Five years ago, deaf students at Northern Virginia Community College faced a troubling uncertainty every time they walked into a classroom: Would their interpreter be fluent? Would she be competent? Would he show up?
Although federal law since 1973 has required any institution receiving federal funds to provide interpreters for the deaf, many schools did a haphazard job. One student at NVCC said one of his interpreters sometimes tried to handle sign language for his course and eat breakfast at the same time.
In the past few years, however, the college has hired a coordinator for interpreters and other deaf services at all six of its campuses, replacing individual coordinators at each campus. And it is building a staff of full-time and regular part-time interpreters, eliminating the need for expensive interpreters from private agencies. The college is also using technology to provide tutors, closed-captioning and interpreters to students in remote areas.
"There's been great improvement since I began," said Cynthia Walton, 22, of Richmond, who graduated from NVCC two years ago and is about to graduate from George Mason University. "Everything's in place. You're not limited to a certain class. You take whatever's offered, and those needs are covered."
Chris Massey, 22, of Centreville said the college's current interpreters are more skilled. They are meeting his demands, he said, in courses he takes in biology, history, English and accounting. He said the school generally has the same interpreter at the same class every time to maintain consistency and ease of communication throughout a semester.
It wasn't always that way. The school often was forced to rely on last-minute calls to private agencies, paying as much as $80 an hour. Mark Kreidler, the acting coordinator of interpreting services, is one of three full-time interpreters. Another 30 part-timers are on call, and all have extensive credentials.
"It's a far cry from what it was when I came here," Kreidler said. "Half the people were working toward certification, and half didn't have anything."
A shortage of qualified interpreters continues to exist across a variety of fields -- not just post-secondary education, said Leslie Hutcheson Prince of the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. She said hospitals and medical clinics, criminal and civil courts and schools at all grade levels still need qualified help, particularly in rural areas.
But NVCC recognized its obligation. John W. Thrash, dean of student development at the school's Annandale campus, knew what the law required, but he also knew "the law doesn't pay for it."
"When I came in, about five years ago, I decided we needed a corps of interpreters," he said. It was a matter of economy, because regular full- and part-time interpreters are paid about $30 to $35 an hour, much less than interpreters from private agencies.
The school has as many as 30 deaf students taking classes each semester. Some take one course. Some, like Walton, take six or more in a semester. "We worked very hard on it," Thrash said. "We want to do our part."
The number of complaints at the school have plummeted. Cheryl Heppner, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, used to field numerous grievances about inept or invisible interpreters at the college. She said she hasn't received a single complaint in the past year and credited the college, and Kreidler, for creating a central office that monitors the quality of services students receive.
Kreidler said the school is trying to use technology such as high-speed Internet connections to link interpreters at one campus with students at another. Marta Teklemariam, 23, of Alexandria said she was getting tutoring with the help of remote interpreters. "I think I've done better here than I could somewhere else," she said.