College suspends sign-language interpreter course for lack of interest

College suspends sign-language interpreter course for lack of interest

Advocates warn that there is a shortage of interpreters in BC and the demand for them is growing

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BC has a shortage of American Sign Language interpreters, but a lack of interest among students has led to the suspension of the only course in the province that teaches the skills such interpreters need.

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Douglas College in New Westminster said it has suspended its five-semester course for next fall’s enrollment due to expected low demand, a decision that supporters say will worsen shortages of interpreters as the need for them rises.

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“Due to the low level of applications, we have had to suspend the program for a year,” Jonathan Davies, associate dean of the school’s Faculty of Applied Community Studies, said in an emailed statement.

Douglas has suspended the program in the past when enrollment was low and plans to run the course in September 2024, he said.

“The West Coast Association of Visual Language Interpreters is very aware of the shortage in this area,” said Tyler Churchman, president of that association, which represents sign language interpreters in BC. “DThe demand for interpreters exceeds the supply of sign language interpreters.”

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With the recent passage of the Accessible BC Act and the Accessible Canada Act mandating accessibility, “we will continue to see an increasing demand for interpreters at both the provincial and national levels,” he said.

Interpreters work in education, social services, the performing arts, medical, legal and community settings, and in workplaces that employ deaf people, Douglas College said on its website.

“The unmet need for interpreters is great and actual market demand is growing,” it said.

Increasing the supply of new interpreters is “essential to maintaining equal access for deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind communities,” Churchman said.

“The suspension of our program will have a significant impact on the number of interpreters available in BC,” said Barb Mykle-Hotson, who directs the program at Douglas and is one of the teachers.

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For example, she said, a shortage of interpreters means that 15 BC school districts with deaf students don’t have interpreters on staff.

“There is already a shortage of interpreters for the deaf community, and if you go into the hospital for an operation and you need someone to translate what the doctor is telling you, you may not be able to get one,” said Nicki Horton, a director of the Family Network for Deaf Children, a parent-run non-profit organization.

And she said via email that the shortage also means children will be left without interpreters in the classroom and suspending the Douglas College program for a year will only exacerbate the shortage.

“They don’t see the interpreters as an essential service to the deaf community,” Horton said. “Deaf children have the right to go to school and have an interpreter,” and people have the right to have an interpreter for them in the healthcare system.

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Douglas CThe college typically offers 18 places in its five-semester program each fall. It gets most of its applicants from people at Vancouver Community College’s American Sign Language program, and the number of those students has “declined significantly in recent years,” a college spokeswoman said in an email.

The decision means the 16 students enrolled in VCC’s ASL program who want to become interpreters will have to relocate to Ontario or Nova Scotia to take a course next fall, Mykle-Hotson said.

For fall 2021 and fall 2022 admissions, only 13 people met admissions requirements each year, the college spokeswoman said.

At this time last year there were 20 applications, of which 13 were accepted. Of those 13, 10 came from VCC. The program receives a small number of applicants from outside the province.

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So far this year there have only been seven applicants for the coming fall, said the university spokeswoman.

Douglas made the decision to trim the program now, rather than wait until the application deadline, to give students a chance to make other plans for the next school year and hoped to increase enrollment for the 2024 intake, she said.

The course was formerly offered at Lakeland College in Alberta, but the program has been suspended for this school year. And a joint program by Red River College Polytech and the University of Manitoba is “under review,” according to their websites.

There is also a program in Quebec for French ASL interpreters.

Douglas College states on its website that a survey of graduates shows that most are working more than 20 hours a week as interpreters within four months of graduating, many as freelancers and others on a permanent basis. They work in schools, organizations, or in video relay services that enable video calls between people who use sign language and people who don’t.

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