Local sign language interpreter Susan Shirk once swore she would never work at schools or religious gatherings. Now, after doing both for decades, she said she couldn’t be happier.
Shirk first encountered sign language while working at a residential care facility in college.
“I was working a full time job at a residential facility for a center for severely and profoundly handicapped people,” Shirk said. “At that time, someone in administration decided that it might be beneficial for some of the staff to learn sign language. There was one deaf resident but many others who had difficulty speaking well.”
Shirk’s interest piqued, and she sought out an education in sign language within her college.
“When I was a student at Bowling Green University, I did some digging and found out that they actually had a professor who taught it,” Shirk said. “American Sign Language wasn’t considered a language then. So at that time, it was being taught there as a ‘Psychology of the Deaf’ class. It was a four-credit psychology class with a one hour lab with a deaf woman who taught us some sign language.”
That was Shirk’s first formal class studying sign. She encourages others to look into the language, especially since classes have become more commonplace.
“I think it’s a wonderful option for anyone wanting to learn a second language,” Shirk said “It’s also one of those languages that you’re going to have a lot of opportunities to use because there are deaf people everywhere. I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to learn a second language.”
Shirk put this philosophy to the test when she became a sign language teacher.
“I was at Madison schools,” Shirk said. “I taught high school students so they could get their world language credit.”
Shirk’s plans when she left college starkly contrasted with her decision to start teaching.
“I remember telling classmates and family members that I did not want to do church interpreting or working for the schools,” Shirk said. “The working for the schools was because I thought I wanted to be out with adults. The church interpreting was because who wants to be responsible for interpreting the word of God?”
Shirk’s plans did change after teaching, but she never left the school system as a whole.
“I now work for the schools as a K‑12 interpreter,” Shirk said.
Currently, Shirk is working with a Coldwater high school student.
“I go from class to class with her,” Shirk said. “She has algebra first thing in the morning, and that is where I am. Second hour is english.”
In 2009, Shirk branched from secular interpreting to working through the Right of Christian Initiation of Adults program when a Catholic priest was in need of help.
“Father Martin recently became a priest, but he was an RCIA student when he was in highschool,” Shirk said. “He is hearing, but both his parents are deaf. They wanted to invite his parents to come to church, so they asked in the bulletin if anyone in the parish knew sign language.
With Shirk’s help, both of Father Martin’s parents went through RCIA as well.
Now, Shirk spends her weekends interpreting for St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hillsdale.
“Interpreting has really helped me to increase in my understanding of our faith,” Shirk said, “simply because you can’t interpret something you don’t understand.”
Shirk’s efforts at St. Anthony’s are appreciated by members of the community for various reasons.
“I appreciate the deaf accommodations at St. Anthony, not only because it’s a regular occurrence, but it allows for mass to be just as beautiful for the deaf since it is translated,” hearing-impaired sophomore Catherine Spalding said. “This also allows for non-deaf or hard-of-hearing to be able to pick up on some signs which is also such a cool thing to see.”
Other parish employees appreciate Shirk’s dedication as well, whether they can make sense of it or not.
“Well, I don’t understand a word she says,” said Deacon Dean Peterson, laughing.