How to Become an ASL Interpreter

TROY's Interpreter Training program provides the knowledge, skills and experience to pursue a career in interpreting between users of English and ASL.

TROY's Interpreter Training program provides the knowledge, skills and experience to pursue a career in interpreting between users of English and ASL.

If you have a deep appreciation for American Sign Language (ASL) and are thinking about becoming an ASL/English interpreter, the best way is to pursue a degree through ASL interpreter programs like the one at Troy University, according to Judy Robertson, Director of the TROY Interpreter Training Program (ITP).

Robertson grew up as a child of deaf adults (CODA) and worked as an ASL interpreter with a National Interpreter Certification (NIC) through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). But it wasn’t until she received a more formal ASL education that she came to understand the value of effective communication. 

“I was able to talk and communicate, but I never knew how to label what I was doing,” says Robertson, who started at TROY as an ITP lecturer in 2012 and became ITP Director in 2013. “For example, I didn’t realize that a particular handshape was called a classifier, or that you present adverbial information on your face.”

ASL Interpreter Programs Help You Gain Language Fluency

Robertson first took ASL classes “just for fun” at TROY while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in business, which she received in 2003. Once she decided to work in the ASL field, she went on to earn a master’s degree in interpreter pedagogy in 2010 at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. 

She says she “had no business” taking on ASL interpreter jobs with only her NIC certification. Her master’s program taught her the ethics and subtleties of interpreting in various situations. It’s why she implores her students — even those who are a CODA or who are otherwise immersed in the Deaf community — to major in the field.

“Interpreting requires fluency in a language,” Robertson explains. “Research shows fluency takes seven years. Even with a bachelor’s degree, you’re condensing that time to four years. It’s impossible to achieve fluency with even less than that.”

And achieving fluency is important, she stresses. “We’re working with a language and a community that deserves our time, our commitment and our willingness to learn and appreciate their language in order to provide an effective service for that community. Communication is vital and important to everyone. If you don’t believe that, spend a day being unable to communicate.”

Types of ASL Interpreter Jobs

ASL/English interpreter programs like TROY’s Bachelor of Science in Interpreter Training prepare you to work as an interpreter in educational settings, healthcare facilities, religious institutions, business and corporate settings, entertainment venues and government agencies. As for the latter, Elsie Stecker, who is completely deaf, made history in March 2022 when she became the first official full-time White House ASL interpreter. In the entertainment world, ASL interpreter Justina Miles, who is hard of hearing, went viral for her spirited interpretation of Rihanna’s halftime show during Super Bowl LV11 in 2023. 

Shelly Brady, who graduated from TROY ITP in 2014, has worked in public schools and community settings. Brady is currently a sign language interpreter for Dothan City Schools.

“I facilitate communication between deaf students and their teachers, peers and other service providers,” she explains. “I also provide one-on-one assistance, if needed, as well as provide faculty and staff with resources to help the deaf student.”

As an ASL/English interpreter, she is a language model for young deaf students and those with low language skills, she adds. “It is my responsibility to know the content presented by the teacher so that it can be effectively conveyed to the student.”

Toward that goal, she begins each day early so that she can review all lesson plans for the day and be as prepared as possible to serve deaf students. She stays with students throughout the school day. 

“Whether in art class, the library, physical education or the classroom, learning opportunities abound for the deaf student,” she says. Her favorite part is working with young children, especially as they learn to communicate.

“Seeing students succeed and have great social relationships because they can communicate is the highlight of my career,” she emphasizes. “There is no better feeling than seeing excitement in a young person’s eyes when they know they get it.”

When she interprets in the community, Brady says she has a “front-row seat to experiences I would otherwise never have.” She has interpreted for a celebrity, on the sidelines at sporting events, during medical procedures and surgeries, at weddings and “so much more.”

“I enjoy meeting a variety of people and being entrusted to share their lives,” says Brady, who is also pursuing a master’s degree in educational interpreting. “The Deaf community is important to me, and I continually work to bring the best access possible.”

Adding ASL Minor Benefits Students, Deaf Community

ASL interpreter jobs can be full- or part-time positions. You can also work as a freelancer or independent contractor. No matter the setting or environment you work in, the goal is to ensure that people who are deaf and hard of hearing have equal access to information and services.

From her experience in the TROY ITP, Brady encourages prospective students to pursue their degree at TROY and then go into the field, noting that interpreters are in high demand. 

And if you are pursuing another degree at TROY, there is value to adding an ASL minor, TROY’s Robertson notes. Doing so will give you a basic understanding of the language, culture and what ASL interpreters do. By being out in the world with that knowledge, graduates who earn an ASL minor are more inclined to know when to pull in an ASL professional, whether they work in education, healthcare, social work or other fields. She points to her elderly father, who is deaf, as an example of the importance of that. 

“If my dad is at the hospital and the nurse walks in and she can use ASL to say, ‘Hi, my name is so-and-so,’ even if that is all she can say, my dad feels 50 percent more comfortable in that setting because he knows that person took enough time to care and is aware that he needs a little bit different service than you provide another person.”

Being an ASL interpreter is a rewarding career that “brings many incredible and life-changing opportunities,” Brady says. “If you have a heart to help people and want to be part of an incredible community of interpreters and the Deaf, you will not regret this career path.”

Prospective Students Surprised by ASL Interpreter Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 4% through 2032. About 7,200 openings are projected each year due to vacancies created by those who left the profession or retired. 

As for the ASL interpreter salary you can expect to make, the BLS reports the median annual wage for interpreters and translators was $53,640 in May 2022. But Robertson says the going rate for contract interpreters in schools, for example, is $90,000 annually. 

In talking with parents and prospective students, many are surprised that they can earn a good ASL interpreter salary, Robertson says. “That’s one of the biggest misconceptions about working in ASL — that you can’t make a living doing this job,” she says.

Beyond pay, being an ASL interpreter also offers flexibility and variety in your career, Robertson adds. 

“Interpreting allowed me to step into a surgery or be in a labor and delivery process, or be in a classroom or a courtroom,” she says. “I’m not in the labor and delivery room every day, but every now and then I get to have these different experiences and also work and earn money. So for me, that’s the biggest draw to it — the flexibility and variety in what you get to do every day.”

TROY ITP Builds Confidence for ASL Interpreter Jobs

Brady credits TROY for her ability to earn an ASL interpreter salary and excel in the field. 

“TROY’s ITP offers a variety of classes related to interpreting and sign language,” she says. “Professors are local as well as from around the nation, bringing a top-notch education. We learned from the best professors in the field, many of whom wrote leading books on interpreting.”

TROY ITP students have two practicums and two internships. Those experiences, Brady says, allowed her to explore ASL interpreter jobs in different settings, eventually leading her to work in education. 

“With professors who know their field, I was given the best advice, instruction and connections to ensure success,” Brady says. “From learning business etiquette to knowledge of Deaf culture to the language, I graduated feeling confident in my skills.”

Brady also benefited from the TROY Language Lab, she adds. The lab, TROY’s Robertson explains, is supported by the U.S. Department of Education and helps students achieve fluency and development of the ASL language. 

“We have computers that are available for students to do their recordings,” Robertson adds. “We have recording stations so that they can do their videos and interpret for classwork and things like that. We have a library of resources for them to use. We also have Language Lab mentors who are ASL users. Students meet with them for their classes and go over homework or just practice. The Lab is devoted to them for language development and for the students to access and use.”

 How TROY Stands Out from Other ASL Interpreter Programs

TROY’s ITP is one of the only ASL/English interpreter programs that is fully online, Robertson adds. 

“You can access our program from anywhere,” she says, adding one ITP student is in the military and stationed in Japan. She believes the TROY program has an edge over other ASL interpreter programs because TROY’s Chancellor, Dr. Jack Hawkins Jr., served as the president of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega from 1979 to 1989. 

“He has a true heart and true passion for the Interpreter Training Program,” Robertson says of Hawkins. “He has been fully supportive of our program since day one. That holds a lot of value in the sustainability of our program and ensuring that it’s going to be here for years to come.”

TROY’s First Lady Janice Hawkins has also contributed to the Deaf community, serving on the Alabama Board of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

TROY ITP students also benefit from a faculty that includes individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. You can expand your ASL skills and make connections with the Deaf community in other ways at TROY. 

“Take advantage of the ASL/ITP club, mentors and the many opportunities to be fully involved in sign language and the Deaf community,” Brady says. 

Another example is the Helen Keller Lecture Series, which began in 1995 as the vision of the TROY Chancellor and First Lady to raise awareness about the challenges faced by individuals with physical and sensory disabilities. 

How to Become an ASL Interpreter? Get Involved in Deaf Community

TROY’s four-year bachelor of science degree program is offered both online and on the Troy Campus in Troy, Alabama. Through the program, you will gain the knowledge, skills and experience to pursue a career in interpreting between users of English and American Sign Language (ASL). 

What sets the TROY ITP apart from other ASL/English interpreter programs, Robertson says, is that it immerses students in the Deaf community so they build confidence to pursue ASL interpreter jobs. 

“One of our focuses is interaction with the Deaf community,” she says. “One of the first questions that I ask an incoming student is, ‘What’s your involvement with the Deaf community? Do you even know if there’s a Deaf community in your area? How are you going to get involved in it?’ Because at the end of the day, the Deaf community is the gatekeeper. They’re going to put their stamp of approval on you or they’re not. And the only way to do that is to get into the community and interact.”

By the time students graduate from the TROY ITP, they’ve already established a relationship with the Deaf community, she adds. 

“We create safe spaces for them to interpret,” Robertson says, noting that TROY puts students in situations and environments where the deaf person present is not depending on them for critical information. Doing so gives students an “opportunity to fail and an opportunity to practice and figure out things that work for them.”

“We then provide immediate feedback on how they can do better and what to consider in the future,” she explains. “That creates reflective thinking so they can then take that skill out and work in the community.”

Robertson reminds students that when they’re in the workforce, they will often be the only ASL interpreter in their workplace. 

“You have to know your capabilities, your skills and what you can do, and be able to take that to the next level,” Robertson says. “I often tell students nobody’s going to die from your mistake today. We are not perfect. We’re going to make mistakes. How they react to those mistakes and how they fix them is what’s important.”

Learn More About ASL Interpreter Programs

For those asking how to become an ASL interpreter, Robertson says if you have the slightest interest in the field, apply to the Interpreter Training Program at TROY. Courses like American Sign Language 1 count toward your general education requirements, she notes, so nothing is lost if you don’t major in the subject. 

She also encourages those wondering how to become an ASL/English interpreter to get involved with the Deaf community in your area. 

“Know who they are, know how to reach them — find someone who is willing to communicate with you and let you practice,” she says. “Be ready to commit and be dedicated and have a heart for the community.”

It’s important not to sympathize or want to “save” those who are deaf or hard of hearing, Robertson says. Instead, she wants students who desire to be an ally to support the Deaf community in their endeavors. 

“I value a student’s willingness to be good at interpreting and to be a part of the community over their skill,” she says. “I can work with skill, but if you don’t have that heart first, the skill doesn’t matter to me.” 

Apply today to the TROY Interpreter Training Program and start on your path to a rewarding career as an ASL interpreter.

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