RICHMOND — Laurence Hayes remembers when American Sign Language interpreters like him were needed mainly to interpret conversations that involved medical or legal issues.
Now, interpreters are a vital part of various fields, Hayes says, and the demand continues to grow.
To help address the need, Eastern Kentucky University has established a Department of Sign Language and Interpreter Education, the only such program in the state. EKU officials — including Hayes, the chairman of the department — announced the creation of the department during a news conference Monday at the university.
There are only 34 public and private baccalaureate degree programs in interpreter education in the country, EKU President Doug Whitlock said.
"This is not something that you find on every campus," he said.
EKU's department will allow students selected to join the Interpreter Education Program to pursue a major in Interpreting and a minor in American Sign Language within EKU's College of Education.
The Interpreter Education Program was created in 1989 before it had its own department. More than 200 students have graduated from the program. Twenty-three students are pursuing the degree and 250 are enrolled in American Sign Language classes.
There is a huge shortage of interpreters and interpreter trainers in Kentucky, said College of Education Dean Bill Phillips. There are about 140 licensed interpreter trainers in the state, but there is a need for twice as many.
Because of the demand, there has been almost 100 percent job placement for graduates of the Interpreter Training Program, Hayes said.
Many factories, firms and other businesses need an interpreter if there is a deaf or hard of hearing employee, Hayes said. Hayes has even received a phone call for someone to interpret during a visit to the beauty salon.
EKU's interpreting students learn sign language in an immersion environment in which they are often not allowed to talk, Hayes said.
"It is a little bit shell shocking," he said.
A multimedia lab in EKU's Wallace Building helps the interpreters-in-training with their high-tech homework. Since American Sign Language is a visual language, technology is needed to help students learn, Hayes said. Students video record themselves using sign language to interpret a story. They also watch videos of people signing and write down what has been said.
Interpreters of all kinds are in increasing demand, Hayes said. By 2016, the need for interpreters will increase by 24 percent, and many of those will be American Sign Language interpreters, Hayes said.
"The field is still just scratching the surface," he said.