Rita Lee Wedgeworth has over 20 years experience in interpreting for the deaf and she is widely known and respected in the deaf and hard of hearing community. When I first met Rita Lee Wedgeworth, she was one of the top interpreters I’ve had back in high school. At the time, sign language wasn’t something that I appreciated until I entered college. It was then that made me realize how easy it was for me understand sign language in a diverse culture. Rita and other interpreters had not only unconsciously taught me the art of language, but enabled me to be perceptive in abstract ways. It was one of the factors that made me appreciate having an interpreter like Rita. I’ve asked Rita to participate Houston Deaf Network Spotlight and she was gladly to participate. Here is the interview.
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview out of your busy schedule. Give us a brief description of your background.
I was born and raised here in Houston until around 4th grade then moved to Baytown. I attended and graduated from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) in San Marcos. My degree has absolutely nothing to do with interpreting or Deafness, but I’ve always been told what’s important is that I have a degree….smile. I’ve lived and worked in San Marcos, Austin and Dallas, but have always ended up back in my hometown, the big H-town!
What or how did you decide to become an interpreter?
My mother was also an interpreter so I guess I just followed in her footsteps. I worked in my field of study, Interior Design, for a very short time and knew that wasn’t the career for me. My grandparents were Deaf, (mother’s parents) and I remember the exact moment I knew that interpreting was the career for me. My grandmother had heart surgery and sadly, didn’t come out of it alive. I knew at that time that I did have a skill, because of my grandparents, which I needed to use. For me, what I do for a living is like a tribute to them.
How long have you been interpreting, where did you learn, and what level/certifications do you have?
As I stated before, my grandparents were Deaf and growing up, we lived right across the street from them. My parents both worked so my brothers and I would stay with my grandmother before we started school. I don’t really remember learning sign language. And honestly, I don’t know how long I’ve been interpreting! I can remember interpreting for my grandmother and her neighbor over the fence in the backyard when I was about 5. The first time I interpreted for an “audience” was in church when I was 12 years old. My mother would interpret the sermon and I would interpret the songs. Those poor Deaf folks! Haha I first received my Board for Evaluation of Interpreters (BEI) Level I certification when I was 18. Currently, I’m a BEI Level IV and am Texas Court Certified. I’m still trying to get my nerves up to take the new Texas certification test….haha. And I’m also preparing to take the National Interpreter Certification (NIC) test.
Have you ever experience the life of “Deaf Culture”? If so, how would you describe your initial experience?
Yes, I have been very blessed to have experienced lots of “Deaf Culture” through my grandparents. I love the Deaf community and feel very much at home with them. Growing up at First Baptist Church when they were still downtown and then over on 610 and I-10 (before it was Woodhaven) and at Houston Association of the Deaf (HAD) in the old building on Boundary St., was such a rich experience for me! I’m not a Children of Deaf Adult (CODA), nor do I believe ASL is my first language, but I know I have unique experiences that many interpreters don’t have. One funny story I have is that growing up, many of my friends would say how weird it was to have Deaf grandparents. I did also have a hearing grandmother on my father’s side but I thought it was “normal” to have one Deaf grandma/grandpa and one hearing one. I thought it was my friends who were the weird ones, not having a Deaf grandmother, not me!
Do you think interpreters should learn “Deaf Culture”, if so why or what would they miss if they don’t learn it?
I definitely think ALL interpreters should learn “Deaf Culture.” As all Interpreter Training Program (ITP) students have heard in their programs, the best way to learn ASL and the Deaf community is to become immersed in it. Students are so fortunate to have the Deaf socials at their disposal nowadays. You can only learn so much out of a book or a class. What better way to learn and become a part of the community than from those who are in the community??
When interpreting for someone, what challenges do you often face?
I think the biggest challenge I face personally, is interpreting for individuals who are from different areas of the country and the differences that there may be in our signs. Interpreters who work in Video Relay settings, experience this more often than out in the local community. The challenge is then compounded when you have a consumer who doesn’t have much patience when asking for clarification. Of course, this is pretty rare but it does happen. This also happened quite a bit after Hurricane Katrina and we had so many Deaf evacuees from Louisiana who have a different “dialect” of signing than we have.
In your work experience, what or any particular areas would you like to see improved on?
The ever-continuing issue of public entities not providing interpreters is an issue I wish we never had to face again! I have to admit it’s getting a bit better but come on! The Americans with Disabilities Act, (a Federal Law!!), was passed 19 years ago!! Can we all get on the same page people??? Okay, enough said…..
Have you ever interpreted for someone who doesn’t understand language very well? If so, how did you overcome the situation?
Yes, I have had several experiences where the consumer didn’t understand language very well. Luckily, we have CDI’s, Certified Deaf Interpreters. I know there are interpreters out there who are opposed to using CDI’s because they think it is a reflection of their interpreting skills. Almost like, if they use a CDI, it’s saying their skills are not good enough to facilitate communication. I’m not too proud or embarrassed to say that I love assignments where I can use a CDI. I am assured that my Deaf client is getting, not only my services but services from a person who is proficient in the language, culture and linguistics of their own community and personal experiences.
You’ve mentioned CDI, do you support CDI?
I love working with CDI’s! My hope is that in the very near future we can educate the community that CDI’s are such a necessity in so many situations that they will be more willing to pay for hearing and deaf interpreter teams. Currently, we mostly use CDI’s in legal settings however, there are not near enough Court Certified CDI’s in our area. (hint, hint)
I recently learned that you’re the Vice President for CAAG, President of State Interpreting Organization (Texas Society of Interpreters for the Deaf) and involved with Shared Reading Program, how do you balance being a mom, life, and work?
I have the luxury of having the BEST business partners a person could ask for!! And of course, the best husband and family! At work, my partners/co-workers are the best and most supportive individuals, that I can, at times, get some Texas Society of Interpreters for the Deaf (TSID) business taken care of during working hours. Unfortunately, we don’t have our Shared Reading Program up and running yet, but hoping to have a pilot project ready for the spring. At home, my husband and daughters know how incredibly important my business, the Deaf community and my leadership role in our state organization are to me. My husband doesn’t know much sign language yet (we’re working on that!) but he really does “get it” that my work is such an integral part of who I am because of my family, he’s so very supportive of what I do. I couldn’t have asked for more! As for TSID, our Board is so incredibly competent that it makes my job almost effortless.
What do you envision for the deaf or interpreter community in Houston?
I love seeing the two communities work and socialize together. Ultimately, we all have the same goal as our end result. A better communication experience for all involved out in the community, which includes the hearing person, Deaf person and Interpreter. Interpreters improve their skills by being around Deaf people, socially or professionally, and Deaf people feel a more trusting bond with Interpreters when that connection is there. On a state level, TSID and Texas Association of the Deaf (TAD) are communicating about whether our two organizations can co-convene our conferences. This has been really exciting and whether it happens or not, I feel that it’s definitely a step in the right direction for both of our groups. This could so happen on a local level as well.
Has the interpreting industry experienced shortage in qualified interpreters for field work now with the immersion of the Video Relay Service (VRS) industry which has been providing opportunities for qualified interpreters?
VRS work is a funny thing. Every community that has a VRS call center experiences a lot of shortage of community interpreters at the beginning. Especially when there is more than one VRS provider in the same city. However, once the interpreters begin working in the call centers, after a while they tend to get their fill of VRS work, start to feel somewhat burned out and get back to doing more community work. Additionally, I’ve noticed the areas that have one or more call centers tend to attract more out of town interpreters who are looking for work and are willing to move. So then what happens is we are able to “refill” our interpreter pools and have the opposite of what we experienced at the opening of VRS call centers. Kinda weird, huh??
Any advice for deaf and/or interpreters?
I think that with such great advances in technology these days, there are so many opportunities for the Deaf and Interpreting communities to “take advantage of each other.” I know that expression sounds so negative but what I mean is that we need to embrace each other because each group has such a wealth of information that we can learn from each other! Back when my grandparents were young, there was no such thing as a Video Phone (VP), TV captioning, internet, two-way communication devices, VRI, VRS, etc….. We are so fortunate to have what we have now! Let’s use them all in ways that will nurture and benefit both communities. For ITP Students, trudge on! It gets better, I promise! It’s so exciting to see all the new generations of interpreters coming out of the colleges! Deaf community, have patience with newbie interpreters, they’re a bit intimidated around you! CODA’s, PLEASE consider an interpreting career! You have innate abilities and so much to offer both communities! All be good to each other! Peace out!
PS. Much, much thanks to the Deaf Community because without you, I wouldn’t be who I am today!!
Thank you, Rita, for taking the time to answer the questions for us. We are certainly pleased to know you are here to support deaf community. We definitely couldn’t have done it without your help. For more information about Rita Lee, feel free to use our comment section or visit her business website at CAAG.