Fall 2011 / Spring 2012

Photo: Mauricio Rubio Jr. (BA ’08)
Photo: Mauricio Rubio Jr. (BA ’08)
To prepare themselves for careers as video relay interpreters, students in Dr. Van Manen’s class use the equipment from Sorenson to interpret mock scenarios—ordering a pizza, setting up a date, and calling a store, among others—put together by Dr. Van Manen and volunteers from the Deaf community.

Can You See Me Now? Good!

A new, one-of-a-kind course in the Department of ASL – English Interpretation is taking hands-on learning to a new level—and giving students a potential advantage in the workplace.


When graduates of ASL-English Interpretation programs enter the field of interpreting for the deaf, one of the most viable and fastest-growing career paths available to them is video relay interpretation.


And in the world of higher ed ASL-English Interpretation programs across the country, only one offers a hands-on video relay interpretation course: the ASL-English Interpretation program at Columbia College Chicago.

Thanks to Dr. James Van Manen’s “2-D Interpreting: VRS and VRI” course and a recent donation of video relay service (VRS) equipment from Sorenson Communications (a VRS provider and the largest manufacturer of videophones), students studying American Sign Language (ASL) at Columbia are gaining the unique knowledge and experience that will help prepare them for work as video relay interpreters.

Here’s how VRS technology works: A hearing, deaf, or hard-of-hearing person initiates a videophone call through a VRS provider that employs an ASL interpreter. The provider then connects the caller to the person with whom he or she wants to communicate, and the ASL interpreter interprets the conversation for both the deaf and hearing callers.

By using VRS technology in the classroom in a hands-on way, as well as addressing the history of VRS interpreting, techniques, ethical situations, and FCC regulations, Dr. Van Manen’s course helps give students an advantage over their peers when competing for positions with VRS interpreting agencies after they graduate.

“Students in the class can go into a company like Sorenson and already be familiar with the equipment,” says Dr. Van Manen, an assistant professor in the Department of ASL – English Interpretation. “They’ll be able to work more efficiently, more quickly than someone who had never seen the device or used this technology.” He adds that VRS interpreting is the main area of new growth in the field of ASL interpreting because more people are employing the technology and because it’s becoming increasingly difficult for providers to find well-trained interpreters in some parts of the country.

Further, VRS is the most widely used video interpreting technology for the Deaf community, and, according to Carly Flagg, Chair of the Department of ASL-English Interpretation, “a huge population of interpreters makes a good portion of its living in VRS settings.” She adds, “So if our students didn’t have that kind of preparation, they would get out into the work force and have yet one more level of training to do before they could be viably employable.”

To prepare themselves for careers as video relay interpreters, students in Dr. Van Manen’s class use the equipment from Sorenson to interpret mock scenarios—ordering a pizza, setting up a date, and calling a store, among others—put together by Dr. Van Manen and volunteers from the Deaf community. This training involves students’ taking turns to act as the interpreter, while deaf volunteers communicate through the student interpreter to a different student or other volunteer, who in turn acts as the hearing phone call recipient.

Jenny Ortiz, a senior majoring in ASL who took the class last Spring, says she wants to find a job as a video relay interpreter in the future, and that studying and using the technology in Dr. Van Manen’s class has made her more excited about the field. “In a day you’ll get a variety of calls from all over the country, so you’ll get exposed to such a variety of different signers,” Ortiz says of the field of VRS interpreting. “In the U.S., there are also regional signs. For example, some people in California sign birthdays differently than we do in Illinois. It’s nice to be exposed to a different variety of signs. You learn so much in a day’s work in addition to interpreting out in the local community.”

While VRS interpreting isn’t the only field for graduates of the program in the Department of ASL-English Interpretation, Dr. Van Manen says he intends to keep his students informed of new technological developments in the field to prepare them for emerging career opportunities. “It’s likely that future technologies will only serve to enhance the experience for deaf people,” he says. “We as interpreters need to be ready for that ever-evolving landscape.”