GOSHEN — When she’s not hurling ping pong balls at unsuspecting college students for goofing off, Colleen Geier, associate professor of sign language interpreting at Goshen College, will do anything for her students.
Born in Guilderland, New York, Geier grew up around her mother’s uncle, who was deaf. Because her great-uncle was never allowed to sign, he grew up unable to communicate with the world around him.
“He never got married. He never had a job. He never drove a car,” Geier said.
She didn’t initially intend on working in the deaf community.
“I sort of accidentally became an interpreter,” she said, explaining that in 1982, when Geier was at college in Brockport, New York, an advertisement for a six-week sign language course caught her eye. “I went and took it and that was it,” she said.
She began working part-time at a group home for deaf people in addition to attending deaf parties, despite not understanding much sign language.
“They don't always know how loud they're being with the music all cranked up for those who can hear,” Geier said of deaf parties. “It's not uncommon to have a door slammed instead of closed quietly because, you know, it's not bothering them.”
According to Geier, one of the biggest misconceptions hearing people have about the deaf community is that they are quiet.
In time, and with a lot of help from other interpreters, Geier grew more practiced in her interpreting. Deaf people began approaching her to ask her to interpret for them. Eventually, she was persuaded to get her certification. She has now been interpreting for 30 years.
A BACKSTAGE PASS
Geier likes to say interpreters do it all — she sure has. She has interpreted at everything from murder trials to fashion shows.
“I was backstage with models running in ripping off clothes and people throwing other clothes on — it was like the weirdest thing I've ever done,” Geier said of her experience interpreting for a deaf model.
She has also interpreted for celebrities and politicians such as both Clintons, Lionel Richie and Maya Angelou.
When Geier was interpreting for Bill Clinton in 1999, she nearly got herself into trouble with the Secret Service. She was waiting in line with a fellow interpreter and a man in a suit when she wondered out loud if she could jump on stage and join the president.
“The man turned to me and said ‘You’d hit the ground before you saw me coming,’ and that’s when I realized he was Secret Service,” she recalled.
Despite the Secret Service’s best efforts, Geier was ultimately able to shake the president’s hand.
“I told him it was an honor to interpret for him,” she said.
To Geier, these celebrity interactions aren’t the most important parts of her interpreting journey.
THE ETHICS OF SIGNING
“That's really fun, but that's not what gets me up in the morning,” she said. “What gets me up in the morning is when some little old deaf lady can finally ask her doctor all the questions she wants to ask because I'm there.”
Amanda Flickinger, a deaf assistant professor of sign language interpreting at GC, said, “(Geier) is one of the sweetest and most caring persons I've ever met in the deaf community.”
Mary O’Connell, a third-year sign language interpreting major at GC, said, “She’s really so supportive.”
Geier says interpreting can be hard because an interpreter must communicate everything said, no matter the subject matter or intensity.
“If they’re crying, I better look sad. If they’re yelling and swearing, I better be yelling and swearing,” she explained.
Whatever is said in an interpreting setting is strictly confidential. Ethics is the first thing taught to American Sign Language (ASL) and sign language interpreting students at GC, which houses one of the nation’s few four-year interpreting programs.
Geier loves helping young interpreters develop. In her classes, Geier teaches students how to interpret creatively, as interpreting is done concept to concept rather than word to word.
“She’s a really great interpreter. I’ll try to interpret something and I turn to her and she just does it in a beautiful way,” O'Connell said.
“It’s really a joy,” Geier said, “watching (a student’s) progression to graduating and interpreting.”
Ultimately, Geier wants her students, as well as other hearing people, to understand that deaf people are a linguistic and cultural minority rather than disabled.
“We have our own language and culture. We are a strong and collective community,” Flickinger said. “We are just as able as any other group.”