OCC program aims to ease deaf interpreter shortfall

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Waterford Township – James Berendzen was encouraged to become a sign language interpreter by his high school teacher. After submerging himself in the deaf community, the Walled Lake resident enrolled in Oakland Community College’s sign language interpreter program.

“This a phenomenal course,” said Berendzen, who is in his third and final year in the associate-degree program. “The staff is very supportive and makes sure we strive to be our best. It’s a safe environment.”

Others think so too. OCC’s program recently was awarded national accreditation by the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education.

The program at OCC is one of only five sign language interpreter degree programs in Michigan and the first to be accredited.

The recognition comes as Michigan faces a pressing need for interpreters, according to advocates for the deaf community.

Marcy Colton, director of the Deaf Community Advocacy Network in Sylvan Lake, says legislation passed to protect the deaf also may limit the number of interpreters because all are required to take a certification exam.

Michigan has some of the nation’s toughest testing requirements for interpreters under rules that took effect in 2013.

“Some interpreters that have been working in their field, may not meet the qualifications now,” Colton said. “In a way, it’s good because you want to make sure someone is fully versed in sign language when visiting hospitals, schools or courts.”

More than 1.2 million deaf individuals live in Michigan and for every three interpreter positions, only one is filled, according to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

At OCC, the sign language interpreter degree program lasts three years and is limited to 15-20 students per class. Currently, 1,300 students are enrolled in the program.

To graduate, students must log 300 or more volunteer hours. Students also participate in activities such as “silent weekend,” where the students communicate only by American Sign Language.

Joanne Forbes of Royal Oak worked a 9- to-5 job before deciding to become a full-time ASL instructor. At OCC, she is the Highland Lakes Art, Design, and Humanities Department chair, and is the only deaf department chairperson at any Michigan college or university, according to the school.

“What is so special about this program is the students. They are so hungry and constantly want to learn,” said Forbes, who is married to deaf rapper Sean Forbes. “The students sleep, live and breathe the language.”

Kelly Flores of Lincoln Park, program coordinator at OCC, stresses to the students the importance of connecting with deaf individuals.

Before enrolling, students are required to attend deaf events within the community and volunteer.

“This is not a course where the lesson is over when you leave the classroom. It’s constant learning,” Flores said. “The cohort spends a lot of time together. It’s like a big family.”

Forbes insists one of the misconceptions many people have about the deaf is how they are labeled.

“People think they are being politically correct by saying hearing impaired, but that is very offensive,” Forbes said. “It makes us feel like we are broken, and we are not. The proper term is hard-of-hearing or deaf.”

One of the challenges interpreters face is learning the language.

“It’s not easy being an interpreter. You have to know grammar and sentence structure,” Colton said. “It’s just like learning another language. Remember, the interpreter doesn’t only have to listen, but they need to have the ability to translate.”

Dylan Secord, a social worker at the Deaf Community Advocacy Network, says while there is a shortage of interpreters, there are other ways she learns to communicate.

“I can’t walk around with an interpreter everywhere I go. I use a notepad too,” Secord says. “Sometimes we are hidden because you don’t know someone is deaf until you go and try to talk to them.”

Forbes hopes with OCC becoming accredited, more students can become certified to help fill the void.

“There have many times where I have had to cancel a meeting or an appointment because there wasn’t an interpreter,” Forbes said. “It can be a challenge, but if both the hearing and the deaf population can work together, we can make a collective change.”


(313) 222-1855

For more information

■Oakland Commuinity College




(248) 636-2355 VP