Interpreting Programs at RIC Reduce Health Gaps by Closing Language Gaps

Sign Language
Rhode Island College Impact

RIC is creating new interpreting programs to help bridge language gaps.

Language gaps and a lack of cultural competence can be challenging in any situation, but in healthcare settings such miscommunication can have major consequences. Rhode Island College has been creating new interpreting programs to help bridge those gaps, developed by talented women who have had similar life experiences when dealing with interpreting for their families or communities. Using Portuguese and American Sign Language, these women are working to instruct more bilingual health-care interpreters, building a more cultural and contextually competent workforce to serve the many speakers of other languages throughout Rhode Island.  

Christine West is program specialist for the Public Health and Equity Sign Language Interpreting Program (PHESLIP) at RIC – a grant funded by the Health System Transformation Program (HSTP) led by program director, Marie Lynch, RIC professor of special education – which is a collaboration with the Healthcare System Transformation Project at the Rhode Island Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (CDHH). “This was formed in response to the increasing workforce need for sign language interpreters in health-care settings. That includes medical, mental health and behavioral health,” she explains.

The program aims to reduce healthcare disparities of deaf and hard of hearing individuals by increasing access to communication in the health-care field.  

Lynch is a child of deaf adults (often known by the acronym “coda”) and grew up culturally deaf. In 2019 she was approached by Earnest Covington III, executive director of the CDHH to create the program at RIC. “For nine months, I worked closely with six sign language interpreters, including Christine West, to establish the program’s mission, develop program outcomes and design the program format,” she explains “The PHESLIP health-care interpreting specialization is a Certificate of Continuing Studies (CCS) program offered through the Professional Studies & Continuing Education (PSCE) division.” 

From PSCE’s perspective, the new CCS medical interpreter programs are a very positive and direct outcome of the Rhode Island Health System Transformation Program.

West has been a sign language interpreter since the 90s and was brokering language before she knew it. At a young age she was helping her non-native English-speaking mother understand documents, school notices or health instructions in the English language. “This program is born of the community to serve the community,” West notes. “It is for those interpreters who are already trained and looking to specialize in medical, mental health and behavioral health settings.”

PHESLIP is the state’s first sigh language interpreting program and the first in the nation to focus on public health, diversity, social justice and equity. It aspires to increase the number of trained health-care interpreters to meet the needs of deaf and hard of hearing individuals in Rhode Island and beyond. “In health-care interpreting, we are facing a critical shortage both in Rhode Island and nationally,” West notes.

A similar program exists at RIC for the third most commonly spoken language (after English and Spanish) in Rhode Island: Portuguese.   

Lisa Morris has been the director of cross-cultural initiatives for Commonwealth Medicine at UMass Chan Medical School for 20-plus years. At RIC, she was hired to be the primary faculty adjunct instructor for the Portuguese-English Medical Interpreting Training Program.

“This program is a collaborative effort of the Office of PSCE,” explains Morris. “It is designed to cater to nursing students that demonstrate bilingual proficiency in Portuguese and English or for any other community members to develop their medical vocabulary to communicate with patients directly.” 

Morris was approached by Associate Professor Silvia Oliveira, director of the Portuguese Studies Program, to work on a new RIC program, a collaborative effort of the Office of PSCE and co-funded by the Institute for Portuguese and Lusophone World Studies at RIC, also directed by Oliveira, that would train people interested in the interpreting profession. She emphasized the importance of students not only learning about medical conditions, treatments and procedures in Portuguese, but also learning to recognize different linguistic registers, like academic or colloquial, to address patients in understandable linguistic and biomedical cultural competencies. 

Students in these programs are also given the opportunity to become certified as a health-care interpreter, a great opportunity that many other programs do not offer.

Together, these programs are addressing a critical need for patients who are often left to rely on untrained staff or family members to provide informal interpretation. (The PSCE is also working on developing a Spanish-English Interpreting Training Program.)

Rhode Island is changing the way it pays for and delivers health care through its Health System Transformation Project. Central to the goals of providing better care, through smarter spending, for healthier people is training the workforce to meet these new challenges. Through agreements with RIC, CCRI and URI, the RI Executive Office of Health and Human Services is providing Infrastructure grants so we can develop and build capacity in health-related training programs for future and current workers.