A Preliminary History of VRID

by Fred P. Yates

October 29, 1999


Sign Language interpreters are vital to the integration of deaf people into society.They provide a communication bridge over which important spoken or signed words are conveyed between and among the Hearing and the Deaf. On their historic voyage to America from France in 1816, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet learned the rudiments of sign language from the deaf Laurent Clerc. One is led to believe that Gallaudet served as an interpreter for Clerc in the days that followed.

The American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford in 1817. The primary method of instruction was in sign language. Gradually other states and regions established similar schools for their deaf children. Sign language became an integral part of deaf culture.

Hearing teachers of the Deaf were required to be expert signers. As a matter of course,when an occasion demanded, they served as interpreters for the students.  When the deaf children became adults they frequently called on their former teachers to serve as interpreters in various life situations. As the number of Deaf became more evident, church programs were established to serve their religious needs. There were a number of ministers who were conversant in signs, but there were not enough to serve the entire deaf population.  More often than not, the child or children of a deaf couple would  serve as interpreter for their church. From early evidence, the greater number of sign language interpreters served in a religious setting.

In the early days, there was no obvious need or desire for interpreters to organize as a professional association. Interpreting was largely voluntary and was carried out by the children of deaf adults, teachers or church workers for the deaf. Almost anyone who knew rudimentary signs could and would serve as an interpreter for a deaf acquaintance or for a group of deaf individuals.

Officials and members of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) saw a need to expand and improve the services and availability of interpreters for a growing population of Deaf in the United States. In 1964, the Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, was chosen to host a Workshop on Interpreting for the Deaf.The registered parties at this workshop established the   National Registry of Professional Interpreters and Translators for the Deaf (NRPITD).  The name was eventually shortened to Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).   This was quite timely as Federal and State regulators (under pressure from the NAD) increasingly added language which required that interpreters be available for deaf persons in the delivery of agency services.

In 1966, the Virginia General Assembly provided impetus for the VRID organization. A bill was introduced which would have the court appoint interpreters for the deaf in all criminal cases. Such interpreters would be chosen (by the court) from a list furnished by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and would be paid by the court for their services and travel. Richmond’s Bernard W. Moore, one of the icons of deaf leadership in Virginia, met with Delegates Edward E. Lane and George E. Allen(co-sponsors of the bill) to help provide supporting arguments. Mr. Moore communicated with the legislators via pad and pencil and they saw first hand that a sign language interpreter could have saved them valuable time. The bill was signed into law by Governor Mills Godwin on March 31, 1966.

At the time there were a number of highly skilled and experienced interpreters in Virginia, but none was motivated to establish or to join a statewide organization. The Virginia Association of the Deaf president, Lera C. Moore (a dynamic leader like her husband, Bernard) took matters into her own hands. She appointed Obie A. Nunn of Martinsville (another dynamo and former VAD president) to chair a committee that would lead to the establishment of an interpreter organization.

Nunn set a meeting at Richmond’s John Marshall Hotel on January 18, 1969. He invited Dr. Albert Pimentel,former Executive Director of the National registry of Interpreters to explain the purpose and outline the Code of Ethics. There were twenty interpreters in attendance who voted unanimously to organize the Virginia Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. A committee of twelve was selected on a regional basis to work with Mr.Nunn to create a constitution and by-laws. These included Peggy Barbour,Patrick Bryant and Elnora Lane of the Tidewater area, Jimmy Barnes, the Rev. Jesse Pope and Obie Nunn of the Piedmont area, the Rev. Robert Landes and LeraC. Moore of Richmond, Winfield McChord and Avis Wright of Staunton, the Rev. Russell Crouse  of Northern Virginia and James L. Scott of Southwestern Virginia.

A second meeting was set up at the John Marshall Hotel for April 26, 1969, for the group to consider the proposed rules of order. The rules were accepted and the first officers were elected. The Reverend Robert Landes (Richmond) was elected president, Winfield McChord (Staunton), first vice-president, Norma Rose Westfall (Staunton), second vice-president, Mrs. Peggy Barbour (Newport News),corresponding secretary and Mrs. Elnora Lane (Hampton) secretary-treasurer.Mrs. Moore appointed Obie Nunn (Martinsville) and T. Vernon Cherry (Norfolk) to represent the VAD on the executive board. (It should be noted here that the Rev. Landes was the brother of a deaf graduate of the Staunton VSD; Win McChordwas a Kentucky son of deaf parents and at the time principal of the VSD in Staunton; Norma Westfall was an Arkansas daughter of deaf parents and at the time a valuable instructor at the same school; Peggy Barbour was the devoted mother of a deaf daughter then at the Staunton School; Elnora Lane was a respected teacher at the school for the deaf in Hampton. A brief time later Mr. McChord was elevated to the superintendency of the Kentucky School in Danville,KY. (He is currently the head master of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn.) On his departure, the office of first vice-president was filled by John Shipman, the incoming principal at the Staunton School and himself the Missouri son of deaf parents.)

In 1973,a newcomer to Virginia, George B. Joslin, was elected VRID president. George had a solid background in deaf psychology and philosophy and additionally had valuable experience in helping set up the Texas Society of Interpreters for the Deaf just a few months previously. He represented Virginia at the 1973 National RID evaluations in Memphis, Tennessee and was certified at that time.

In the early spring or late winter of 1973, the first evaluation of interpreters in Virginia was conducted in Martinsville, VA. by Joslin, with the assistance of Irma Kleeb Young of Tennessee. Interpreters also came up from North Carolina(which was also in the process of establishing an evaluation team) to be evaluated. A number of deaf persons showed up to be evaluated and inducted into the state team. Among the first deaf to be evaluated were the writer and Vernon Cherry of Norfolk and Obie Nunn of Martinsville who had been on the VAD committee that helped set up the VRID.

From 1973to 1978, the evaluation team attempted evaluations two or three times a year in various parts of the state. Other deaf persons evaluated and added to the team included Race Drake, Alice Frick, Roberta (Wolfe) Dietz, Reba Poole, Bob Imme, Lee Painter and perhaps others not recalled.

The evaluators and those being evaluated are a courageous lot. The evaluations were (and still are) a rather arduous and time consuming affair that take up most of a Friday evening, a full Saturday and all of a Sunday morning. To make attendance easier for applicants, the evaluations were moved around the state to places including Staunton, Hampton, Richmond, Martinsville or Danville, Wytheville,  Northern Virginia and Dublin. It is quite exhausting on the evaluators and those evaluated are clearly under great pressure. But, in order to guarantee that interpreters are qualified, the process is necessary.

Gallaudet University filmed and distributed the first evaluation movies and audio tapes.The movies would show a deaf signer telling various stories or incidents that were to be “interpreted” in good English order by the one being evaluated. Sometimes the films were jumpy and distorted making it extremely difficult to comprehend. The audio tapes, I am told, were of similar poor to fair quality.The deaf people and others on the evaluation team, since they had gone through the same stressful process were inclined to weigh the evaluations on the side of those being tested. When the audio tapes were used, an interpreter (out of sight of the person being tested) repeated the stories for the deaf evaluators so they could determine if the telling was correct.

In are cent communication with George Joslin (who is now retired and  working  as a part time rehabilitation counselor for the U.S. Department of Labor in Spring field, MO.) he reminded me how difficult it was for the first people evaluated:

“One film showed a Black lady in a black dress with a black background and poor lighting telling about peanut butter sandwiches. Another film was about snowmobiles in which the word “snowmobile” was finger spelled once and then signed the rest of the way, confusing those who did not realize that the sign for motorcycle and snowmobile were one and the same. Here in the south it was hard for people to visualize someone riding a “motorcycle” through deep snow and across an icy lake. Only a lady recently transferred from Michigan breezed through that one. One audio tape told of the mating habits of Australian eels or the like. Some of the good Baptist interpreters would have preferred a sermon by Jerry Falwell!”

The writer served on the state interpreter evaluation team from 1973 through 1981and personally noted that the evaluation media had improved remarkably. The first hearing members of the evaluation team in, addition to Joslin, were Rex Purvis (Rehabilitation Counselor for the Deaf), Pat Bryant, Patty Myers, Harriet Ropelewski and Joyce “Duffer “Childrey. Later, Ellen Trimble served on the team.

Initial evaluation problems reported from other states were that some children of deaf parents expected to be automatically certified as interpreters. One could not blame them. After all, they had been interpreting since childhood. The professional RID, however, was another cup of tea. We were fortunate to avoid this situation in large measure. The CODAs in Virginia decided that they could improve their skills and without complaint went through the screening just like other interpreters. These include Harriet Ropelewski, Patty Myers, Avis Wright,Duffer Childrey, Ellen Trimble, Jo Belle Anthony and others whose names can’t be recalled.

The Council for the Deaf, which began actual operation in the summer of 1974, could not delay utilizing interpreters in various situations. A temporary system was established whereby an interpreter would be deemed qualified if three deaf persons would sign a form attesting to the interpreter’s ability.

The Virginia General Assembly in 1975, realizing that a number of deaf persons were unjustly committed to mental institutions because they had been denied due process, passed a law requiring that there be interpreters in such proceedings for persons who could not hear.In 1978, three interpreter related bills (HB788) (HB771) (HB739) successfully passed through the legislative process and were signed into law by Governor John Dalton. The main bill (788) authorized the Virginia Council for the Deaf(VCD) now the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (VDDHH) to“establish, maintain and coordinate a statewide service to provide courts,legislative bodies and public/private agencies and deaf persons who request the same with qualified interpreters. The HB771 reinforced the rights of deaf people to have interpreters at agency or administrative and other public proceedings. The HB739 protected any privileged communication between the interpreter and the deaf client much like the lawyer-client  or doctor-patient relationship.

Passage of these bills provided a major opportunity for the VRID to become involved and play a major part in working with the VDDHH to develop a strong corps of interpreters in Virginia. With the help of George and Lorene Joslin who were officers in the VRID (and Lorene was the official VCD interpreter), we established a basic screening system that  is now called the Virginia Qualified Assurance Screening process (VQAS). Through the VQAS, the number of approved interpreters was expanded and those who were certified by the VQAS were encouraged to undergo the RID evaluation. Approximately 100 interpreters were contracted by the VCD/VDDHH to be on call throughout the state. Those who had been certified by the RID were automatically approved by the agency.

 The writer continued to serve on the evaluation team through 1980 and noted the increase in numbers of skilled interpreters. It was also noted that many interpreters who were not offspring of the deaf had acquired their signing competence in a classroom or other setting. Most interpreters can clearly express the doctor’s, the lawyer’s or the teacher’s message to the deaf person. It is the all-important message from the deaf person that is often garbled or lost in transit. That is where the CODAs make the most important contribution - to assure that the deaf person’s signs are accurately transmitted.

The VRID is now 30 years old. You have a great working relationship with the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing and with the Virginia Association of the Deaf. May it continue thus into the millennium.


(This treatise does not cover the complete history of the VRID. The writer did not have the necessary research material to include all names of officers from 1969 to date and other important events in the VRID annals. The writer hopes that the VRID historian will add important names and events. Fred P. Yates, October 29, 1999)

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