Deaf students struggle with getting last minute interpreters

William Kosinski

As finals approach, students are scrambling to attend extra review sessions, last-minute office hours and group study sessions, but some deaf students said their inability to secure an American Sign Language interpreter on short notice may leave them out of these opportunities.

The Services for Students with Disabilities’ policy requires deaf students to submit requests for interpretation services outside of class hours with at least three days’ notice. Several deaf students said professors and other classmates often change times or locations of meetings at the last minute, meaning students may not be able to find an interpreter in time.

“A few weeks ago, my professor made last-minute office hours,” said Jacob Cheek, a communication sciences and disorders junior who is deaf. “On the same day, he said the review session would be moved back an hour. I can’t do anything about that. I knew that if I submitted a request, I would not get (an interpreter).”

Environmental engineering sophomore Rebecca Giuntoli said the complexities of engineering are hard to translate into ASL and present communication barriers between herself and her interpreters. Giuntoli said when she is able to find interpreters on short notice, they often cannot appropriately translate engineering concepts.

“I can’t go to office hours, tutoring or study groups last minute,” said Giuntoli, who is also deaf. “Everything has to be three business days in advance. That is very challenging to me because professors and classmates often don’t put that into consideration.”

Interpreters from an independent company are called in by the school when UT interpreters are unavailable, SSD Executive Director Kelli Bradley said. Nonetheless, situations still arise where both UT and independent interpreters are booked, so Bradley encourages deaf students who need interpreters quickly to contact SSD as soon as possible. 

“We are fully aware that unexpected situations can come up, and that is why our office will always try to arrange interpreters (even with short notice),” Bradley said in an email. “However, the reality is that the less notice that is given, there may not be enough time to find an available interpreter.”

Psychology sophomore Damon Rush, who identifies as hearing impaired, said he submitted requests that were fulfilled with inexperienced interpreters from the independent agency. Rush, Cheek and Giuntoli all said inadequate funding is to blame for a lack of consistent, experienced interpreters.

“SSD is short on the number of interpreters because of a funding problem here,” Rush said. “(The University does) not invest a lot of money in Services for Students with Disabilities. UT needs to hire more interpreters, but they can’t do that without the money.”

Bradley said costs for deaf and hard of hearing services have increased alongside the number of eligible students who request them, and SSD’s entire annual budget adjusts over time to match the needs of all its students.

Additional resources, such as more interpreters, transcription services and professional notetakers, would give deaf and hard of hearing students sufficient support to fully utilize educational opportunities, Cheek said.

“I want to be on the same field as everyone else,” Cheek said. “At UT, every assignment, every lecture, every classroom is made for hearing people with no disabilities. It’s not made for us; that’s why we have the accommodations.”