More people than ever are being exposed to sign language through Covid press briefings as interpreters work to pass on vital information
Thu 7 Jan 2021 11.00 GMT
Last modified on Thu 7 Jan 2021 11.01 GMT
Saamanta Serna describes herself as a Coda – the child of a Deaf adult. She grew up up with a Deaf mother and a father who is hearing and an American sign language (ASL) interpreter, and later decided to pursue interpreting herself after high school.
Now a certified ASL interpreter, Serna has done frequent in-person interpreting for medical appointments during Covid. She has also noticed a change in the world’s perception of sign language since the beginning of the pandemic: more people are paying attention.
Conveying updated information to everyone in the time of Covid is a matter of life or death, as the Trump administration learned recently after losing a groundbreaking federal lawsuit to the National Association for the Deaf, which ensured that a sign language interpreter must be present in Covid briefings and visible on the live feed from the White House. The Trump White House did not include its first sign language interpreter on a Covid briefing until 11 November, a full nine months after the pandemic reached America.
ASL is a common sign language – though by far not the only one – for people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing (deaf refers to the physical condition of deafness, while Deaf refers to belonging to the Deaf community). About 15% of adults in America report hearing loss, and about 1 million use sign language to communicate. ASL has its own rules and incorporates hand movements as well as facial motions, grammar and word ordering distinct from English, from which it is completely separate. Marla Berkowitz, a certified Deaf interpreter, explains that ASL “entails five parameters: handshapes, palm orientation, location (space on the body, around the signer), movement and of course, facial expressions”.
Even within ASL there are wide variants, differences in rhythm or slang, even regional accents and dialects. Black American Sign Language (BASL), for example, is a dialect of ASL developed during segregation. Black d/Deaf Americans, denied deaf education, socialized language differently than white d/Deaf Americans, with unique hand positions and word formations. Nakia Smith, a 22-year-old who is the fourth deaf generation in her family, explained this recently in a video from Netflix. (Smith’s TikTok channel, which featured her and her grandpa signing and explaining BASL, recently went viral.)
TikTok videos from d/Deaf creators like Smith (her TikTok username is itscharmay) and Diandra Hooper (theoriginaldeafbae) have helped bring sign language to the hearing masses. Instagram and Twitter are also full of accounts featuring video clips where people can learn a sign a day.
Perhaps the interest in signing is due, in part, to pandemic mask-wearing. Masks muffle speech, making it more difficult to communicate using spoken language, even for those who are hearing. For those like me, who are hard of hearing and utilize lip reading, it’s virtually impossible.
More people than ever are also being exposed to sign language through frequent Covid-related press conferences. Alongside governors and medical officers, in press briefings and media events, on television and online, sign language interpreters are working to pass on vital information.
Translating spoken English to sign language requires interpreters like Berkowitz, who is also certified by the supreme court of Ohio and the Ohio department of education. She made national news with her work signing for Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine. Admirers made a Facebook fan page, and she even has her own bobblehead doll.
I wish that people would normalize this communication access versus just making it a show
Other interpreters who have gone viral recently include Nic Zapko, who works with the Minnesota governor, Tim Walz; David Cowan, known for interpreting Governor Brian Kemp’s press conferences in Georgia; and Arkady Belozovsky, who grabbed the world’s attention when he interpreted an intense exchange between the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, and reporters.
Viewers have been drawn to Berkowitz’s energy, animated manner and expressions. Facial expressions, as Berkowitz said, “are an equivalent to intonation, revealing feelings, thoughts and mood while simultaneously utilizing the grammar markers (eye-gazing, eyebrow raised/lowered …) to distinguish statements from questions”. It’s not simply dramatic effect, but essential to the language. “I wish that people would normalize this communication access versus just making it a show,” said Serna.
I talked to Brian Cheslik, the artistic director for Deaf Austin Theatre and an interpreter for performances. Cheslik is also d/Deaf, as is Berkowitz, in a field where many interpreters are hearing.
“There is a stark difference in the interpretation style between Deaf and hearing interpreters,” Cheslik said. “Often, Deaf interpreters are native signers [since birth], so their signing style incorporates Deaf cultural norms, whereas hearing interpreters have a different style … as a Deaf person, I can always tell if an interpreter is Deaf or hearing.”
Berkowitz described hearing interpreters as “second-language users. Deaf people are not an ethnic monolith and require interpreting training to be certified Deaf interpreters, yet to work as an interpreter, one has to be bilingual – ASL and English – as well as [to have] inherited cultural knowledge and nuances.”
Both Cheslik and Berkowitz spoke to the importance of working together with hearing interpreters, especially when information may be impromptu or rapidly evolving. “I cherish my hearing interpreters on my team because they are always there to help me when I miss something, or if there is a change or announcement made,” Cheslik said, characterizing work with hearing interpreters as “a very important relationship”.
Perhaps no recent situation has a more urgent need for clear information than Covid press conferences. These conferences relay ever-changing regulations, and provide essential medical advice on stopping the spread of the virus. “Interpreting during Covid is challenging in every way,” Berkowitz said, describing handling press conference jargon, teamwork with other interpreters who may have different styles, and “the tremendous responsibility with getting accurate information in ASL”.
“The greatest joy is knowing the Deaf and hard of hearing community are receiving first-hand information seen on TV in ASL for the very first time in our lives,” Berkowitz said.
“To have Deaf interpreters spotlighted and highlighted during events like Joe Biden’s press conferences has been so amazing,” says Serna. “Also the fact that that he is normalizing having an interpreter on camera.”
All the interpreters interviewed for this story spoke to the struggle of getting sign language to be respected by the hearing population – a struggle I remember from my own studies, when I fought with my hearing professors who said ASL was not a “real” language, and would not count for my degree.
“ASL is NOT broken English or even a form of English. ASL is an actual language with its own grammatical structure, and syntax that is embedded in Deaf culture,” Cheslik said. “Yes, ASL is beautiful, but it is our language.”