Every so often a video of a sign language interpreter absolutely crushing it goes viral. Though these people might seem like gods — or just very Italian — the job is actually quite attainable. With a little lot of practice, you too can be a sign language interpreter, and bring the gift of hearing to someone who really needs it.
According to a study by Gallaudet University, there are roughly a million functionally deaf people in the United States and about 70,000 deaf children who require special education, or the help of an interpreter. In this role, you’ll belong to a community of ASL education assistants, most of which have experienced similar advantages and disadvantages in their career:
So, what does an educational assistant actually do? Positions are available in k-12 schools and also in higher ed helping deaf students in college settings. You’ll help students who are dealing with deafness or hearing loss get through the day.
This role is a mouthpiece for inclusion, and there is a great level of responsibility that comes with improving a student’s quality of life in school and their understanding of the curriculum.
Preparing for a day of interpreting for the deaf community, especially children, is more complicated than rolling out of bed and doing a few hand exercises. ASL education assistants need to be well versed in the needs of the student, which means making sure the lessons are accessible and translate well to deaf culture. It’s your responsibility to speak for your students and make sure their needs are being met, which ultimately, will increase student learning outcomes.
Becoming a sign language assistant comes with education requirements, usually at least an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in sign language or a related field. If you are looking to obtain a degree in sign language—it is not commonly listed as a top major, after all—you might want to look online first. There are a number of online colleges that offer fairly inexpensive programs to prospective signers. Keep in mind that employers are also looking for candidates who are knowledgeable about deaf culture. That means immersing yourself in what you are learning, which might be tough to do online.
Graduate school isn’t a prerequisite for you to succeed, but it isn’t a bad idea for those considering teaching sign language or teaching at schools for the deaf, among other career paths. In the meantime, an associate or bachelor’s degree in deaf studies or related degree is a solid start.
In order to be an effective translator and qualify for jobs, look into getting certification.The American Sign Language Teachers Association offers two levels of certification: certified and master. To obtain certification, applicants must demonstrate their teaching methods and strategies (including those for inclusivity in the classroom), and the ability to advocate for students and chart their personal growth. You also must have a bachelor’s degree or higher to receive certification from the ASL.
Depending on state requirements, you may consider national certification through the American Sign Language Proficiency Interview (ASLPI), which is a holistic language evaluation to determine ASL proficiency and is conducted at Gallaudet University. For those who can’t make the trek to campus, Gallaudet also offers a video conference option.
You may also want to think about pursuing a certification program from the RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf). This is a little like becoming ASL certified but differs as some RID certifications involve passing a number of exams, while others require documentation of training and experience.
The National Interpreter Certification (NIC): This certification requires applicants to demonstrate, “general knowledge in the field of interpreting, ethical decision making, and interpreting skills,” and involves a multiple choice test.
The Provisional Deaf Interpreter Credential (PDIC): This certification involves evaluation by an expert professional on four categories:
Perhaps the best resource for a prospective ASL education assistant — or any ASL interpreter — is a student who is fluent in sign language. Get plugged into the deaf community, and practice your skills before making the career jump. As the National Association for the Deaf says, “challenge yourself by finding several deaf or hard of hearing people whose signing skills and speed make you tremble all over, and ask them for their honest assessment of your skills.” You can take as many tests as you want, but if you can’t pass inspection from those you’re trying to speak for, you may want to put any future test plans on hold.
If you’re positive that you can work in sign language interpretation and provide real help to those with disabilities, you might want to consider joining the American Sign Language Teachers Association. You’ll need to be certified to gain membership, which includes perks like ASL job boards, workshops, and more professional development opportunities.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job market for interpreters and translators (the category that ASL education assistant falls into) is set to grow 18 percent by 2026, over twice as fast as the national average for U.S. occupations. This increase is partly due to the increase in video technology and relay services, which has allowed deaf and hard of hearing students can use to communicate with remote sign language interpreters, instead of solely in person.
BLS indicates that interpreters and translators make a median $49,930 salary, with the top ten percent of those in the field earning slightly over $90,000. Once you’ve been in this role for long enough, you may yearn for greater responsibilities or higher pay. These are just a few opportunities for career advancement:
This requires you to complete a master’s degree program and teaching certification. It makes for more responsibility since you will be in charge of an entire classroom of students. You also might need to relocate to a specialized school, so if you love the apartment you live in now or don’t want to bring your cat on a plane, this path might not be for you.
You can also use your skills and experience to transition into a career helping students develop their communication skills. You need at least a master’s degree to work in this field. The good news, though, is that your classroom experience will help later on, since a good number of speech pathologists work in schools.
ASL educational assistants who have goals of teaching at colleges will need to get a master’s degree in sign language or a related field to pursue this path. As an assistant ASL professor, you’ll provide instruction and guidance to ASL students not just on language, but deaf culture. You probably won’t need to come up with a sign for plagiarism though, since one angry look from a professor is enough to communicate disappointment.
While the education that’s required to become an ASL sign language education assistant offers general training, you may choose a specific focus later on, especially if you want a serious boost in credentials. For example, those looking to segue into social work could choose a specialization that combines MSW courses with those of a masters degree in American Sign Language/English Interpreting.
There is no guide for how long you must spend as an educational assistant before you can advance to a new position, but you might want to consider spending a few years making your candidacy as strong as possible before making the switch. In the meantime, you can rest easy knowing that as a special education teacher, your skills are more in demand and respected than ever.
If you don’t already feel buried underneath a pile of links and acronyms, you might want to turn to the Consul on Education of the Deaf’s online resources. They provide job updates, up-to-date field standards, and accredited school lists.
Another thing to consider is volunteer work. Look for opportunities to interact with deaf people, especially deaf children, in your area. This could be at a summer camp, a deaf theater group, or even the International Deaf Children’s Society. The biggest requirement for being an education assistant is the ability to communicate effectively. In order to do that, you need experience being involved in American deaf culture. Devote yourself to your craft, and things will work out.
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