Employee Q&A: Sign Language Interpreter Heather Ewing

Employee Q&A: Sign Language Interpreter Heather Ewing

By Alexis BlueUniversity Communications
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Heather Ewing does sign language interpreting for UA classes, performances, tours, lectures and more.
Heather Ewing does sign language interpreting for UA classes, performances, tours, lectures and more.

Heather Ewing

Interpreter, Disability Resource Center

Number of years at the UA

Favorite thing about working at the UA
"It's just a huge community. I love it, I really do. There's always so much going on on campus. It's just interesting; you can sit on the Mall for lunch and just people watch. It's never boring."


Before beginning her career as a sign language interpreter, Heather Ewing dabbled in a bit of everything – film developing, cake decorating, landscaping, nursing assistant work. She was working as a waitress when a friend and former professor suggested she take an exam to become a certified sign language interpreter. Ewing had fallen in love with American Sign Language after taking her first class in the subject at Pima Community College when she was 18, and she had continued to study it. Following her professor's advice, she took the certification exam and began working as an interpreter at the K-12 level.

Today, Ewing, who received her bachelor's degree in deaf studies from The University of Arizona in 2006, works with UA students, employees and visitors, providing translation services for University classes, performances, campus tours, lectures and more, both on and off campus.

Lo Que Pasa sat down with Ewing, one of five staff interpreters for the UA's Disability Resource Center, to talk about her work with the UA's hearing impaired community.

Why were you interested in learning sign language?
I had met some deaf children when I was a child and one of my mother's friends was hard of hearing. I knew a little boy when I went to day care who was deaf and they didn't have any services – that was in the '70s – and so I used to stand with him when it was time to eat. I would take his hand and we would go eat together and I was pretty much kind of his buddy. I was probably maybe 6 or 7 years old. ... The first time I took it (sign language) I just really fell in love with it. I took it when I was 18. I had taken Spanish for so long and never really did very well at Spanish, so I took sign language and the first semester I just loved it.

How difficult was it for you to learn the language?
I think it's like any other language. It depends on your motivation; it depends on how much you actually socialize within that community. And I think my problem with Spanish is that I had one friend that I practiced with that was Hispanic, but with sign language I had several deaf friends and so I picked it up faster. I also worked at the state School for the Deaf and Blind as a nursing assistant on Sundays for a while, and that was when I was taking sign language classes so I got a lot of practice there.

Do you ever find yourself in a class that's dealing with technical words or concepts you're not sure how to translate?
Definitely. We always have challenging courses and we do a lot of prep work. A lot of the times we will ask the professors to add us to their D2L Web site so that we have access to the material, and we'll talk with one another. If it's a field that I just completely don't have any experience in, I would probably turn down that job and try to find another interpreter who has a background in that subject. But we do find ourselves in situations where we're in classes that we don't really have a very good background on, and that's why we work in teams. A lot of times, if we have a job that's more than an hour we'll work in a team, and so we'll have 20 minutes apiece and we'll trade off.  So the "on" interpreter is actually interpreting, and your team can feed you information if you're missing something or if you're wrong on the concept. They did some research a while ago and it said that after 20 minutes is when you start making more miscues, so working in teams helps a lot.

What about professors who talk really fast? Is that hard to handle?
Different people have different likes. So some interpreters might like a professor that has more of a slow-paced speaking style. I tend to like professors who speak quickly, but at times they can get ahead of you and then you can just ask them to repeat themselves. But most times we're able to keep up and we're very accustomed to different people's speaking styles.

Do you learn anything from the classes you interpret for?
You know, we always have that debate because people ask us that all the time. You do pick up a little bit, but it really depends if you're interested in that topic. If it's something you're really interested in, you're probably going to remember it more than if you're just there to work and the topic isn't that interesting; then when you leave you kind of forget what you've interpreted.

Do you have a favorite subject to interpret?
I really love sciences. And the arts.

What do you like best about your job?
It's always different. Every semester and every four years you have a new set of people that you're working with; you have new fields that you're working in. You can never predict what people are going to say, so that makes it interesting. It's never monotonous.

Do you have deaf friends in your personal life?
I do. I have partner who's deaf and deaf friends.

Do your hands get tired from signing?
Yeah, your hands and your mind. I just had a massage, the first one in like five months, and it would be nice if we could get massages more often because we hold a lot of tension in our neck and we get a lot of problems with (things) like carpal tunnel. I've been having problems with tendonitis in my fingers, so you have to take care of yourself.

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