David Krueger

David Krueger sign language interpreting for one of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s coronavirus press conferences.

Gov. Scott’s thrice weekly press conferences have featured sign language interpreters – albeit inconsistently. They started with interpreters for the deaf present, then went without.

After a letter with a 400-signature petition was sent to the governor, sign language interpreters were reinstituted, said Secretary of the Vermont Association of the Deaf Laura Siegel.

The Monday, May 4, press conference was not interpreted because of a scheduling problem, the Governor’s Director of Communications Rebecca Kelley said, but this was solved for Wednesday’s iteration. A Certified Deaf Interpreter and American Sign Language interpreter were present to share communication with audiences.

Vermont is one of the last states to have its press conferences interpreted for the deaf. The president’s press conferences are not interpreted – which advocates for the deaf say limits access to millions of Americans.

Kelley has been the Director of Communications since 2017 and she said the governor’s series of coronavirus press conferences was the first time she’d heard the issue raised.

New York is possibly the only state still not having its press conferences sign language interpreted on TV. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is being sued by a group of deaf New Yorkers for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Cuomo has responded that the press conferences are interpreted online. That is insufficient, because some don’t have internet access, according to David Krueger, president of Vermont Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Interpreting takes a team

The Vermont petition demands a team of two interpreters with both a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) and an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. The deaf community advocates for the CDIs because a deaf interpreter communicates concepts more clearly and completely than a hearing interpreter.

Krueger made the analogy: “When you call for tech support, you are typically connected to someone in a foreign country. They speak English. It’s not that they don’t know English. But they may make syntax or pronunciation errors that a person whose first language is English will not make.”

Most hearing interpreters know ASL very well, but many have learned it in college as a second language, he said. The deaf person interprets more clearly because it’s their native language.

Only the CDI is seen on the TV screen when a two-person team of interpreters translate an event like a press conference. The ASL hearing interpreter sits in the audience and translates to the CDI.

Those watching when Gov. Phil Scott’s coronavirus press conferences are translated may have noticed that the interpreters work in shifts.

“Interpreters have to switch off because it is physically and mentally taxing. They take turns every 20 minutes or so,” said Siegel.

VTAD Acting President Elena Shapiro said they have been working with TV stations and lobbying the governor for several accommodations to make the press conferences clearer to deaf Vermonters. One request is to keep the camera on the interpreter for the whole press conference. A closeup of a speaker leaves the deaf population out of the communication.

One TV station had captioning with white text on a white background when the coronavirus press conferences first started. Shapiro said the station cooperated by using more contrasting colors for text and background after they pointed out the problem.

Coronavirus press conferences a gamechanger?

Becoming fluent in ASL takes from five to seven years, said John Pirone, lecturer and coordinator in American Sign Language at the University of Vermont’s College of Education and Social Services.

Having interpreters for the Monday, Wednesday and Friday governor’s press conferences may prove to be a gamechanger for Vermont, said Pirone. “To be honest Vermont is a little late to the game.”

Massachusetts was ahead of the Green Mountain State in having state press conferences interpreted. Around nine years ago, a large water main break in Massachusetts caused an emergency situation. Untranslated press conferences to warn the public left many deaf people in the dark. Hurricane Sandy a couple of years later also underscored the need for interpreters and inspired changes there, Pirone said.

“I suspect the same thing is happening here in Vermont. Advocacy has started and individuals have started to speak up,” he said.

Hearing people unfamiliar with sign language interpretation watching the governor’s press conferences might think the interpreters are overacting with exaggerated expressions, but this is “the nature of ASL,” Pirone said.

“Seventy percent of American sign language is facial expressions,” said Pirone. “The majority of the grammar is within the facial expressions. Adjectives - all of that is clearly defined within the facial expression.”

He said people should also realize it is important for interpreters to translate a message’s same meaning and same intent. “You’re their information, their emotions, their expressions, all of that is hand delivered within that sign language interpretation.”

In fact, the interpreter is not supposed to add themselves into the communication at all. “Interpreters are supposed to be neutral. They’re not there to get any attention,” said Siegel.

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