STARKVILLE, Miss.–A first full-time sign language interpreter at Mississippi State is beginning his duties with the university’s Student Support Services office.
Niall Cook was a staff interpreter at Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services for 10 years before joining MSU earlier this semester.
Cook said he became fascinated by different languages in childhood and began learning American Sign Language in 1993 while studying linguistics at the University of Mississippi. While there, he quickly made friends with members of the local deaf community who eagerly shared their language and culture with him.
His ultimate goal is to help individuals with disabilities become self-empowered.
“So many people with disabilities may have had people speak for them and make choices for them their whole lives,” the Coffeeville native explained. “They may not be aware of the rights that they have or the technology that’s out there.
“If I can be instrumental in helping somebody make his or her own choices and be better able to live independently, that would be amazing,” he added.
With Disability Support Services, Cook will conduct counseling and related sessions for new students, as well as assisting those with hearing and sensory impairments. While students are the main focus, he also will be available to interpret for campus visitors and during graduation and other campus events.
Julie Capella, assistant dean of students and Student Support Services director, said the university previously hired a sign-language interpreter through a private agency as needed.
“With the blessing of the president, provost and vice president for student affairs, we initiated the search for a full-time sign language interpreter, and interviewed Niall for that position,” she said. Cook came highly recommended by his peers, she emphasized.
“Niall is top-notch in his profession and will be an asset to our department and the university,” Capella said. “We have a small department, and he already has become a part of our ‘family.'”
Cook said he looks forward to expanding the ASL interpreting program, recruiting students from the deaf community and providing deaf awareness, deaf advocacy and other activities for the university community. Should the need arise, he also will hire and supervise additional sign language interpreters for students.
Following time at Ole Miss, a series of community sign-language classes and a University of Tennessee-Knoxville summer immersion program, Cook became a residence education parent in 1998 at the Mississippi School for the Deaf. He described the job in Jackson as “a sink-or-swim” cultural and linguistic learning experience.
In 2001, Cook passed a state-level assessment for pre-certified interpreters and began working for a local interpreter agency. Through the National Association of the Deaf, he became a certified interpreter in 2002.
Cook is a member of the state and national chapters of the National Association of the Deaf and Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. He has served in several capacities on the board of the Mississippi Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and currently is its treasurer. In 2008 and 2012, he received the MSRID President’s Choice Award and, in 2011, the NAD Golden Hand Award.
Cook said being a good generalist–one who knows a little about a lot–and an effective interpreter go hand in hand. He relies on solid sign-language and English vocabularies, along with knowledge of current events–all of which he strengthens through reading.
“I read insatiably, and I like to read something that’s challenging,” he said. “If I’m reading a book and I have to stop every now and then to look up a word, that’s a good book.”
In preparing to work with students in specific classroom settings, Cook said he plans “to read the (course) syllabus, do a pre-briefing with the instructor or professor, read the textbook and do some research to familiarize myself with the jargon that’s used in that particular field.”