Iowa Senate bill proposes eliminating sign language board, licensing for interpreters

After receiving feedback from the Deaf community and sign language interpreters, the chair of the sub-committee for an Iowa Senate bill that proposes the elimination of the Board of Sign Language Interpreters and Transliteraters and licensing has recommended tabling the bill.

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Katina Zentz

Gov. Kim Reynolds smiles during the Condition of the State address at the Iowa State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. Gov. Kim Reynolds discussed initiatives such as tax cuts, mental health funding, and workforce training.

Kelsey Harrell, News Reporter

A bill introduced in the Iowa Senate would eliminate the state Board of Sign Language Interpreters and Transliterators and state-issued licensing for interpreters. But after hearing concerns from Iowa’s Deaf community that the board’s elimination would dwindle quality and accessibility of interpreters, a key Republican leader said he would recommend shelving the proposal.

The proposed bill is part of a state effort to consider what level of regulation and participation the government should have in boards and licensing, subcommittee chair Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said in an interview with The Daily Iowan.

“One of the overarching goals of the Republican trifecta of the conservative ideology that is right now running the majorities in the Legislature, is that government should not be doing things that the private sector can, and we are doing these exercises to see where we could pull government back,” Schultz said.

In a joint letter criticizing the bill, the Iowa Association for the Deaf and other advocacy organizations for the Deaf community outlined reasons why lawmakers should spike the bill. Advocates wrote that the Deaf population would lose safeguards preventing unqualified interpreters and signers if the bill is passed, and Deaf children may not receive as good of an education.

States without interpreter laws, the letter added, have alternative interpreter schools and training programs — which Iowa does not.

Licensing of interpreters has allowed for high-quality interpreting for medical, legal, educational, and social-service situations, the letter continued.

“We firmly believe if this bill passes, deaf and hard of hearing people’s communication access will be lowered,” the letter said. “People not qualified to interpret will be sought more because of lower pay rather than whether they can effectively communicate in the language preference of the deaf person.”

After the bill was introduced in January, lawmakers heard from advocates for and against the bill during a Feb. 13 subcommittee meeting.

Members of the Deaf community and interpreters presented their reasons to three legislators as to why they think the bill would negatively impact the community.

Lawmakers did not know prior to their Feb. 13 meeting that the number of states that license American Sign Language interpreters is growing, Schultz said. They discovered there is not a private-sector organization that could act as an alternative to governmental involvement with the licensing process, he said.

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Since there is no other alternative, besides eliminating the board and licensing entirely, Schultz said he was going to recommend to the Senate State Government Committee Chair Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, that the bill be tabled.

“My thoughts walking out [of the sub committee meeting] was, ‘Boy did these folks do a fantastic job,’ and that I would hate to be an advocate for removing the board,” Schultz said. “Even if there is [another] option, I don’t know what that option is, so I don’t want to walk away from them.”

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said in a phone interview with the DI that she’d heard from Deaf individuals and interpreters that removing the board would be an upset to the community. The law in Iowa is also not restrictive, she added, so individuals can apply for a license to be an interpreter and then have four years to become proficient in American Sign Language.

The board isn’t mandated by federal law, Celsi said, making it one of a handful of boards Iowa Republicans are looking to eliminate.

Schultz and Celsi said that Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake, the third member of the subcommittee, asked the interpreters present at their meeting if technology could be used as a substitute for their positions. This question prompted Celsi to leave the meeting because she billed the question as disrespectful to the interpreters.

After Whiting’s question, Schultz said a Deaf man at the meeting explained to the lawmakers that even though phone applications to transcribe someone’s speech do exist, ASL has a different grammar structure and other differences which mean ASL doesn’t always translate exactly from English. Some in the Deaf community don’t speak English as their first language.

“After everyone spoke, it was crystal clear that we need this board in Iowa,” Celsi said, “and Deaf and hard of hearing people need us to stand up for them and say, ‘No, we’re not getting rid of this board because it’s absolutely crucial that we have it.’ ”

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