Top grad enters career in sign language

(The following stories appeared in the October 17, 2007, editions of The News-Herald Newspapers. They were written by David Gorgon, who is a freelance writer for the News-Heald and is public information director of the City of Taylor.)

Erin Parrish’s career choice started with a babysitting assignment.

Parrish was a Taylor teen-ager when she was hired to provide occasional care for four children at the Taylor home of Michelle Martinez who accepted independent contractor assignments as a sign language interpreter.

Martinez has earned a reputation as one of the state’s top interpreters. She has worked around the state, even sharing the stage with President Bill Clinton during his 1996 visit to Taylor’s Department of Public Works.

Martinez learned how to sign when she was very young. Both of her parents, Judi and William McCoy Sr., were deaf and she learned to sign to communicate with them. In fact, her father is a past member of the Michigan Commission on Handicapper Concerns and a past president of the Michigan Deaf Association.

Martinez has since taught all of her children to sign “in everyday vocabulary.”

“American sign language is my native language,” Martinez said. “I could sign before I could talk.”

Parrish was curious and, during casual conversation, Martinez explained sign language, taught her some basic words and even talked about the career opportunities that came with it.

During her days at St. Alfred Catholic School and Harry S Truman High School, Parrish considered becoming a teacher or veterinarian. As a graduation present, Martinez gave Parrish a book bag embroidered with her name spelled out in sigh language.

Parrish spent a year of uncertainty at Wayne State University and then transferred to Madonna University in Livonia, where she majored in sign language studies and interpreting. She said Madonna is the only Michigan college that offers a four-year bachelor’s degree in sign language.

“Once I was there, I was fascinated,” Parrish said. “I fell in love with it.”

With continued support from Martinez, Parrish excelled.

“Erin has such a curiosity about everything that she asked probing questions,” Martinez said. “She cared about what I had to say and I fed off of her interest. Anything she asked, I was more than happy to share. She has met my parents on occasion, signed with my kids, signed with my family. I knew she would be fantastic at it.

“But to be honest, the reason Erin does so well is a credit to her. Learning sign language depends on what you invest. Erin invests almost all of herself into this. She sought out every opportunity to interact with the deaf community and American sign language and to understand the deaf culture. She went beyond the classroom and participated in numerous volunteer activities. She helped deaf kids with the Deaf Community Advocacy Network.”

Last June, Parrish graduated with the university’s Ernest Nolan Award for distinguished achievement in arts and humanities. The honor is named for Nolan, the former dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and currently a Madonna vice president. Parrish was selected for the award by her sign language teachers.

“Erin was clearly the outstanding person who got that award,” said Madonna teacher Rebecca Shriner. “This is a girl who is in control of her own destiny. She makes things happen for herself. We’re so proud of her.”

Parrish was the first student in her graduating class to get her state license in sign language. She’s been working in her field of study ever since. Shriner thinks so much of Parrish and her ability that she hires her to interpret for deaf students at the university.

“She’s a real dynamic gal,” Shriner said. “She’s a very experienced and mature person. Those are really essential qualities for an interpreter. It’s not just what they can produce on their hands. It’s their people skills. She has all of that going for her.”

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Parrish said. “I graduated and still love the field I’m in.”

Parrish, who is the daughter of Shirley and Kim Parrish, will go after her national certification next. State and national certification involve a challenging written test and a sign language demonstration.

In the meantime, she has worked for area agencies and has even taken the big stage, like her mentor, Martinez. She signed The National Anthem during the opening ceremonies of the Junior League World Series at Heritage Park in Taylor.

“The thing that really attracted me to the field is that it’s something new every day,” Parrish said. “I walk into one assignment and it’s completely different than the one I just left. I can be at a baby shower one day and be at a dentist office the next two hours. Everything is different. I’m meeting new people. I like the variety.”

Martinez is proud of her protégé.

“I think that Erin is very talented and has the ability to go very far in this profession,” Martinez said. “She has the skill and level of professionalism that will do service for everyone she encounters.”

Demand for interpreters is growing

A June 2007 press release from Governor Jennifer Granholm’s office indicated that about 1.4 million Michigan residents are deaf or hard of hearing. While not all of them use sign language, there is a need for more sign language interpreters in Michigan.

Currently, there are about 530 state or nationally certified interpreters in Michigan. According to the 2006 study “Supply & Demand for Interpreters for the Deaf in Michigan,” the demand for interpreters will grow over the next 25 years and it will take 15 to 20 years to close the gap between supply and demand.

“Michigan has a very high deaf population. For some reason, we don’t have a high interpretation population,” said Rebecca Shriner, who teaches sign language at Madonna University and serves as an interpreter. “The supply and demand ratio is all skewed here. Lots of area agencies are looking for interpreters. There just aren’t enough.”

She said interpreters are used in hospitals, schools, courts and many other public and private places.

To meet the demand, interpreters will need to be better educated, possess more specialized skills and be required to meet more stringent certification criteria. The “Supply & Demand” study found that 30 percent of interpreters in Michigan are not certified.

In June, Gov. Granholm signed legislation that requires the use of qualified sign language interpreters who possess state or national certification in all accommodations required under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“We’re ending the confusion, frustration and errors that are so often experienced by the deaf and hard of hearing in important life situations due to misinterpreted information,” Granholm said. “Equal access to accurate communication is a basic civil right of us all.”

Taylor resident Michelle Martinez, who holds certificates of interpretation and transliteration, is an advocate for the rights of hearing impaired and the need for additional interpreters.

To those who may be interested in becoming a sign language interpreter, Martinez recommended several Web sites to explore about career opportunities: