Deaf Minnesotans made a pitch from the auditorium stage at Prior Lake High School to an audience of about 325 students studying sign language: We need you.

American Sign Language interpreters are an essential part of life for thousands of Minnesotans. They are there when someone is diagnosed with cancer or if they end up in court. They attend weddings, family reunions and funerals.

But the pool of interpreters is shrinking in Minnesota and across the nation. A survey of Minnesota interpreters in 2021 found nearly 40% expected to leave the profession within five years. Leaders of two interpreting agencies in Minnesota said they are seeing service requests rising and more of those asks are going unmet.

Meanwhile, the three Minnesota colleges with interpreter training programs have seen participation drop.

"We're afraid for our quality of life. We're afraid we're losing our access to communication. We're afraid to be pushed aside," said Darlene Zangara, executive director Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing.

The commission launched an "Interpreting Forward 2030″ effort and has gathered ideas from around the state on how to shore up the interpreter workforce and ensure people get high-quality services. The input doesn't point to one simple solution. Zangara said the commission will create a website this summer highlighting a long list of issues, and those will be narrowed into a plan.

One of the first problems, many people said, is too few people consider an ASL interpreting career.

So a panel of Deaf leaders, a child of deaf adults and an interpreter assembled Tuesday in the auditorium of Prior Lake High School, which has seen an explosion of student interest in ASL classes in recent years. Students signed questions about the visitors' lives and the panelists ended the conversation by stressing the need for more interpreters.

Joe Klug, who started learning ASL in high school and now works as a freelance interpreter, sees the high demand for the service daily. He checked his phone after an hour of talking to students and had received numerous work requests.

Klug tried to spark interest among the young ASL learners. He shared his story of getting paid to work on a Caribbean cruise and the biggest celebrity he has interpreted for: Bill Nye.

"I completely sat up in my chair and I was paying attention," said Nikhil Gajria, a junior who was one of several students in the crowd who said they are considering an interpreting career. "He traveled on a cruise for eight days and he met Bill Nye? I'm like, OK, I am able to be an interpreter and contribute to the ASL community — but I also get to meet crazy people that I may not even realize was a possibility."

A difficult professional path

People in the field and those who use interpreters said they often provide a service at key moments in someone's life.

"We get to see births and we get to be there when people pass," said Bridget Sabatke, an interpreter and assistant professor at St. Catherine University.

Many colleges and universities offer American Sign Language classes, but St. Catherine is one of the few with an interpreting program. ASL is a language and a culture, Sabatke said, but interpreting programs teach ethics and how to listen and talk at the same time.

Their interpreter class size dropped from 16 people before COVID-19 to seven, Sabatke said. At North Central University, assistant professor Sydney Groven said their graduating class in ASL interpreting has fallen from nine people to one this year.

Educators and interpreters said broad demographic and workforce factors are contributing to the looming shortage, including the decline in college enrollment and baby boomer retirements. And fewer colleges are requiring foreign language classes, Groven said, so not as many people are exposed to ASL.

There are also industry-specific issues, like getting people to stick in a profession that involves a number of expensive hurdles post-college.

Once someone gets their degree they can provide the type of interpreting services Klug does. They often work at community, corporate or college events and provide video relay services, which allow people with hearing disabilities to have telephone conversations.

But interpreters need to score well on a specialized assessment to work in educational settings. Those who want to become court or medical interpreters must get additional training and usually have to earn their national certification — widely considered the gold standard for interpreters — which involves challenging tests. It can take years for someone to achieve that certification, which interpreters said allows them to earn higher pay.

Interpreters' income varies. Some school district job postings offer around $30 an hour while the Minnesota Judicial System pays up to $86 an hour.

The certification process should be less expensive and easier to pass, said Kathleen Smith, president of Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens. She said that in the past people could request an interpreter a day or two ahead of an appointment, but with the growing shortage they now need to reach out at least a week in advance.

Getting the right interpreter

There's a delicate balance between making it easier to become an interpreter and ensuring people are highly qualified, many people said. The Interpreting Forward 2030 initiative started with talks about additional interpreter regulations, Zangara said, but broadened as they learned about the shortage.

The nonprofit Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf conducted the 2021 Minnesota interpreter census that exposed the scale of the looming shortfall. It found more than 500 people were working as interpreters in Minnesota. There are likely a couple hundred more people doing ASL interpreting who weren't reflected in the count, said Tarra Grammenos, past president of the nonprofit.

But she said that's far from enough. There is not an exact count of how many deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing Minnesotans use ASL, but national organizations estimate there are roughly 50 people who use ASL in the U.S. for every one interpreter.

"The number of interpreters are dwindling but our number of Deaf community members are growing," Grammenos said. "Close to 1,000, I think, would cover what we need. We don't have that."

The survey also showed only 6% of interpreters identify as people of color. Cultural nuance is often lost when someone of a different race or ethnicity interprets, several deaf Minnesotans said.

"We need BIPOC interpreters, people who match me," St. Paul and Minneapolis Black Deaf Advocates President Cookie J. Brand told Prior Lake High School students. "How many times do I see a Black interpreter? Very, very few times."

Nuance is also lost when hospitals lean on virtual technology for interpreting services, people noted. The technology often freezes and Zangara, who is a cancer survivor, said it's difficult to concentrate on a small screen when you are in pain.

Deaf patients sometimes delay medical treatment because no one is available to interpret, Grammenos added.

"Lives could be threatened if they cannot get interpreters," she said.