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In response to growing national and international demand, the University of Alberta and Lakeland College are launching a new program to train sign-language interpreters.

The diploma program, which will begin this fall, will be the first such course in Alberta and the fifth offered at a Canadian postsecondary institution.

"Alberta, like every other province in this country, has a critical shortage of sign-language interpreters and so the demand for interpreters far outweighs the supply," said Debra Russell, director of the Western Canadian Centre of Studies in Deafness, which is based at the U of A, and a consultant for the program.

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Dr. Russell said demand is being driven by growing numbers of deaf students attending regular schools and universities, court decisions that compel hospitals to provide interpreters for deaf patients and increased use of video-relay technology for telephone calls involving deaf people.

Susan Main, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Hearing Society, said the service that provides interpreters in Ontario regularly gets more requests than it can fill. And while more training programs are clearly needed, she cautioned that they must be of extremely high quality.

"Interpreters become the voice of the deaf person and of the hearing person - they are the bridge. So if you have poor interpreting, you are going to have poor outcomes," she said.

While estimates vary, about 10 per cent of the Canadian population have some form of hearing impairment, and approximately 1 per cent have profound hearing loss and use sign language.

The Alberta program, which will initially accept 16 students, will take two years. Applicants must be fluent in American Sign Language and have taken a deaf-studies program, such as the one offered by Lakeland, which has campuses in Vermilion and Lloydminster, Alta.

The course will mainly be offered online, though instructors and students will meet for infrequent seminars. Officials believe some applicants will come from outside Alberta and possibly outside Canada. Dr. Russell said some countries that don't have interpretation programs have shown interest.

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