New program seeks to increase access to sign language interpreters in rural Colorado |

New program seeks to increase access to sign language interpreters in rural Colorado

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. Monday to correct Erica Gallagher’s title. 

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Amid a shortage of certified American Sign Language interpreters in rural areas, Colorado is launching a pilot program to provide free, in-person ASL interpreters to people who are deaf, hard of hearing or deafblind in Routt County.

A lack of certified American Sign Language interpreters in the area touches many areas of the community, from seeking medical care, interacting with law enforcement and attendance at community events.

Through the Rural Interpreting Services Project, the state seeks to improve access to ASL interpretation both by providing certified interpreters and working to train and certify more interpreters.

At a glance

To request an interpreter through the Rural Interpreting Services Project, visit to fill out a request online. You can also contact the program in the following ways:
Video phone: 720-457-3679
Voice phone: 303-866-4824

If you fill out a request online, you should receive a confirmation immediately. Fill out the form again if you do not receive a confirmation. RISP asks that you submit your request two weeks in advance of the date you need an interpreter, but program coordinators will do their best to fill last minute requests.

According to Trish Leakey, auxiliary services manager for the Colorado Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Deafblind, there are five certified ASL interpreters on the Western Slope, in Alamosa, Durango, Montrose and Grand Junction.

Leakey said she doesn’t feel that the RISP’s 25 interpreters, who travel around Colorado’s eastern plains, southern high desert and Western Slope, are meeting the demand for ASL interpreters in rural communities.

“We’ve realized that a lot of these individuals are not even asking for interpreters,” she said through an ASL interpreter. “They’re not even putting in a request because they know that there’s nobody that’s even available, so they’re like ‘Why would I even bother asking for an interpreter when I know it’s not going to be provided?’ They rely heavily on family and friends.”

Lack of access creates pitfalls in care

In a town hall both to explain the program and listen to the community’s needs, Northwest Colorado residents explained the lack of access they see for people who need ASL interpretation.

As of Jan. 31, the RISP received 213 requests for services, with more than half of those requests related to medical needs.

“When I’ve tried to come to Steamboat for a doctor’s appointment, they say ‘We’re not going to pay for an interpreter,” said Staci Nichols, of Craig, through an ASL interpreter. “But I’ll ask, ‘Well how much do you pay for Spanish interpreters? Because they do. … They provide Spanish interpreters, and they have actually hung up on me when I’ve brought that subject up. I’ve had to go other places that are farther for me in order to get services.”

Others in the community, including representatives of the Steamboat Springs Police Department, Routt County Human Services, Integrated Community and Mind Springs Health, explained they don’t know where to find an interpreter, when and if they need one.

“I feel like it may be the lack of interpreters that keep people from accessing our services,” said Gina Toothaker, outpatient program director at Mind Springs Health. “It comes up maybe once or twice a year, and we don’t know how to access those people either. … I feel like we could be serving more people if we had access.”

At UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, patients who have hearing disabilities communicate with healthcare providers using video remote interpreting services, essentially an ASL interpreter over webcam, but a faulty internet connection can disrupt communication and care, according to the hospital’s Language Services Manager Erica Gallagher.

“Over the years I’ve tried to access a certified interpreter, and the closest I was able to find was either Denver or Grand Junction,” Gallagher said.

In the three instances in which an in-person interpreter attempted to come up, Gallagher said bad weather, road closures and a three-day waiting period for the interpreter made it impossible to pair patients with an in-person interpreter.

In situations where people cannot or do not access an interpreter for medical visits, many patients and doctors end up writing notes across the table, Leakey said.

“Could you imagine communicating back and forth in writing all of that, and talking about your issues?” she asked. “You would really condense it, and it would really be limited and not necessarily effective. I do suspect that if we can increase the numbers of interpreters, then the Deaf community will actually have better access.”

The common barriers RISP program coordinators have found ring true in Northwest Colorado: a lack of knowledge in where to find interpreters, the cost of providing interpretation and geographic barriers, said Leakey.

Increasing access to ASL interpreters

Four hands sign R-I-S-P, the acronym of a new state-funded project to increase access and interpreters in Colorado’s rural areas. (Photo by Michael Armstrong)

The RISP program was funded by the legislature for a two-year pilot.

The program provides free, certified, in-person interpretation to Colorado’s Western Slope and other rural areas. Interpreters can be requested for medical or legal appointments, events, job interviews or any other meeting.

By Colorado law, interpreters are certified by the Colorado Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Interpreters must pass the organization’s certifying exam to call themselves an interpreter, though current legislation under consideration could expand the state’s rule to recognize ASL interpretation certifications from other states.

This certification is crucial, said Timothy Chevalier, the commission’s outreach and consultative services manager, because this ensures an interpreter is able to unbiasedly and accurately convey the message of whomever they are communicating on behalf of. This doesn’t always happen when someone who is deaf or hard of hearing uses a friend or family member to communicate with people who don’t sign.

Chevalier explained that growing up with two parents who were deaf, he translated his parents’ ASL to his instructors in parent-teacher conferences.

“I always came out with a glowing report,” he said with a laugh.

But on a serious note, Chevalier explained that in one instance, a Colorado woman with a hearing disability was sexually assaulted. Law enforcement grabbed the closest nearby person who could sign, which happened to be her daughter. The woman wasn’t comfortable conveying what had happened through her daughter, which created problems as she tried to report the incident to police.

In addition to providing interpreters, the RISP hopes to train more interpreters in rural areas. One program will help people who sign and are interested in becoming a certified interpreter receive the training and testing required to become certified with financial and mentorship support. Another program provides scholarships to students studying ASL and Interpreting Studies at the University of Northern Colorado.

RISP interpreters can’t serve the needs of students who need educational interpreting, or interactions with state and federal agencies. Other entities are responsible for providing access to interpreters in those situations. RISP can serve parents who would like an interpreter to attend meetings or events at their child’s school.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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