She’s standing near the stage in plain sight of everyone at Commencement. She’s wearing colors that contrast with her skin tone, as dictated by her discipline’s ethical guidelines, to make her hands and face stand out even to audience members seated far away. But do you see her?
“You want to blend into the background,” she said. “You want the focus to be on the event.”
Her name is Bethany Hamm-Whitfield, and she is the American Sign Language interpreter who has been interpreting Elon University Commencement and other large public events for more than a decade. She tries as best as she can to be invisible and visible at the same time, though it’s sometimes harder than she thinks.
“We’re not as invisible as we think we are,” Hamm-Whitfield said. “A lot of people come up and are like, ‘Oh, it’s fascinating to watch you.’ And I’m like, ‘I hope you heard what they were saying, too.’"
The journey to discovering her passion and talent for interpreting began with a change in her major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and intersected Elon in 1999, where she has stayed in touch in a number of roles. Through the years, she keeps coming back to Elon, which she calls “the most accessible university that I’ve ever worked with.”
A long and short journey
Hamm-Whitfield described her path to ASL interpreting as “a long and short journey.” She was pursuing a degree in nutrition from UNCG when that career aspiration came to abrupt halt.
“I had to take my first organic chemistry class, and I was like, ‘Oh, this may not be a good fit for me,’” she said.
With a career in nutrition out of the picture, Hamm-Whitfield looked around her for inspiration — and found it. Her cousin had just given birth to a deaf daughter, and a nearby deaf school with a strong deaf education program sent several graduates to UNCG, where Hamm-Whitfield encountered in-class interpreters for the first time.
Then, at the same time she was interacting with the deaf community more than she had before, UNCG launched a deaf education program. The switch in her major finally made sense, and in a few years, Hamm-Whitfield earned her Bachelor of Science degree in the Education of the Deaf with a concentration in Educational Interpreting.
Once she entered the job world, she encountered a host of other hurdles to leap before she could begin practicing.
To enter the North Carolina job market as an interpreter a four-year degree isn’t enough, though it is a requirement. Interpreters in North Carolina are licensed through the Registry for Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) exam, called the NIC (National Interpreter Certification) Knowledge Exam, a national exam administered on the state level. If a graduate of a four-year degree program sits for and passes the NIC exam, the state can issue a license to allow the interpreter to work independently.
According to the RID website, the NIC Certificate guarantees the interpreters who earned it have “demonstrated general knowledge in the field of interpreting, ethical decision making and interpreting skills … necessary to perform in a broad range of interpretation and transliteration assignments.” The RID has been issuing certificates since 2005, just a few years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.
As Hamm-Whitfield explained, the ADA changed the landscape of the United States, and not just by requiring the installation of wheelchair ramps on the outside of public buildings.
“Hospitals and schools and businesses are required to provide accessibility,” she said. “They’re required to provide wheelchair ramps, things in Braille and also sign language interpreters. So whenever anybody goes to the hospital or goes to take a class at the community college, that place is actually forced to provide interpreters and provide accessibility for that population.”
The passage of the ADA introduced the need for a way to standardize the way interpreters get certified, which the RID developed. Though the process may take longer, Hamm-Whitfield said she thinks it helps the deaf community.
“Used to be, your mom would interpret for you at the doctor,” Hamm-Whitfield said. “Can you imagine that? Having to rely on your mom to interpret this weird stuff that’s happening at the doctor’s office? So now, we’re licensed through the state of North Carolina.”
Finding the Phoenix
After her graduation from UNCG, Hamm-Whitfield knew she didn’t feel ready to sit for the NIC exam yet. So she did some interpreting for a public school system in Guilford County until 1999, when the deaf student she had been paired with graduated. She was then faced with another career decision to make.
“I was like, ‘What am I gonna do now?’” Hamm-Whitfield said. “They called me and said, ‘Hey, we have this great opportunity, there’s a kindergartener that needs an interpreter.” And I’m like, ‘All the way from senior of high school, going back to work with a kindergartener? I don’t think I can do that.’”
In another defining moment in her life, an opportunity arose that she couldn’t overlook: Elon admitted its first deaf student ever.
“They called me to come for an interview, and I think we all fell in love with each other,” she said. “I really love the campus, I love the teachers, my student and I got along really well.”
Making the switch to a university setting could have been a painful one, but Hamm-Whitfield said she couldn’t have wished for a more supportive and accessible environment at Elon.
She said that when she was interpreting for the deaf student during classes, professors always provided her with the books before the semester even started so she could read through the material she would have to relay to the student.
Interpreting, she explained, is different from just translating, so it meant a lot when professors reached out to make sure she had everything she needed.
“Several of the teachers [and I] would go out for lunch, and [I would] be like, ‘OK, when you say “mitosis,” what does that mean?’ Because I forget a lot of my high school science,” Hamm-Whitfield said. “You have to understand the concept before you can really interpret it clearly.”
To accommodate her, especially in subjects she had no experience in, professors also sent her lecture notes and materials. The university even gave her her own office.
“For me, it’s been the most accessible place I’ve ever worked, to have that prep time, those materials, to have the teachers be excited about having me in the classroom,” Hamm-Whitfield said. “I wasn’t a hindrance, I was an asset.”
She also felt like an asset outside the classroom, especially as the university’s mindset changed. With a deaf student enrolled, Hamm-Whitfield said, Elon saw a need to make big events more accessible.
Associate Director of Cultural and Special Programs Patti Gibbons explained the change in Elon’s mindset with regard to disability services in the past decade or so.
In the 10 graduations she has been involved in planning, she said, the university at first just extended the invitation to students to ask if they needed an ASL interpreter or any other disability service, such as a Spanish interpreter. But then the process changed.
“At first it was upon request, but about three years ago we decided we were gonna go with an automatic presence at graduation,” she said. “So while we do a little bit more in terms of inviting students to let us know if they need to have those services, we just plan to have it anyway.”
Gibbons said the decision to provide ASL interpreting automatically has been a good move for Elon.
“[Hamm-Whitfield] can tell, I think, as she works, that there may be people who haven’t requested the service that benefit from it,” she said.
Hamm-Whitfield definitely sees the benefit of automatically providing interpreting services.
“They might have deaf parents or deaf family members that might want to come to things like graduation or baccalaureate or other teacher meetings,” she said. “So when that student was here, they started making all their events accessible, and they are the most accessible university that I’ve ever worked with. I mean, they are phenomenal.”