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Signing sisters interpret for Illinois State’s deaf community

Maggie Snell interprets

Maggie Snell, an interpreter for Disability Concerns, at winter commencement in December 2013.

Maggie Snell and Katie Waltz spend every day serving students who require sign language interpreters. These signing sisters are charged with ensuring that students with hearing loss don’t miss a word in the classroom.

Snell and Waltz began learning to sign as children. Though there was no deafness or hearing loss in their family, their mother taught the girls the manual alphabet.

“When I was very young I was with mom at the grocery store, and I saw two people signing to each other in line, and I was fascinated from that point,” Waltz said.

“Our mother was a teacher,” Snell said. “When we were young, she taught us the alphabet. We spelled everything to each other. We thought it was pretty cool. We would get into trouble at school signing to each other across the classroom. They separated us, but we were still able to sign to each other.”

The two continued to sign to each other throughout school and enhanced their knowledge through summer classes. Eventually they enrolled in the Interpreter Preparation Program at Illinois Central College (ICC), Waltz first and Snell a year later. The program was intense and required many hours in and out of the classroom.

Students in the program were immersed from day one in a classroom that was taught by a deaf instructor. In a reversal of roles an Interpreter would voice everything the professor signed. But the Interpreter was gone after that first day. Students then had to rely on the professor’s signing and an overhead projector that accompanied the lesson. In time they even lost the projector.

Katie Waltz interprets

Katie Waltz, above, and her sister spend every day serving students who require sign language interpreters.

The immersion didn’t stop in the classroom. Students would frequently socialize with the deaf to learn to more naturally interact with the population. Silent suppers took place once a week and saw the sisters seated with a table of 10–20 deaf individuals. Snell and Waltz would fingerspell words they didn’t know, and the deaf individuals would patiently teach the proper sign for each word.

“Socializing with the deaf was huge. If you didn’t do that, you could not truly learn their language,” Waltz said.

Unique challenges on campus

Today Snell and Waltz serve the students of Illinois State as staff interpreters in Disability Concerns, a unit in the Division of Student Affairs. Their positions see them setting up services for students, coordinating workshops for the other Interpreters, and interpreting in the classroom and at campus events.

To prepare for events, interpreters try to obtain a script in advance so they can practice the dialog or at least read through the content so they know how the program will flow. Any event lasting two hours or more requires a minimum of two interpreters, as concentrating and signing for long periods of time can become waring. In these situations, interpreters will switch off every 10–20 minutes, giving their minds and hands a chance to rest.

While the average class period requires only one interpreter, it does require more on-the-spot thinking—especially in cases where academic terminology is not established. In these cases they fingerspell the word or establish a sign to use when interacting with that student, but only in that class.

“It can be very intense,” Snell said. “It is not easy. It is very humbling. You never stop learning.”

Another challenge the interpreters face is that not all words can be translated verbatim, and interpreters must focus on translating the concept. Snell gives the example of the word “run.” You could run for president, have a runny nose, or go for a run. There are more than 100 signs for the English term “run.” Translating word for word could cause confusion.

“It’s not just signing word for word, Waltz said. “You have to get the concept and choose the correct sign for that particular vocabulary.”

Their task can seem daunting. Consider that along with the aforementioned situations that the interpreters must also deal with varying accents, speaking speeds and volumes, level of education in signing, and even changing grammatical structure for language differences.

“Although we are humbled in this profession, it is still rewarding,” Snell said.

Steven Barcus can be reached at