Deaf community pushing for state to license interpreters

John Paul Jebian, a sign language teacher at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High, teaches his high school students American Sign Language alongside Lisa Espineira, 37, a certified sign language interpreter.
John Paul Jebian, a sign language teacher at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High, teaches his high school students American Sign Language alongside Lisa Espineira, 37, a certified sign language interpreter. South Florida News Service

In a second-floor meeting room at West Dade Regional Library, Lissette Molina Wood recently stood in front of a group of deaf people.

Halfway through her first term as president of the Florida Association of the Deaf, Molina Wood, 37, also deaf, is trying to build support for a bill that would require all American Sign Language interpreters to be licensed by a state board.

Signed language is how members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community communicate, involving hand signals and body language to convey meaning. Though there are different dialects of signed language used in North America, American Sign Language, recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is the most widely used.

And while there is a process to be certified by a national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, there is no state agency or state board that licenses American Sign Language interpreters or oversees their qualifications.

“My role as president is to protect our deaf people and their civil rights,” said Molina Wood, an active member of the organization for 16 years. “That’s our mission.”

Florida has the nation’s third largest population of people with hearing difficulties at 210,779 – roughly 1.8 percent of Florida’s population, according to the 2014 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium.

FAD, an advocacy organization for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, along with the Florida Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, is behind the Florida Interpreter Licensure Bill. On Tuesday, the two groups are organizing Deaf Awareness Day, where interpreters, the deaf community and their supporters will gather on the capitol steps to raise awareness of the bill.

The proposed bill, SB 658, would establish minimum standards that interpreters must meet to work in Florida. Though the bill makes provisions for different levels of licensing, standards would include a degree from an interpreter program at an accredited institution, quality assurance screenings and hours of interpreter training.

The bill states that “a person may not engage in interpreting for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing in this state without first receiving a license or permit.” A proposed 11-member Board of Interpreters for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing would enforce the standards. The board would be made up of interpreting professionals, as well as deaf and deaf-blind members.

Similar bills have been passed in Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Texas.

Variations of this bill have failed to get on Florida’s legislative agenda after three separate attempts in the past 10 years — once in 2006, 2007 and once again in 2014.

“Right now you can pick any interpreter off the street,” said Molina Wood. “You don’t know the qualifications or the skill level of that interpreter.”

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, was a co-sponsor of last year’s bill. The proposal died in the Business and Professional Regulations committee.

“I think it seemed like a very common sense solution to a problem,” said Rehwinkel Vasilinda, 54. “It just wasn’t put front and center. That responsibility, to a certain extent, falls on all of us.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on a disability and grants “reasonable accommodations” and accessibility requirements to those with disabilities.

Citing ADA law, the deaf community in South Florida has garnered some victories in its right to be provided with sign language interpreters.

John Paul Jebian, a sign language teacher at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High in southwest Miami-Dade, who also teaches night classes at Miami Dade College's north campus, is deaf. He heads a group named Waving Hands that works with FAD.

“I have to be certified to teach,” Jebian said. “Why not interpreters?”

In 2003, Jebian won a settlement in a class-action federal suit against Baptist Hospital, which required the hospital to provide hearing-impaired patients with sign language interpreters.

In 1999, Jebian was involved in a car accident and had to be rushed to the hospital. In order to stabilize his neck, Jebian was strapped to a backboard for several hours. Jebian testified in court that he made requests for a sign language interpreter with the emergency personnel who treated him at the scene of the accident and when he arrived at the hospital. Though Jebian’s father accompanied him to the hospital and attempted to assist, Jebian’s father is not an interpreter and is not familiar with medical terminology.

“[Licensed interpreting] is important, especially in hospitals,” said Jebian, 44. “You can actually file a lawsuit if an interpreter lacks any kind of certification. In these situations, there are a lot of misinterpretations and misunderstandings, even with an interpreter present. Basically, a license or a certification gives us a reason to trust that interpreter with facilitating our need for communication.”

During Jebian’s treatment at Baptist, he says his mother was able to flag down an interpreter whom she recognized at the hospital, so Jebian did have access to an interpreter for a time during his treatment. According to the suit, Baptist argued that because Jebian’s father and other family members had been present, because an interpreter had been present at one point and because hospital personnel communicated with Jebian through written notes, Baptist had provided Jebian with effective communication.

Due to a confidentiality agreement regarding the suit, Baptist could not comment on the details of the case. However, Christine Kotler, a representative from Baptist Health, said in a statement:

“Baptist Health follows the law and provides auxiliary aids and services to patients and family members who are deaf or hard of hearing to enable them to effectively communicate with physicians, caregivers and all other employees. Depending on the needs of the patient and/or family member, these auxiliary aids and services may include on-site qualified sign language interpreters and video remote interpretation by qualified sign language interpreters.”

Matthew Dietz, 44, a Miami lawyer who handles disability cases, said he has litigated at least 10 different cases where hospitals have not provided qualified interpreters, instead providing nurses who know some sign language or know how to “fingerspell” — a signed method of spelling out words in English.

“I’ve had a nurse who got mixed up between the word ‘wolf’ and ‘cold’ because they both look like muzzles, or between ‘God’ and ‘stroke.’ This is the quandary that deaf people face. By having someone who is licensed, there’s no mistakes,” Dietz said.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ administrative guide on ADA compliance recognizes its legal responsibility to provide sign language interpreter services for deaf employees who rely on sign language to communicate.

In 2013, Jebian got a full-time certified interpreter for his classes at Braddock.

“My high school students’ behavior has improved,” Jebian said. “My interpreter is able to help me know what's going on in my class. It's a lot less stress for me, that's for sure.”

Before that, Jebian had to use high school students as interpreting aides to help him conduct his class.

This year, FAD had lined up two primary sponsors for the 2015 bill, one from the House and another in the Senate. But after Rep. Joe Saunders — a Democrat — lost to Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, in November's election, FAD lost its legislative champion in the House. Plasencia has decided not to sponsor this year’s bill.

Last weekend, FAD found a new sponsor in the House, Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana. She filed the house bill, HB 1195, on March 1.

“I have a lot of deaf people who live in my community, and I’ve worked with them in the past,” Berman said.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Cape Canaveral, is sponsoring the Senate bill.