Roshawn Smith wears plain, pale shirts a lot. It’s not a fashion statement. It’s a job requirement: Smith is a freelance ASL interpreter, and her clients must be able to see her fingers translate spoken words and concepts in real time.

She used to wear more of a uniform — a real one — as a member of the Navy and, later, the Air Force, doing human resources and IT work. The door to a new life opened by chance when she got to know a deaf man at church. “He didn’t like writing notes, so he taught me a few signs,” she says.

Intrigued, she decided to take a class in American Sign Language (ASL) while at Michigan’s Oakland Community College for her associate degree in psychology. “ASL was so beautiful,” she says. “I fell in love and found it could fulfill my foreign language requirement.”

And it became a new career path. On her instructors’ recommendation, Smith left the Air Force to transfer to D.C.’s Gallaudet University for a bachelor’s degree, which the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf will require for certification beginning next year. Current tuition is $5,805 per semester.

Gallaudet, officially bilingual and the world’s first university for the deaf, is the center of a thriving community and culture. “If you don’t immerse yourself in that culture, it’s hard to get full fluency,” says Smith, who lived on campus with her two daughters. There were restaurants, sports, theater, homecoming and even a student TV channel with no sound, just ASL.

ASL isn’t an exact match for English, says Steven Collins, chair of the Department of Interpretation. “ASL may have a sign for something that requires the interpreter to supply three or four voiced words to interpret that sign. It works both ways; when an interpreter is sign interpreting, it may look like he or she is signing a lot more than what was said. For example, English structures such as idioms are not found in ASL. Those concepts are signed and then need to be expanded on for clarity.”

And then there’s vocabulary. Smith took classes geared toward situations people find themselves in throughout life, such as classrooms, courts or real estate closings. Study included anatomy “so I know everything about the body and how it works” — useful for accompanying a patient on a doctor visit, for instance. Smith says that doesn’t feel intrusive to her “and probably not to them; they’re used to it. We have strict confidence rules. I don’t even tell people where I am.”

That could be anywhere as a freelancer. “You’re never in the same place; that’s the best part,” Smith says. The worst: Having to explain, sometimes several times a week, to a hearing party how the interpreting process works. That, too, is expected to be translated for the client.

Graduates have many career options, Collins says: “Deaf and hearing interpreters can work for an interpreting agency or freelance on their own. Interpreters work in many settings such as business, government, medical, legal, sports and concert venues. If a deaf consumer is there, an interpreter may be needed.”

Qualified interpreters are in great demand nationally, he says, “and this is especially true in the Washington area.” Average annual income for a full-time interpreter starts at about $45,000, he adds. Smith says interpreters who specialize in legal work can make more than average; those who work in education may find more-regular hours.

Smith has a lot of experience for someone who just graduated in May. She did some interpreting as a student in Michigan, plenty more as a Gallaudet student, hundreds of hours on jobs around town, and even some while working at Best Buy on D.C.’s 14th Street when deaf customers came in. And more is ahead in the form of continuing education.

Other than that? Gallaudet has a new Ph.D. program, and Smith is leaning that way after her older daughter finishes high school in a couple years. Meanwhile, she would love to translate for President Obama.

Her advice for potential interpreters: Take a tour of Gallaudet. Visit the interpretation department and ask questions. Take an ASL class (dropout rates tend to be high, so see whether you can hack it). “Get some exposure to the deaf community; it’s the best and quickest way to learn.”

And don’t worry if you’re not great at languages. “I was terrible at Spanish,” Smith laughs, “but I took to ASL.”

Written by Express contributor Ellen Ryan
Photo by Kristi McAleese