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Students, staff in good hands with interpreter

Students, staff in good hands with interpreter

Greg Propp interprets speeches given during last fall’s Convocation.
Greg Propp interprets speeches given during last Fall’s Convocation.
Greg Propp interprets speeches given during last fall’s Convocation.

By Matt Kelly

Greg Propp was trained as a lawyer but instead chose to work with his hands — interpreting for the deaf.

Propp, 41, coordinates services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing at the University’s Learning Needs and Evaluation Center, which serves students with disabilities, assists deaf students in the classroom and interprets University events for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

A hearing son of deaf parents, Propp was raised in a multilingual household, learning English and American Sign Language with two hearing sisters and a deaf brother.

“It seemed perfectly normal to me” to combine spoken words and sign language in conversations, he said.

This opened doors for him. As a teen working in a movie theater tearing tickets, he made $2.50 an hour. Then he found out his sisters were making $8 to $12 an hour as sign language interpreters.

“A week later, I was signing up for workshops,” he said. He was a certified sign language interpreter by age 16.

He learned the importance of nuance when he translated meetings for his father, a professor of deaf education at the University of Nebraska.

“At a university meeting, or an English class, a particular jargon is important because this is what’s expected in discussions and feedback on their exams and papers,” he said, showing with a quick flurry of his hands the subtle changes differentiating “facilitate” from “manage” or “operate.”

“You can combine signs to get to different things, but you rely on finger spelling a lot,” he said. Finger spelling follows English and his hands flash out a series of letters to spell out a word.

Propp, who is also licensed to practice law in North Carolina, used his signing talents to pay his way through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned political science and law degrees. Even while he practiced law, specializing in disability cases, he continued working as an interpreter.

When his wife, Kathryn Jarvis, the associate director of academic support for the Athletic Department, got a job at U.Va. in 1993, Propp moved to Charlottesville. He decided not to take the Virginia bar exam and worked at Michie Law Publishing as an editor, compiling state codes, while moonlighting as an interpreter at the
University.

After working for Michie for more than four years, Propp left to work at the University part time as an interpreter, which grew into a full-time job three years ago. He uses his legal training to help guide his office through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Propp has an arsenal of techniques and devices. Some students require something as simple as priority seating, putting them in the front row to be able to read the instructors’ lips. Others need more extensive services, ranging from special hearing amplifiers to on-screen, word-for-word transcription for the student’s laptop. Under the ADA, the University must provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. Cost is not a factor, he said.

Propp’s role includes providing services to deaf and hard-of-hearing faculty and staff, but classroom interpretation for students demands particular energy.
“If I had three or four students full-time, I would have a difficult time, not only because
of the physical demands on me, but also because of the lack of qualified interpreters in the area,” Propp said, meaning he would have to bring
additional interpreters in from Washington or Richmond.

In science classes, there is more finger spelling and word-for-word signing, while in others he has exciting and emotional things to present that involve conceptual and translating challenges.

“When Julian Bond is talking about being in the middle of a civil rights march in Washington, the challenge is not to get so caught up in what he is saying and remain on task,” he said.

Bond said Propp’s presence has not intruded on his classes at all.

Sometimes Propp has to work not to succumb to the emotion of the moment, such as the anniversary service marking the Sept. 11 attacks.

“When the words ‘fiery inferno’ are used in that context, you can’t help but be visually graphic,” he said, his hands fluttering out the shapes of the World Trade Center towers, indicating the explosion of the plane collision and the flames and smoke rising.

The hardest moment was at the end, when Propp was not signing, and John D’Earth was playing “America the Beautiful” on trumpet.

“I thought I was going to cry because I didn’t have the context of signing and thought,‘I’ve got to keep this together,’” he said.

Interpreting is definitely more fun than practicing law, Propp said.

“This has its ups and downs,” he said. “Some cold, rainy days I’m schlepping around Grounds from class to class, wondering what I am doing.

“But then on beautiful spring and fall days, when I am walking to Julian Bond’s class or [Peter C.] Brunjes’s psychobiology class, I think ‘I’m going to learn something pretty cool today.’”


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