GRCC professor Justine Bryant works to expand opportunities for students as demand for American Sign Language interpreters grows

From her very first American Sign Language class in 2010 at Grand Rapids Community College, Justine Bryant knew she’d found the perfect career.

“I instantly fell in love with interpreting and knew it was my calling,” said Bryant, now a nationally certified ASL interpreter and new affiliate assistant professor of sign language at GRCC.

It’s a career that it’s in high demand not only in Michigan, but nationwide.

According to the most recent study released in 2019 by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, 733,356 Michiganders — about 7.4% of the state population — identify as deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing. In West Michigan, 8% of residents identify as members of that community.

“The need for interpreters is everywhere as people and businesses realize it’s crucial to include sign language interpretation with their message,” said Bryant, a Comstock Park High School graduate. “It’s becoming more mainstream, and the more people see it, the more people will want to pursue it as a career.”

The demand for ASL interpreters is expected to increase by approximately 24% by 2030, according to GRCC estimates.

That’s one of the reasons that in addition to teaching, Bryant is developing an education pathway for students seeking a career as interpreters for the deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind and deaf-disabled.

This path includes taking ASL and general education courses at GRCC and then transferring to Lansing Community College for its interpreter training program, said Mary Lucas, chair of GRCC’s Language and Thought Department.

“Once we finalize it with LCC, this will be a great pathway for anyone here in West Michigan interested in becoming an interpreter to start their education,” Lucas said.

Because Michigan has some of the strictest rules for ASL interpreter certification in the nation, it’s difficult to get into the profession without the proper education, Bryant said. Most ASL interpreter posts require a bachelor’s degree.

Bryant, who earned associate degrees at GRCC and LCC, completed her bachelor’s degree in ASL interpreting and transliterating in 2015 at Siena Heights University in Adrian. She worked as an ASL interpreter for the Kent Intermediate School District until 2021, has freelanced in the community since 2015, and has owned her own company, Access to ASL, since 2019.

She said she looks forward to developing the educational pathway between GRCC and LCC so more students can enter this growing field.

“When you’re working as an interpreter, every day is different … which is what I love about it,” Bryant said. “It’s one of those fields that remains a challenge because there’s always more to learn — but it’s a very rewarding and fulfilling career.”

This story was reported by Beth McKenna.

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