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Sign language interpreters become critical during times of crisis like the coronavirus

Posted at 5:56 PM, May 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-01 17:56:15-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When every new update of information can save lives, access to understanding that information is key.

That’s why American Sign Language interpreters have been working alongside governors across the country. While the effort bridges the gap in communication, it also is part of a language that is evolving every day.

Drew Wann is a nationally-certified interpreter who has worked for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis multiple times during the coronavirus crisis. The job is complicated and the flow of information requires a high level of focus.

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“Not only at a rapid pace, but at a high volume. Sometimes something in English that might be a few words will be several ASL sentences. Conversely, though, sometimes an English sentence can be summed up in just a handful of signs. So, you’re constantly trying to figure out when do I do an expansion on this to get across the concept. When can I sort of sum up a little bit without losing the most information,” said Wann.

It’s a complicated job that he takes seriously. Wann is in a constant mode of preparation to be ready in case he is called upon to interpret for the governor or any other jurisdiction.

“I’ll tell you what has really helped me is preparation. So, I’m very grateful to the governor’s team for giving all the information they can in advance to try to help me be ready. I try to look at the Florida Department of Health’s website. I look at the governor’s previous briefings. I keep up with the news,” he said.

Wann said a common misconception is that closed captioning is equal in access to providing an interpreter.

"Some people online have raised the objection that close captioning should be good enough. But what a lot of people don’t realize is sign language is the natural language of deaf people. Sign language has no written form. English is not the written form of sign language. They’re reading it in their second language. Think about if you had to take critical information in your second language, how much would you understand? By bringing in interpreters though, especially those Certified Deaf Interpreters where available, we are really able to produce things in the natural language of the deaf.”

By Certified Deaf Interpreters, Wann means his colleagues who are deaf themselves. These are interpreters whose native language is ASL because they are deaf themselves. The deaf interpreters stand next to the governor and have an interpreter themselves off camera.

“Wonderful, important part of our profession. So, they watch an interpreter sign the message, and then they think, OK the deaf community is very diverse. We have deaf people who are very well educated. We have deaf people who have moved here from other countries, and American Sign Language isn’t even their first language. So, how can I sign this in a way that’s going to reach and fit all of these diverse deaf people. They are incredible,” Wann said.

By watching other interpreters around the United States and Canada, Wann learns from their work. The language is always evolving, and new signs emerge from new words and phrases. While COVID-19 has quickly gotten some common signs, others have been more complicated to sign as the language has evolved.

“Things like ‘social distancing,' ‘contact tracing.’ How do you get those ideas across? Even PPE. You can sign ‘personal protective equipment,’ but that’s not the natural way that a deaf person would discuss that in ASL. Deaf people will often give examples in categories. So, when PPE comes up, you’ll see a lot of interpreters say, ‘You know, gloves, mask, gown and so on.’ So, you have to think about not only how to sign these terms we don’t hear often.”

The job of the interpreter is to explain these concepts in the most clear way for the deaf to understand in their language.

A big part of clarity is the use of ASL’s grammar and tone, which is shown through body language.

“A lot of times when people see an interpreter, they tend to focus on unusual facial expressions, from their standpoint. But again, it’s the natural language of deaf people,” Wann said. “Facial expressions tend to fall into two categories. What you could call natural facial expressions and then ASL facial grammar. So natural facial expressions, think about it. If somebody is angry, they’re frowning, they’re gritting their teeth. They’re knitting their brows. If you’re happy, you smile. If you’re surprised, your mouth opens and your eyes widen. So you see that. And in ASL that replaces tone of voice. There’s no voice to modulate. So everything has to be on your face.”

The second part is ASL facial grammar. Wann gives the example of showing somebody who is driving.

“If I grit my teeth and I look back and forth, can you tell that I’m driving, and I’m looking for something now? If I modify this same sign and I stick my tongue out, this now means I’m driving carelessly. And if I drive in a circle and do that, it means that I’m driving aimlessly. When you modify a sign using your tongue out, it gets across those ideas of careless, aimless, directionless. ASL has hundreds if not thousands of those kinds of expressions. The way you tilt your head, the way you move your eyebrows, wrinkling your nose. What you do with your teeth, your lips, your tongue. Shifting your body, it’s all really an intricate part of sign language grammar, and to deaf people, it’s very natural,” he explained.

Wann encourages everybody to open themselves up to the deaf culture and learning American Sign Language.

“I think you will find this incredible rich culture, right there in your backyard, and you will only benefit by being a part of it,” he said.

DeSantis has not consistently used an interpreter at his news conferences, especially during the last couple of weeks in Florida. Other states have framed camera angles differently or put the interpreter in a different room so they can be in a picture-in-picture video format.

The Florida governor’s office said when announcements have been quick to organize, the office has struggled to get an interpreter in time. They’ve also had concerns with social distancing.

When DeSantis has traveled, his spokesperson says the office has relied on local municipalities to make a decision about the interpreter, which has not happened. They say they are working on a solution, but have not given a timeline of when that might happen.

A lawsuit was filed this week against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for not having a sign language interpreter at his daily coronavirus press briefings.