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ASL interpreters bring crucial information to NC residents who are deaf and hard of hearing.
There’s a joke in the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter community that if you see an interpreter on the screen, you know to get bread and milk.
In 2017, the North Carolina Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing developed a relationship with the state’s Emergency Management Division to request interpreters for the governor’s public announcements related to public safety, public health or life threatening crises. At the time, it was hurricanes and ice storms officials wanted to warn about; now, it’s the coronavirus that, besides bread and milk, had North Carolinians scouring stores for toilet paper and bleach as well.
If you’ve been watching Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent news conferences, you’ll recognize Lee Williamson, who has been interpreting the coronavirus briefings since March and has been the primary interpreter for the governor’s press conferences since 2017.
A child of deaf adults (CODA), Williamson was exposed to sign language early on and grew up signing with his immediate and extended family, including deaf cousins who he played with during family gatherings. Williamson says he never thought of interpreting professionally, however, until, after college, he took a job as a staff interpreter at the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf in Wilson, where his parents taught. In this role, Williamson interpreted for the school’s students who also took classes at the local public high school.
In the 1990s, with the passing of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) requiring public accommodations for auxiliary aids and services for the deaf or hard of hearing, Williamson became a freelance interpreter for what he calls “public face work,” which includes large public meetings or press conferences. Williamson says public face work is intimidating, as interpreters must act as the public face of the entire American Sign Language community.
Despite the pressure of being in front of crowds of people or being broadcast on live TV, Williamson went on to become a staff interpreter, and then a communication access manager, for the NC Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. That led to him interpreting for the governor. Williamson says members of the deaf community are the gatekeepers to how you move up in your role as a sign language interpreter.
“The better you are, the better the deaf community understands you and the more you’re requested to do different types of work,” he explains. “You need to have an interpreter who has many years of experience, not only interpreting ASL but interacting with the deaf community.”
When selecting his current team of eight interpreters for Cooper’s COVID-related announcements, Williamson looked at each applicant’s interpreting skills as well as their ability to communicate in a way that is as close to native ASL as possible, so that the largest audience is able to watch and understand what they’re interpreting.
Williamson says because the deaf are only able to learn through intentional learning—rather than picking up information while only halfway listening, as hearing individuals can—the deaf community varies in its knowledge of general information.
Facial expressions help interpreters get their points across, too. In fact, Williamson says, facial expressions are one the most important parts of sign language communication. Although facial expressions vary by each interpreter’s personality, Williamson explains that they add context and meaning behind a sign. For example, if you sign “interesting” while rolling your eyes, it translates to sarcasm.
“Facial expressions, shaking your head or your shoulders, the shape of your mouth—all of these influence your sign,” Williamson says. Interpreters try to wear clothes, he adds, that contrast with their skin tones, so their hands are more clearly visible.
In the past few years, Williamson says there has been a push within the National Association for the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters to use deaf interpreters for press conferences, or any other public face work, as deaf interpreters are the only true native signers. They would still, of course, need interpreters like Williamson to relay them messages, which they can then communicate into a native and more authentic ASL.
“In this age of recognition of historically marginalized communities, the deaf community is extremely marginalized—they’re treated differently because they’re deaf,” Williamson says. “We want people to realize that it’s not our language, it’s not our culture. It’s not for us to speak for the deaf community.”
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