As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) born in Rochester, N.Y.—which has the highest per-capita deaf population in the country—D. Michael Drees has interpreted for the deaf for most of his life. He became a professional interpreter at 18, working with the YMCA, the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester. In February 2016, Drees landed an job in Salt Lake City as the assistant director of interpreting at Sorensen Communications, a company that translates calls for the deaf via video-relay service.
You were born into the deaf community, so you learned ASL the same way a hearing child picks up a spoken language—by full immersion.
Yeah, I have a deaf mother and a hearing father. I've got two deaf uncles and three deaf aunts. American Sign Language (ASL) was my first language. My first signs came at 7 months of age. My first sign was 'milk.' My second sign was 'cookie.'
Were you born to do this work?
I was the oldest child out of all my cousins, so I was always asked to interpret all sorts of things for my whole family. My mother was pretty involved with the deaf community, so we would always be at the deaf center. I was always involved.
How do you become an ASL interpreter?
Utah, specifically, has a certification and there's also a national certification. Utah honors the national certification, as well. There are 130 interpreting programs and colleges across the country. You can earn interpreting degrees from associate's to bachelor's, but there's more education for the language itself. You can get a master's or Ph.D.
Is your work similar to being a therapist, where you have to maintain confidentiality and also take on some of the clients' emotions? How does that affect you?
Yeah, we have a code of professional conduct and confidentiality is No. 1. And we also never know what's coming next. You experience [the clients'] joys and sorrows. There is such a thing as vicarious trauma that nurses and therapists do experience. We're interpreting for the person, so we are showing and feeling their emotions. So it does have an impact. At the end of the day, I'm just happy that I can provide this service for the deaf community.
What experiences have you had through your work that you otherwise wouldn't have had?
You can go anywhere and interpret anything, like business meetings in places you never thought you'd be, or hospitals—or work with people in politics or entertainment that you never thought you'd meet. Recently, I was asked to interpret a meeting for the Deaf National Disc Golf Championships and actually took on the role of co-Tournament Director. This year marks the 17th annual DNC, and it's the first appearance in Salt Lake City, which is a big deal. We'll have the top, approximately 100, deaf competitors from all over the nation coming to compete. It happens June 28 through July 1.