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Lack of sign language interpreters a problem for northern Nevada's deaf community

 Andrea Juillerat-Olvera (from left) and Michael Daviton interact with students taking American Sign Language 4, on March 13, 2024, in Reno, Nev.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Andrea Juillerat-Olvera (from left) and Michael Daviton interact with students taking American Sign Language 4, on March 13, 2024, in Reno, Nev.

A local interpreter is leading the first American Sign Language (ASL) minor at UNR, one of many efforts needed to address the lack of ASL interpreters in the area.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Andrea Juillerat-Olvera taught an American Sign Language class at Nevada Living Learning Community at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).

Next to her was Michael Daviton, that week's special guest. Both communicated through sign language. Using hand gestures and facial expressions, Juillerat-Olvera interpreted while Daviton shared his experience as a person who was born deaf.

About 25 students paid close attention and practiced sign language by asking questions.

Students in the American Sign Language 4 class usually take it to complete their foreign language requirement, but now they have the opportunity to learn more.

“I created a minor in American Sign Language. And so they will continue on to level five, they will take the Linguistics of ASL, they will take deaf culture, deaf history, advanced conversation, and they will do a small internship service learning course before they complete their minor,” Juillerat-Olvera said.

The minor provides students with the ability to conceptualize language in a different, non-verbal way, and to understand the unique circumstances of the deaf community, Juillerat-Olvera said.

She had the idea in 2016, but it wasn't until 2023 that she could officially launch the program.

“I just said, ‘Look, I have this plan for a program for sign language, what do you think?’ And they looked it over and they said, ‘Yeah, that looks good. Why don't you start with a minor?’ So I was like, great. So then began my journey of pushing the minor through the institution, and it was lengthy,” Juillerat-Olvera said.

Andrea Juillerat-Olvera on March 22, 2024 in Reno, Nev.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Andrea Juillerat-Olvera on March 22, 2024 in Reno, Nev.

Daviton is one of 500,000 to 2 million people in the U.S. who say that ASL is their native language, according to research conducted by Gallaudet University.

Daviton was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Bay Area. In 1981, he moved to Reno-Sparks for work.

During those years, Reno had a very small deaf community, Daviton said. They were friendly and got together a lot, but people started to be jealous of each other, he said.

“That was kind of sad. So now I don't really see any deaf people now. They've hidden themselves away. They're not close anymore. Not like in the old times. I heard that there's 500 deaf people living in this area, but I don't see them. I maybe see maybe 20, 25 of the deaf people that I know well, that I hang out with but where the others are, I don't know, they are hidden away,” Daviton said, through Juillerat-Olivera, who interpreted for him.

Another issue is the lack of interpreters in the area, he said.

“When I go to other cities like Riverside or Rochester. It's wonderful. We have interpreters available 24/7 at the hospital. There's no problem with getting interpreters anywhere you need them. But here in Reno, it's kind of tough,” Daviton said.

There's a lot of frustration because of the lack of interpreters, especially with doctors, he said.

“I had to take my wife to the ER for her stroke and also at the same time, my mother fell and broke her hip and we couldn't get an interpreter until the next day. Now everyone's relying on VRI, which is video remote interpreting, where they bring you an iPad. And it's very difficult to communicate through an iPad when you're in a lot of pain or you've had some kind of trauma,” Daviton said.

He would also like to have access to local events and performances, but there are no interpreters to give them access to art and culture, he said.

But why is there a lack of interpreters in Reno-Sparks? Daviton thinks it’s because there’s not a solid enough deaf culture or it’s simply not a priority.

“I think interpreters need good money to support their lives and maybe there's not a solid enough deaf community here for them to get full time jobs. I know about 30 to 40 interpreters here right now, but most of them work with the children in the school district. So they're focused on working in education, not out in the public and that's where we need them. We need them in the hospitals or to enjoy different kinds of cultural events,” he said.

Michael Daviton on March 13, 2024, in Reno Nev.
Zoe Malen
KUNR Public Radio
Michael Daviton on March 13, 2024, in Reno Nev.

There are currently 42 registered ASL interpreters in northern Nevada. And while that may seem like a big number, it is important to note that there are two distinct categories of registration for interpreters: community and K-12 educational.

Interpreters may choose to accept part-time jobs in the community or work full-time in an educational setting.

In an email, Kim Johnson and Jennifer Montoya, both local interpreters who work for the state, shared some of the struggles.

Johnson said being an interpreter here is not an option for her because she is not able to support herself financially. The number of qualified interpreters providing services is an issue, but more important is the quality of the education a deaf child receives, she said.

Deaf education is a major need in Nevada, Montoya said. Historically, there has never been a deaf school in the state, all the deaf students are mainstreamed at their local school, she said.

Daviton has one message for the hearing community and that is to open their minds.

“I see how many students at UNR are learning ASL and that inspires me. When I meet them on the street, they help explain things to me, even if they can sign a little, it is a blessing and I really appreciate that,” Daviton said.

Daviton and Juillerat-Olvera hope to see more resources for the deaf and hard of hearing community in northern Nevada. Juillerat-Olvera’s biggest dream would be to create a major in sign language interpreting.

Maria joined KUNR Public Radio in December 2022 as a staff reporter. She is interested in stories about underserved communities, immigration, arts and culture, entertainment, education and health.