Winnipeg will need more sign-language interpreters this fall when a new video-relay service launches for deaf Canadians.

Right now, about four or five interpreters per year are graduating from the only sign-language interpretation program in the province.

"I definitely would like to see more graduates from our program," said Rick Zimmer.

Zimmer, who is deaf, co-ordinates the American Sign Language-English interpretation program at Red River College.

"Having that connection with the non-deaf world to the deaf world [is important] … for so many years, they've been two separate entities," he said.

The city is already home to a video-relay centre, where sign-language interpreters take video calls to translate back and forth between American Sign Language and English.

Right now, the centre is only serving U.S. callers, but this fall, CRTC plans to launch a video-relay service in Canada, with registration starting this summer.

"We will need many more student graduates, so we do need more of a push," said Zimmer.

English, ASL very different languages

The learning curve is huge for students – many come into the four-year program without being fluent in ASL and having little familiarity with deaf culture.

"Because we're second language users who learn language so late in life, it's an additional challenge. Most Spanish, most French interpreters grew up using the language," said Mandy MacDonald, who has been an instructor with the program for eight years. "I think there's a lot of assumptions that people make, [for example] all deaf people can lip-read, deaf people want to be not deaf … we realize quickly those are stereotypes."

English and ASL are very different languages – sentence structure and tense are communicated differently and articles like "a" "the" and the verb to "be" are used differently.

Much of the "grammar" in ASL is tied to facial expression and the speed of a gesture, and students have to be prepared to interpret everything from couples' counselling to negotiating a house purchase to a coach teaching kids how to play soccer.

Rick Zimmer

Rick Zimmer leads a class in deaf poetry at Red River College. Zimmer, who is deaf, is the program co-ordinator for the American Sign Language-English Interpretation program at RRC. (CBC)

Because of the room for error, a large part of the training is teaching students to take themselves and their emotions out of the interaction.

"I think it's important for students to understand they need to leave their stuff at the door so that when they come in, they're able to tell someone that, they have cancer or their baby is growing inside of them but when they come out they're not going to survive -- you know, really, really hard stuff," said MacDonald. "We have to have our own stuff in check before we can facilitate any interaction like that."

Another distinct aspect of the training program is accurately representing the voice of a deaf or hard of hearing person based on their age, gender and where they happen to be at the time.

"We talk about, 'What do you imagine them to sound like? What does a 55-year-old man sound like?' Would he say, 'Oh my gosh! I really like that! Thank you!'? Is that how your dad would talk? No? What are the words he would typically use?" said MacDonald, adding they do a lot of studying around what people of different generations sound like and how people augment their speech based on the venue they are in. "There's certain words [people will] use with their boss that they would not typically use on the floor of a shop, versus their wife, versus their mother."

Men rarely enrol, staff say

One thing the program is lacking? Men.

Right now, the program has exclusively female students, and they rarely see men come through the program.

That means when a man who is deaf or hard of hearing wants to work with an interpreter, there are a lot fewer options.

Mandy MacDonald

Mandy MacDonald has been an instructor with the program for eight years. (CBC)

"Signing and speaking are very gender-based," MacDonald said. "When [students] are actually out in the field interpreting, then they get live feedback. We call it, 'It sounds too much like you intruding on the message.' So if … I say 'like' a lot and it starts to come out in the message, that's me having an impact on the message."

The program started in 1978 as a small, short program at RRC. It then expanded to two years, and now it's a four-year joint-program with the University of Manitoba.

The program employs a mix of deaf and non-deaf instructors, and in some cases, like MacDonald's cross-culture class, deaf and non-deaf instructors co-teach.

MacDonald said initially, students only got involved because they had a friend or family member who was deaf, but that's changing.

Woman moves from Winkler into deaf centre

Student Sarah Klassen was working as an educational assistant at a Winkler elementary school when a deaf student moved to the area and needed an interpreter.

The school couldn't convince a trained sign-language interpreter to move out to the community, so they asked Klassen if she would be willing to learn.

"I fell in love with the deaf community and the language," she said.

After being hired by the division as a "signer," she decided that wasn't good enough.

"I knew for me to be an ally with the community, I knew I would have to become a trained interpreter," she said. "I didn't realize how much self-reflection there would be, and how we need to just really analyze our beliefs and our biases. I guess I thought it was just interpreting. I didn't realize how my personal baggage can affect my job."

Sarah Klassen

Sarah Klassen, 32, is in her third year of studies in the program. She moved from Winkler to Winnipeg to live in an apartment at the Deaf Centre Manitoba. (CBC)

The 32 year old moved from Winkler into an apartment at the Deaf Centre Manitoba on Pembina Highway.

But it's already difficult, she said, to navigate the world of socializing and making friends who are deaf and maintaining a professional distance.

"I've been trying to figure out, how would I interpret for them? Or could I even? Would I influence the interpretation because of our friendship?" she said.

Zimmer says friendships in the community are important, and generally interpreters should avoid interpreting for friends and family.

"I always encourage our students to get involved in the deaf community. It's key," he said. "You can definitely have close friends in the deaf community, but you'll always be viewed as a professional."

MacDonald  hopes more students enrol in the program, especially based on the need for more interpreters.

"Eighteen years later I still love it. I still get nervous, I still get excited. There is vicarious trauma that happens, but there's also vicarious excitement that happens," she said. "The deaf community is so welcoming, so gracious. The deaf community has lots of space for us."

How does 'facial' grammar work in sign language?1:16

This story is part of Access Denied, a CBC Manitoba series exploring accessibility for people with disabilities in Winnipeg.