Now You See Them — Behind the Scenes with Sign Language Interpreters

by Danielle Meder

In January 2021, the White House announced that all press briefings would have an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. Just four months prior, in August 2020, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) sued then-President Trump for not providing accessibility during all COVID-19 press briefings. The suit was successful. In October 2020, ASL interpreters were at all COVID-19 press briefings held at the White House.

Many states across the United States have provided American Sign Language interpreters for local or state COVID-19 press briefings. In Minnesota, one of the interpreters, Nic Zapko, a Deaf interpreter, went viral in 2020 for her expressions while interpreting. Her work as a Deaf interpreter has been instrumental in keeping the Minnesota Deaf community aware of all coronavirus developments. So instrumental that Governor Walz declared Tuesday, March 9, as “Nic Zapko Day.”

The United States is not alone in providing sign language interpreters during COVID-19 press briefings. Scotland, Northern Ireland, France, New Zealand, and Italy are some of the other countries providing sign language interpreters.

During the pandemic, the visibility of sign language interpreters spiked. With the increased presence of sign language interpreters across television screens comes increased commentary. Any Google search for sign language interpreters is going to return results about how funny they look while working. Results also include questions people ask such as whether ASL is universal or if it’s a legitimate language.

Let’s take this time to answer these common questions and comments, as well as tell you what sign language interpreters want people to know.  As a professional American Sign Language interpreter myself, the following information will help set the record straight and make the work sign language interpreters do easier.

All those facial expressions — that’s part of the grammar

When people comment on how expressive, animated, or funny an interpreter’s face looks while interpreting, they are actually commenting on sign language’s grammar. Sign Language is a 3D language. It’s physical. Interpreters are committed to matching the language, tone, and intent of the speaker. While interpreters inevitably are memed on the internet, making fun of how they look or mimicking them is insensitive to sign language and sign language users. 

ASL is its own language and not just gestures

American Sign Language is its own language. The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders says, “ASL is a language completely separate and distinct from English. It contains all the fundamental features of language, with its own rules for pronunciation, word formation, and word order.” While some signs may look like a gesture, each sign is produced and used with the necessary grammatical components. Just as all languages evolve and new vocabulary is added, ASL is the same. There was no sign for ‘coronavirus’ before the pandemic. The Deaf community, collectively, created the sign that is now used. 

ASL is NOT universal

There are over 200 different sign languages across the globe. ASL is the sign language used by Deaf people in the United States. Italian Deaf people use La Lingua dei Segni Italiana (LIS) and Deaf people in the United Kingdom use British Sign Language. Sign languages are not interchangeable due to their grammar, sign production, and formal language dynamics. 

Deaf Interpreters are necessary

Nic Zapko is a Deaf interpreter in Minnesota. Deaf interpreters are native users of their sign language and members of the Deaf community because they are Deaf themselves. This makes them experts in their language and culture. Hearing sign language interpreters, even if born to Deaf parents, do not have the same level of language knowledge or cultural intimacy as a Deaf person.  Deaf interpreters work in partnership with a hearing interpreter (who interprets the original spoken message to the Deaf interpreter), and the interpretation created is the most accessible and native for the Deaf person. Deaf interpreters do not work just in public briefings or during pandemics. Deaf interpreters are important in numerous other settings when cultural and linguistic differences may have a greater impact on communication.

Sign Language Interpreters have niches

Like doctors, teachers, or lawyers, interpreters have areas of
speciality and practice. Interpreting in a medical situation requires a different skill set, terminology, and knowledge base than interpreting in academia, legal, or business. This is why when a sign language interpreter is called for one type of encounter and it evolves beyond their scope of practice, another interpreter has to be requested. For example, if a medical interpreter is interpreting for a Deaf patient in an emergency situation who is then asked to give a statement to the police, then an interpreter trained in legal interpreting should be called.

Lip reading, captions, and writing back and forth are not substitutes for qualified ASL interpreters

American Sign Language is its own language. It’s a visual language. While lip formations are a part of its grammar, lip reading is not a substitute for sign language. Some Deaf people may be able to read lips, but that is something a Deaf person will disclose if they choose. Writing back
and forth in English, which may be the Deaf person’s second language, is also not a substitute for sign language. This is why having sign language interpreters at press conferences during the pandemic and other natural disasters involving critical information is so important. Reading captions in their non-native language is not equitable access for sign language users. ASL is its own language, and swapping out sign language interpreters for English captions is asking the Deaf community to read in their second language. 

One interpreting modality doesn’t work for all Deaf people in all situations

Interpreting for a visual language can be done in one of two ways: in person or over video. Depending on the encounter ( a medical appointment, meeting with a financial advisor, or university class), an interpreter in person or over video will be necessary. The decision to use a video remote interpreter or an in-person interpreter is dependent on the Deaf participant, the type of communication and environmental dynamics, as well as interpreter availability. What works in one situation may not work in the next. Communication preference is personal and language access solutions should meet the needs of each participant so the communicative autonomy of all is respected. 

If you want to learn ASL, learn it from a Deaf person 

American Sign language is one of the most studied foreign languages in the United States. If you want to learn ASL, or any signed language, learning it from members of the Deaf community is the best way to do so. When someone learns a new language such as French or Spanish, they seek out native speakers of that language who also have training in how to teach it. The same approach should be taken when learning any sign language. 

If you have an interpreter at your event, they are there to interpret, not participate

There are several videos on Youtube where a comedian realizes they have a sign language interpreter working their show and then pivots their entire comedic focus to him or her. The interpreter, who must remain impartial, cannot break from their role and engage. Comedians and others who are fascinated by the presence of an interpreter will start talking about the interpreter, the way they look, even start using colorful and explicit language to try and trip them up. Interpreters are professionals, and when the attention is focused on them, especially for comedic purposes, it places them in the spotlight — the one place they don’t want to be.

Language access for the Deaf community, and all communities where members don’t speak the dominant language, has never been more important. Quality language access that meets the linguistic and cultural needs of all must be a priority during the pandemic and in every place a Deaf person needs to communicate. Although language access is a protected right for the Deaf community under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are still barriers to equitable language access across the United States. Hopefully, after learning more about the nuanced dynamics of sign language and sign language interpreters, you can be a more informed ally to the Deaf community and sign language interpreters.  

Danielle Meder, NIC is a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter with over 15 years experience. She is a licensed trainer and regularly presents on equitable language access that supports the communicative autonomy of all.

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