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Continued shortage of ASL interpreters causes strain as need increases

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in Kentwood says it receives about 400 requests a month and about 30 of them go unfilled.

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — A Kentwood nonprofit that connects American Sign Language interpreters with area businesses, medical facilities and courtrooms says it continues to feel the strain of a lack of interpreters. 

"So, we'll have calls from emergency rooms, or urgent cares, or schools who have an interpreter who are sick, and they'll need an interpreter that same day, and we just will not have anyone available," said Linda Vander Leek with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (D&HHS).

D&HHS serves 27 counties in Michigan with ASL interpreters. Vander Leek, an interpreter services specialist, says there are about 60 interpreters on the organization's list, and often times their availability goes down once the school year starts as many work fulltime in schools and universities. She says there were less requests as the state largely shutdown due to COVID-19, but with schools back in session and most industries reopened the calls are increasing.

Of the roughly 400 requests D&HHS receives each month, Vander Leek says about 30 of them go unfilled. 

"It's really been a struggle forever and I think part of it is that people are just not aware of the need," Vander Leek said.

A 2018 report found that 7.4% of Michigan's population are deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing. 

Vander Leek also attributes the shortage to a lack of training programs and high bar certifications required by the state, which she says are a good thing. 

But during COVID-19, the state certification test has been put on pause meaning no new interpreters are entering the workforce. 

On Friday, the Dept. of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs said it's looking into the best way to issue the exams safely for the applicant and staff. 

In the meantime, D&HHS moved all of its classes and its mentorship program for training or newly graduated interpreters online to allow the work to continue.

Visit the DHHS website to learn more about how to get involved. 

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