelor of Arts in Interpreting. Today, St. Kate’s ranks as one of seven interpreter education programs in the United States with national accreditation and one of five accredited bachelor degree programs in interpreting.

Students who graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in ASL/Interpreting from St. Kate’s find work fairly quickly in a wide variety of settings, including schools, courtrooms and conference centers.

“My favorite aspects of interpreting are the variety and challenge of my everyday work, the sense of accomplishment in facilitating successful communication and establishing relationships with numerous individuals within the Deaf and interpreting communities,” says Quincy Craft ’09, a fulltime freelance interpreter in the Twin Cities.

Craft frequently interprets in post-secondary settings, at medical appointments, business meetings, and religious events, including weddings and funerals.

“Our program does an excellent job of bringing together a strong liberal arts foundation and a professional skill (interpreting),” says Paula Gajewski-Mickelson, chair of the ASL and Interpreting department housed in School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences. “Graduates of our program are more effective interpreters because of the strong liberal arts foundation that they develop here at St. Kate's.”

Healthcare interpreting classes at St. Kate’s frequently tap into the University’s Collaborative for the Advancement of Teaching Interpreting Excellence — or CATIE center — for course material.

“The CATIE center leads the country in research around healthcare interpreting,” says Gajewski-Mickelson. “And it produces amazing materials and resources.”

In fact, the center is hosting the first-ever National Symposium on Healthcare Interpreting this summer — attracting nearly 170 sign language interpreters from across the United States.

Finding career success
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for American Sign Language interpreters will grow rapidly — driven by the increasing use of video relay services that allow individuals to conduct video calls using a sign language interpreter over an Internet connection.

This job outlook is good news for Olson Rand, the Allina interpreter. She chose her current line of work after five years of being in various other jobs.

“Initially, I wasn't sure if I would go back to school for an MFA or for a second bachelors, in ASL interpreting,” says Olson Rand. “But after meeting with the chair of the ASL interpreting program at St. Kate's, I was convinced that interpreting was the career path for me.”

July 13, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Alumnae/i, Healthcare, Leadership, Students