Published: December 16, 2013
Caitlyn Elfring can't roll the letter "r" or produce the phlegmy, guttural sound used in some foreign languages.
But she can make her fingers fly, and her innate ability to communicate in sign language is like music to the ears of the deaf.
"It's hard, definitely. There are different dialects, the same as having an accent," said Elfring, who is not deaf. "But I'm a visual person, so I can envision what people are trying to say, and people tell me I look natural doing it."
The 22-year-old, whose dad is retired from the Air Force, attended Pine Creek High School with aspirations of being an editor or photographer. While in high school, she took an after-school sign language class and discovered that she enjoyed the challenge.
"It's different and a new experience every day," Elfring said.
She graduated from Pikes Peak Community College two years ago with an associate's degree in American Sign Language interpreting.
Just as language is not the same for the deaf as for the hearing, deaf culture also is different.
"Part of my job is not only to facilitate communication but also be a cultural mediator. I have to think about the culture of the hearing and deaf both to make sure they both understand each other," Elfring said.
American Sign Language doesn't follow English grammar, syntax or structure. Add the different styles (New Yorkers sign differently than Coloradans, Elfring said), and the job can be very complex.
"When I'm interpreting something I'm thinking why they said it, how they said it and what their emotions were, in order to relay as closely as possible what they want to communicate," Elfring said.
Elfring has such a promising future in the field that she recently was awarded an internship to the school-to-work program of the VRS Interpreting Institute, in Salt Lake City.
The facility provides post-graduate interpretive training to boost interpreters' readiness to work and continue their education. Elfring was one of 12 students from around the nation selected from hundreds of applicants for the intensive three-month course.
Elfring danced through the tough screening process.
"Her attitude stood out. She's a positive, reflective individual," said Holly Nelson, a member of the faculty.
Experience working as a Starbucks barrister helped Elfring develop a friendly, service-oriented demeanor, Nelson said.
"We could tell she had the types of skills we could help her improve," she said. "She has a great deal of potential."
Elfring finished the program in September and now simultaneously translates teacher lectures and class material for deaf students who attend PPCC, from philosophy and business courses to the culinary program. She also works for the local office of Sorenson Communications, interpreting phone conversations for deaf callers.
"I didn't think I'd be this far in my career until 10 years from now," Elfring said.
It can take up to three years to find work in the industry, said Carolyn Ball, executive director of the VRS Interpreting Institute. But the internship greatly improves job opportunities, she said, by helping prepare students for national certification exams and introducing them to the broader deaf community.
"One of the hard things that deaf people go through is that many people treat them as if they were developmentally disabled," Ball said. "Deaf people don't look at themselves like that at all, but as a unique culture that shares their own values and norms. That's why interpreters have to be very competent in their work."
Another local graduate of the program, Kelly Major, said the training was a tremendous benefit.
"It boosted my confidence and allowed me interaction with the deaf community," she said. "I started great friendships and learned a lot about myself and where I fit in with the deaf community."
Major completed the VRS internship in March and also works as part of PPCC's deaf interpreting team and at Sorenson Communications, a for-profit company that's associated with the nonprofit VRS Interpreting Institute.
"I was ecstatic when I got accepted into the program because I knew it as such a great opportunity," Major said. "A lot of doors have opened up to me since completing it."
Major is now attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to earn a bachelor's degree in sociology and wants to obtain a master's degree in interpreting.
"I'm the kind of person that gets bored easily," she said, "and interpreting is great because there are so many things you can do within the field. I would love to interpret in the medical field."
The presence of The Colorado School for The Deaf and The Blind means there is a large deaf population in Colorado Springs.
It's a close-knit group, Elfring said, whose members appreciate the skills of interpreters.
"I'm just waiting for the day I can take the ER calls at 3 in the morning," she said. "I like helping people."