From her very first American Sign Language (ASL) class in 2010 at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC), Justine Bryant knew she’d found the perfect career.
“I instantly fell in love with interpreting and knew it was my calling,” says Bryant, now a nationally certified ASL interpreter and new affiliate assistant professor of sign language at GRCC.
It’s a career that’s in high demand, not only in Michigan but nationwide.
According to the most recent study, released in 2019, by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, 733,356 Michiganders — about 7.4% of the state population — identify as deaf, deaf-blind, or hard of hearing. In West Michigan, 8% of residents identify as members of that community.
“The need for interpreters is everywhere as people and businesses realize it’s crucial to include sign language interpretation with their message,” says Bryant, a Comstock Park High School graduate. “It’s becoming more mainstream, and the more people see it, the more people will want to pursue it as a career.”
The demand for ASL interpreters is expected to increase by approximately 24% by 2030, according to GRCC estimates.
Promoting the field of interpreting
In her role as an affiliate assistant professor of ASL at GRCC, Bryant collaborates with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (D&HHS) to promote the field of interpreting.
D&HHS services all of West Michigan, following the mission "to provide equal communication access, education, and advocacy to the deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing in pursuit of all life’s opportunities."
The Grand Rapids organization fills hundreds of interpreter requests in the community on a monthly basis.
“We have been working together, along with Lansing Community College's Interpreter Training Program, to do what we can to solve the interpreter shortage issue,” says Bryant. “In my role as a community interpreter, I have worked primarily with D&HHS, but also with Disability Advocates of Kent County.”
Developing an education pathway
That’s one of the reasons that, in addition to teaching, Bryant is developing an education pathway for students seeking a career as interpreters for the deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind and deaf-disabled.
“Interpreters must have the motivation to succeed in a growing field, the dedication to pass interpreter certification tests after completing their schooling, and commitment to the deaf community through lifelong learning,” says Bryant. “Interpreters are needed in a variety of settings, so it can be easy to find work in what interests you most.”
She adds that the need for Black, Indigenous, and people of color interpreters in Michigan, and also nationwide, is great.
“There will always be deaf people in our community, and they will always need equal access to communication. As more emphasis is placed on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in our society, disability and accessibility need to be a part of that conversation,” says Bryant. “Simply providing an interpreter for your message not only promotes the inclusion of the deaf community, but it also promotes equity as it brings a seat to the table for those that a hearing-dominated society (usually unknowingly) leaves behind. The more that the general population understands this practice, the more we will continue to see the need for interpreters to grow.”
The educational path Bryant is creating includes taking ASL and general education courses at GRCC, then transferring to Lansing Community College (LCC) for its interpreter training program, says Mary Lucas, chair of GRCC’s Language and Thought Department.
“Once we finalize it with LCC, this will be a great pathway for anyone here in West Michigan interested in becoming an interpreter to start their education,” Lucas says.
Because Michigan has some of the strictest rules in the nation for ASL interpreter certification, it’s difficult to get into the profession without the proper education, Bryant says. Most ASL interpreter posts require a bachelor’s degree.
An interpreter’s journey and vision
Bryant, who earned associate degrees at GRCC and LCC, completed her bachelor’s degree in ASL interpreting and transliterating in 2015 at Siena Heights University in Adrian. She worked as an ASL interpreter for the Kent Intermediate School District until 2021, has freelanced in the community since 2015, and has owned her own company, Access to ASL, since 2019.
She began taking ASL classes at GRCC after high school, then transferred to Lansing CC after graduation with her first associate degree.
“I went through Lansing CC's Interpreter Training Program, received my second associate degree, and then transferred to Siena Heights University after graduation. After completing my bachelor's in interpreting, I eventually went on to complete my master's degree in business administration, and used that knowledge to start my own interpreting company,” she says.
In West Michigan, interpreters tend to work in elementary education settings as employees, or they work as independent contractors in community settings.
“In the community, you'll find interpreters anywhere people are communicating. These accommodations occur in fields such as business, government, theater, legal, medical, mental health, postsecondary education, politics, and others,” Bryant says. “If future interpreters are looking to leave the area, government entities, colleges, and even cruise ships will hire interpreters. Interpreters can really tailor their work to match their interests.”
She says she looks forward to developing the educational pathway between GRCC and LCC so more students can enter this growing field.
“When you’re working as an interpreter, every day is different … which is what I love about it,” Bryant says. “It’s one of those fields that remains a challenge because there’s always more to learn — but it’s a very rewarding and fulfilling career.”
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.