Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, students gather for a 10 a.m. history class at the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus. Here, students learn about the rise and fall of world civilizations and relive pivotal moments in history. Some write fervently, taking notes on everything that is said, while others yawn and stare at the whiteboard with a blank expression.
Few, however, notice Liane Fain or her coworker Cathy Belew sitting silently in the corner. Their only movement, a series of hand gestures and occasional glances toward each other and the professor.
The two are sign language interpreters, whose only role in the class is to bring the hearing world to a deaf student.
"There is never a dull moment," Fain said after the class. "Everyday, I am exposed to different situations and learn something new."
There are an estimated 450,731 deaf or hard-of-hearing children under the age of 18 in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey. Many of these children were born deaf and struggle to communicate with friends and teachers who can hear. Interpreters can bridge that gap and help deaf students to receive the same education that others receive.
Fain is one of only 260 certified sign language interpreters in Georgia, according to The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf’s 2011 Annual Report to the Members. She spends each workday traveling across North Georgia, sometimes farther, to interpret in various situations such as classes, doctor’s appointments, social gatherings and even cruises.
"Sometimes you get called for a last-minute job so you have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice," she said. "You could go from interpreting a class for a Ph.D.-level student to interpreting the birth of a baby for a deaf mother."
American Sign Language is a unique language that is predominant in the U.S. and parts of Canada. It differs greatly from spoken English, which makes interpreting between the two a difficult feat. In addition, ASL has many regional variances and dialects and many deaf people utilize "home signs," which are improvised gestures usually invented in private conversations at home.
"Each sign has different nuances," Belew said. "One word in English can be signed in multiple ways and each person has a different signing style.
"You have to listen for the meaning of an English sentence to figure out the best way to accurately convey the message to the client. It can be challenging at times."
Fain has been professionally interpreting since 2004 and has been signing since 1996, the year her daughter was born hearing impaired.
"After she was born, I started learning sign language from books," she said. "A few years later when she went to preschool, her interpreter noticed that I had an interest in sign language and suggested I go to school."
She then enrolled in Georgia Perimeter College’s sign language interpreting program, which produces most of the interpreters in the metro Atlanta area.
While she was still a student, Fain met Belew who has been interpreting for more than 20 years and began her signing career after working at an elementary school that had a program for the deaf.
"Everyday I would wave ‘hello’ to the students," she said, "but I wanted to be able to really communicate with them."
She also went to Georgia Perimeter College and graduated from its sign language interpreting program in 1992 and went on to interpret for several of those same students when they were in middle and high school.
Sign language interpreting is a very diverse field. Interpreters are often more comfortable in certain settings than in others and some situations are advanced enough to warrant their own national certifications. The most common certification is for K-12 educational interpreting, but other specializations include legal settings and medical settings.
Fain has interpreted in a wide variety of settings during her 10-year career including educational, social and medical. Her most memorable experience was interpreting an adult comedy show on a cruise for a client who was both deaf and blind, and communicated by feeling signs with his hands.
"There was a lot of vulgar language and comedy routines, which is difficult to translate," she said. "But to have that person laughing at all the right places based on what I was signing was so rewarding."
Belew and Fain have worked off and on for the last 10 years. Many situations require two interpreters to prevent arm fatigue and to help for a seamless translation.
"Interpreting is both a physical and mental activity," Fain said. "We’re lucky that we like each other and we’ve been working together long enough to know when the other one needs a break or help with a sign."