Bridging Two Worlds: A Day in The Life of an ASL Interpreter

Joelle Drown

Joelle Drown, an American Sign Language interpreter for UNC’s Disability Support Services, chats with a student between classes in Ross Hall. Photo by Christina Romero

Editor’s Note: This "day in the life" account is one of several written for a class assignment by Journalism and Mass Communications majors in UNC’s School of Communication, which will celebrate Academic Excellence Week by hosting its annual Communication Jubilee.

Figuring out what Joelle Drown was saying with her hands during Thursday’s chemistry lecture was as confusing as that day’s topic about quantum mechanics.

"Sometimes professors talk so fast I can barely keep up," Drown said while moving her hands rapidly.

She stopped suddenly and blew the invisible smoke off her metaphorically flaming hands.

Drown is an American Sign Language interpreter for the University of Northern Colorado’s Disability Support Services. She bridges the hearing and non-hearing worlds through the art of sign language. She was inspired to learn sign language when she was 13 years old because her younger sister was born deaf.

9:11 a.m. Feb. 11 in Ross Hall Room 1010 – Chemistry 103
Drown, her ASL partner Lynn Rose and their student enter the brightly lit room and sit in the front row in the three seats furthest to the right in the room. Drown pulls up a chair, sits down and crosses her left leg over her right. The lights dim and the show begins.

Drown’s hands are acrobats against the silhouette of her black shirt. Her fingers flip and bend, drop and rise. While signing, her lips move but no words are voiced. According to Drown, the dramatic facial expressions contribute to the grammar of sign language by providing prosody to the language, which is the stress and intonation of language accompanied by the emotional state of the speaker.

After 25 minutes, she switches seats with Rose and starts to write in a black spiral notebook. She reads the feedback Rose provided about how to sign with more clarity.

Another 25 minutes later, Drown takes the stage. She signs for her student for the last 15 minutes of class, building to the climax of the lecture: quiz time. The lights brighten and the show is over.

10:57 a.m. Walking to Michener Library
Equipped with only a multicolored purse, black spiral notebook, a reading book and her cell phone, Drown walks to the library for her next mission.

Drown signs for students of various degree-pursuing backgrounds, but this semester she is signed up for biology, chemistry, physiology and special education classes.

"I am a vessel of useless knowledge," Drown says with a giggle. "When I talk to my dad, I am always sharing stuff I learned while interpreting."

11:30 a.m. Michener Library – Group Meeting
Like an actress, Drown takes on the personality of the student she is voicing for. She begins to speak in a more casual, deeper voice, ending every sentence with the word "cool." Today she is playing the role of a male junior secondary education major.

"It’s kind of funny when you are signing for a big guy and the people you are speaking to hear a girl’s voice," Drown said.

During the meeting, all eyes are glued on the student while Drown signs, but they continue to look at the student even while she voices for him.

"It’s supposed to be like the interpreter isn’t even there," Drown said about the etiquette for communicating with a deaf person.

12:17 p.m. University Center – Lunch
Interpreters give a new meaning to talking with your mouth full.

According to Drown, meal times are filled with bouncing between English and sign language.

But Drown doesn’t restrict herself to using sign language with only interpreters or her students. She instinctively uses ASL as her non-verbal gestures while talking to people who do not use sign language.

1:02 p.m. Ross Hall Room 2335 – Biology 246
Drown blends into the background like the microscopes on the shelves in the biology lab. Her student can hear and speak for herself, leaving Drown waiting to be taken off the shelf for use when the student needs instructions to be clarified.

She doesn’t mind the alone time. It’s easier than adapting to awkward situations.

"Sometimes you have to sign things you aren’t comfortable signing," Drown said about a past biology class as she models her hands, one on top of the other, like they are grasping a soda can (the sign for the male reproductive organ). "I feel like people know what I am signing. It’s embarrassing."

3:30 p.m. Parking Lot Outside of Ross – Heading Home
Her heels click-clack across the pavement of the parking lot as Drown heads to her car. She doesn’t have an office at the Disability Support Services, so she’ll log her hours when she gets home.

Drown says she enjoys interpreting but would like to help individuals with disabilities in other ways. She wants to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and her master’s in vocational rehab so she can get her program, Discover Your Dance, off the ground. The program helps individuals with disabilities find their educational and/or career paths in life.

- Christina Romero