Rachel Schlafer-Parton lives comfortably in two worlds. As a flutist, vocalist and master of dozens of percussive instruments, she is firmly rooted in a world of sound. As a UT sign language interpreter for 22 years, she also thrives in a world of silence where hand movements, facial gestures and body language are her only tools.
Not surprisingly, her specialty is interpreting artistic events where she must communicate not only words but also the mood—and in the case of a musical concert—even rhythm.
"I’m a performer," she says. "That’s the connection."
As much as possible, she uses the hand movements of American Sign Language to describe, say, a rainbow (an arching motion), a slice of bread (holding the "bread" in one hand, slicing it with the other hand). This visual shorthand allows her to keep pace. She signs letter by letter only when necessary—most often for proper names.
At UT, she is also called upon to interpret subject matter about which she has little knowledge—engineering, for example. "I don’t have to understand everything, but I do have to get the general flow and understand concepts," she says.
"Classroom interpreters make sure that students who are deaf at least have the opportunity to get all of the information," she says. But the challenges of communicating across the deaf-hearing gap go both ways.
E-mail, the Internet and video relay of phone calls open some doors for the deaf.
Professors can also facilitate communication, she says, "by making their presentations more visual, using sharper graphics, utilizing Blackboard and captioned DVDs and by pacing a presentation and recapping main points. All of this helps."
"Give a student who is deaf time to respond. Get them involved in discussions," she says. "They bring a unique perspective."
The bottom line, she says, is that "a class that’s more accessible to the deaf is more accessible to everyone."
Schlafer-Parton loves a challenge. In addition to UT classes and cultural events, she’s interpreted for driver education training—an experience she calls "intense"—and for box car races, space camp, cheerleader camp, training for motorcycle riders and horseback riding classes.
"It’s a profession with a lot of variety," she says.
Some of her more unusual assignments include interpreting for Bonnaroo, the largest music festival in America. "I couldn’t see the end of the audience," she says.
In more serious circumstances, interpreting can also be a "huge responsibility." She’s worked in numerous surgeries, including one in which a patient receiving a heart pacemaker had to be kept awake. She’s also interpreted at several births.
"Most of the time I’m OK," she says. "But I have been known to faint."
It’s a demanding career—but one with enormous rewards, she says.
After interpreting for a particularly energetic concert that called on all of her skills, a deaf audience member told her, "Now I understand better why hearing people laugh and cry and sing at concerts."
Rachel Schlafer-Parton lives on a small farm with her husband, Joel, who is a medical technician at St. Mary’s Hospital. They share their home with flutes, dulcimers, cellos and guitars.