UP to four years ago, Antoinette Aiken never envisioned transforming her ability to use sign language into a career. She believed instead that she would become a pilot.
However, in 2008, after she was unable to complete her studies at Broward College in Florida, she returned to Jamaica and was advised by a friend that sometimes 'it's not what you choose, but what chooses you'.
It is advice that led the 24-year-old to become a sign language interpreter, working initially with the Jamaica Association for the Deaf (JAD). After two years, she branched out on her own, offering her services to "interpret lectures, discussions, announcements, conversations, meetings, events, and other spoken-word situations using the Jamaican Sign Language (JSL)".
"I also accurately interpret deaf/hard-of-hearing use of JSL, work effectively in teams with other sign language interpreters and adhere to the JAD professional code of ethics," noted Aiken, whose biological parents and stepmother are all deaf.
As a result of her parents' deafness, she learnt to utilise the valuable skill which for years allowed her to communicate with them before providing an avenue to earn a living while making a difference in the lives of members of Jamaica's deaf community.
A past student of Immaculate Conception High, Aiken said ever since she made the decision to utilise her JSL skill, she has stuck with it and continues to be motivated by her parents' pride in who she has become.
Currently a student of international relations at the University of West Indies, Aiken is anxious to become involved in politics as part of her dream to afford equal access and rights for persons with disabilities and in particular the deaf.
It is to this professional that Career & Education turns this week for insight into the work of the interpreter.
Who is a sign language interpreter?
A sign language interpreter is someone who facilitates communication for the deaf. I am a Jamaican Sign Language Interpreter, a person who facilitates sign language between a deaf Jamaican or deaf audience in Jamaica and the hearing person.
What is the value of the work that you do?
My work is priceless. As there are only a few of us in Jamaica, the demands are high.
What are the academic requirements for getting into the field?
Well, currently there is a programme at the University of the West Indies which teaches about sign language and the deaf culture. That is a start and then ongoing training needs to take place. But I believe full immersion in the deaf community and a full understanding of their culture can be an asset. A real-life situation in this case can determine the outcome of your success in this field.
What other skills and/or competencies are required for entry into the field?
Just a vast knowledge of sign language and the culture of the deaf community. After that, the work speaks for itself.
What do you most enjoy about the work that you do?
I enjoy being able to help the deaf community. As my parents are deaf, I saw the struggles they faced when it came to communication access. The struggles are still there, but I believe that things are improving, and with time, sign language will be an acknowledged profession and a respected enough profession that places such as the news [entities] will realise the importance and even simple things as having an interpreter at Parliament at all times, so access is available for all.
What are the challenges you face on the job?
The challenges I face are minimal. Sometimes because people are not knowledgeable about what a sign language interpreter does, they don't know how to use us and where to place us at a function, so you will hear things like 'where you suppose to go?' or 'how this work?' So I think sensitisation for the public is an important thing.
Trained as a sign language interpreter, what other sort of employment options are open to you?
There are not many options in Jamaica other than being a JSL interpreter. I do think that job positions should be available in every government ministry for interpreters which would [allow for] greater access and inclusion.
How much can one earn as a language interpreter each year?
A JSL interpreter can make up to $45,000 for a half a day's work, depending on the complexity of the assignment.
Why would you advise anyone to get into this line of work?
Honestly, getting into this line of work at this stage would require ultimate dedication and just letting people know who you are. As of right now, there is no law in place that speaks to communication access for all. We do, however, have the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and there is some progress with the National Disabilities Act. When that is heard in Parliament, with constant advocacy and a paradigm shift, interpreters should be needed at almost all public events. But right now, it would take a love and a passion for the field and a love and passion for the deaf community for you to give up your nine-to-five job to become a full-time interpreter.