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The Art of Sign Language

Jamie Rix teaches American Sign Language to students at Western Michigan University.
Interpreter’s skills put deaf and hearing ‘on equal footing’

Jamie Rix knows she’s doing a good job when the people she works for hardly notice she’s there.

Rix is an American Sign Language interpreter. She says that although she’s obviously present when interpreting between two parties, “really it should be about their access to each other. You (should be able to) look at your deaf patient or your deaf client and feel like you’re having a one-on-one conversation, even though it is going through an interpreter.”

Rix’s talents are called upon for a wide range of situations. She has worked with students in Kalamazoo Public Schools for 12 years, and, as a freelancer, she is mostly hired for official business like doctor’s appointments, court cases and financial advising. Her job has also taken her to such diverse events as poetry readings and golf tournaments and “anywhere a deaf person needs to interface with hearing people,” she says.

Understanding the importance of sign language interpretation involves a paradigm shift for many of the hearing people she encounters in her work. “A lot of people think I am an interpreter for the deaf, but I’m actually an interpreter for the hearing, too,” she says.

When she goes into a doctor’s office and says, “I’m here to interpret for Dr. Smith,” she’s often met with the response that the doctor doesn’t need an interpreter, but Rix then asks if the doctor knows sign language.

“Unless you can sign, you need an interpreter just as much as your deaf patient needs it,” she says. “You need access to their information, they need access to you.”

Rix, who teaches ASL at Western Michigan University’s College of Health and Human Services, says ASL is a language like any other, with its own grammar, syntax, idioms and regional dialects.

It takes years for adults to gain fluency in ASL, but young children who are immersed in it acquire it naturally. Rix taught her daughter sign language, and the child didn’t speak until age 3. But when she did, she leap-frogged baby talk and “just started telling stories,” Rix says.

“That’s what sign language can do. All of her language files were already built,” she says.

Learning to interpret goes beyond becoming fluent in ASL; an interpreter needs to think in both languages simultaneously. ASL does not correspond word for word with English; signs can stand for single words as well as for concepts requiring multiple English words. “There are times when the languages don’t match, and that’s when interpretation comes in,” Rix says. “What is the meaning of what you’re trying to say? Your interpreter will make the change or the link between the two languages.”

The goal is “to make sure that the message — not necessarily the words — is exactly what (is) meant,” Rix says. This requires extreme precision by Rix in legal or medical settings, but other situations allow for more creativity on Rix’s part. For example, she loves interpreting poetry because “there’s some visual fun you can have that might not necessarily depend on the English words.”

Poems are pictures made of words, and when Rix signs a poem, she gets to put it “into this moving language, like a dance… a three-dimensional language.”

Rix interpreted at both the 2014 and 2015 Kalamazoo Poetry Festival. The hallmark of the annual festival is a reading featuring representatives from various groups in the community, and one of the community poets at the 2014 festival was deaf. “We needed to have someone read his poem as he signed it,” says Marsha Meyer, program and events coordinator for the Portage District Library and one of the festival’s directors. “Also, one of the mainline poets we brought in, Ilya Kaminsky, is deaf, and we especially wanted to make our readings accessible to the deaf community. Jamie is now a part of each KPF reading. Her energy and skill add to the performances as well as make our deaf community feel more welcome.”

Putting the deaf and hearing on equal footing is what it’s all about for Rix. “What makes me happy doing my job is when I see people get it. I’ve interpreted for little kids in classrooms, and when they can plug in and get it the same as their hearing peers, that feels awesome,” she says.

“I wish more people knew sign language because then it would give deaf people just a little more entry into our society.”

Rix tells her advanced sign language students that even if interpretation does not become their career, “when you meet that one deaf person that just needs access, you know how to make that happen. You can make somebody’s life easier, you can make somebody’s stress go away, you can give them entry into your everyday life.”

Kit Almy

Kit’s background in arts and nature has allowed her to explore a variety of topics for Encore over the years. This month she introduces readers to MRC Artworks, a classroom and gallery in downtown Kalamazoo that helps disabled people gain self-worth by creating art. In addition to freelancing, Kit works for the Kalamazoo Public Library and volunteers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s DeLano Homestead, teaching pioneer programs.

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