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After Emotional Hearing, Idaho House Panel OKs Bill to License Sign Language Interpreters


More than a few tears were shed Monday morning as the Idaho House Health and Welfare Committee hosted an emotional public hearing on House Bill 46, which would call for formal licensing of sign language interpreters.

"These people are pleading for help," said Rep. Kelley Packer (R-McCammon), co-chair of the committee and sponsor of the measure, which would create new licensing requirements for interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing. It is estimated about 204,000 Idahoans deal with hearing loss—at least 13 percent of the population.

"This is something that is personal for me," Packer said, then paused for several seconds, took a deep breath and choked back a few tears as she told the committee about her uncle and several relatives who are deaf or hard of hearing.

"You can teach people to speak English. You can't teach people to hear," she said. "This is not something that they simply overcome. A huge portion of our population is begging to have a voice."

For the next two hours, dozens of citizens stood before lawmakers—some of them with the assistance of interpreter LaVona Andrew—and shared some heartbreaking stories.

"I was once charged with a felony. I didn't understand what the charges were or what was going on. It was a horrid experience and for the better part of two years, I was given unqualified interpreters when meeting with police or an attorney," said Alan Wilding, who now serves as president of the Idaho Association of the Deaf. "An unqualified interpreter told me that if I agreed to an Alford Plea, the charge would be knocked down to a misdemeanor. But when I went to my sentencing, a qualified interpreter told me that wasn't true; the charge would still be a felony. The prosecutors said it was too late. I gave up and accepted a felony that I'm not guilty of. An unqualified interpreter destroyed my life."

Jennifer White, also employing LaVona Andrew as an interpreter, testified that she was suffering from severe pain and, before traveling to an emergency room, communicated to the hospital that she would need an interpreter when she arrived at the ER.

"And this happened just last night. There wasn't a qualified interpreter. I wasn't able to find out what my options were and they gave me medication that I was allergic to," said White. "I wasn't able to understand them at all."

Packer said Idaho has about 150 interpreters who would be instantly qualified for formal licensing—but, she quickly added, there is an abundance of unqualified interpreters operating in Idaho.

"Currently, there is no law that prevents unqualified interpreters from harming others," she said.

The bill, if approved, would not cover a number of settings, such as social gatherings, religious events or inconsequential interpreting at places such as restaurants. It would, however, cover professional settings (i.e. legal, medical) where licensed interpreters would be required.

There was some pushback from a few lawmakers.

"I'm having a difficult time with this," said Rep. Megan Blanksma (R-Hammett). "I can't get my head around why we have to have a license for one language. I don't understand why we need the licensure to make this happen."

Ultimately, Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Wood (R-Burley) turned to his fellow lawmakers and said, "There is zero doubt in my mind that this needs to happen."

The majority of the committee agreed with Wood, voting to move the bill be forwarded to the full House with a "do pass" recommendation.

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