Interpreters help deaf community get instant virus updates


CASPER — American Sign Language interpreter Gail Schenfisch stands behind officials in the live-streamed Natrona County news conferences about the COVID-19 pandemic and interprets for the local deaf community. 

She’s relayed crucial information like school and business closures, precautions, the prevalence of COVID-19 in the county and state, symptoms, and how to access testing and medical care. 

The Natrona County Emergency Operations Center’s news conferences began daily last month and are now held most Wednesdays. 

Schenfisch, who teaches ASL at Casper College, has national certifications as an interpreter, transliterator and qualified mental health interpreter, she said in a video posted on the Casper College Facebook page.

A sign language interpreter in the live news conferences is crucial for deaf people like Heather Parsons, a leader in the local deaf community who gave an interview to the Star-Tribune through video conference with Schenfisch interpreting. 

Parsons needs updates on schools for her daughter as well as on how to buy groceries or pick up food from a restaurant. She likes to plan what she needs to do ahead of time, she said. 

“So little, simple things like that really help. It is important for me to know everything that’s going on locally, especially.” 

Awareness Interpreters in national news about emergencies have often been cut from view, Schenfisch said in a message. 

Awareness is increasing during the pandemic about the need for deaf people to be able to access information, and now ASL-interpreted live announcements can be seen nearly everywhere. 

“It’s about time,” Parsons said. However, availability of interpreted events depends on the location, she said. 

Sometimes captioning is available, but it doesn’t always work due to glitches or limits of digitally generated text. Often, deaf people must wait until later to read the news.

“Most of the time, a live broadcast doesn’t even have captioning, so the up-to-date information — it’s very frustrating as a deaf person because they don’t have live captioning,” she said. “But when there’s an interpreter and they put an interpreter in, it is so much better. And you get the information right then and there. It’s so much more clear.”

Other issues in deaf access to pandemic news around the country have included a lack of interpreted events or even interpreters who lack the necessary skills, Schenfisch explained. 

There seems to be a heightened awareness through the pandemic about accessibility issues for people who are deaf, which she hopes will continue. 

Along with increasing use of interpreters in live newscasts, Parsons has noticed more attention from the general public in media comments about the presence of interpreters. 

“Hearing people are watching it, and they’re watching the interpreter and just the awareness, increasing an awareness that there is a deaf community out there.” 

Awareness has grown about the need for interpreted news since Hurricane Katrina, when many deaf people didn’t know about things like approaching floods or evacuations, Parsons said. 

During the pandemic, though, she’s often seen the camera focused on the governor of New York, for example, or other officials while the interpreter is cut out. 

“Which doesn’t make any sense at all, because it cuts out the deaf people. They can’t have the information. So it’s wonderful that they bring in an interpreter, but I think that the news has to become aware that, ‘Hey, the reason why the interpreter is there is so that we can see them.’” 

Another national improvement is increased use of certified deaf interpreters — deaf or hard-of-hearing people trained to work in a team with a hearing interpreter. 

The hearing interpreter watches the speaker from the audience and signs to the certified deaf interpreter, who translates it into more of a native sign language that can reach a wider range of ASL users, Schenfisch said. 

They’re likelier to use more specialized and expressive gestures, which makes the communication clearer. 

“And I think it’s more of a natural, native ASL than hearing people can create. Certified deaf interpreters are used in many different situations where it’s just imperative that the language is really clear. They’re used right now in an emergency broadcasts, and I think we’re not going back from before.” 

She mentioned a statement from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf saying that certified deaf interpreters are crucial for news conferences. 

Wyoming doesn’t have certified deaf interpreters, and there is a limited number of nationally certified interpreters. 

She watched an announcement by Gov. Mark Gordon last week that wasn’t interpreted and wondered if an interpreter wasn’t available at the time. 

Schenfisch watched a newscast in The Daily Moth deaf news journal that reported last month that three states — New York, Vermont and Montana — didn’t use ASL interpreters for their governors’ briefings on the pandemic. 

“We’re fortunate to have Gail here as an interpreter in Casper to have that live broadcast,” Parsons said. 

Schenfisch has learned several new signs in her role interpreting for the live news conferences, some of them new or new acceptable signs in the ever-evolving language, like the signs for “coronavirus” and “pandemic” or “quarantine.” 

Some have been adapted from existing signs. 

“Social distancing” is like the sign for “meet” but with the hands spaced farther apart and slightly diagonal. The sign for how the virus attaches is similar to the sign for “stick,” but the motion moves up to the chest, and the sign for “symptoms” is same as for “appear” but with a new use when talking about the pandemic. 

She’s also learned the more deaf culturally appropriate sign for “public” to use in context of the pandemic. 

The Natrona County Emergency Operations Center had the forethought to contact an ASL interpreter to ensure deaf people could access updates about the pandemic, Schenfisch said. 

“They thought of it first, so I think that’s an awesome kudos to the emergency center.” The Natrona County Sheriff ’s Department several years ago recruited from the deaf community for Certified Emergency Response Team members, and about 20 signed up.

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