Nova Scotia

Signs of the times: Meet the duo providing COVID-19 updates to thousands of deaf Nova Scotians

Richard Martell and Debbie Johnson-Powell have signed almost every COVID-19 update in Nova Scotia since the pandemic began.

Richard Martell and Debbie Johnson-Powell have signed almost every COVID-19 update

Richard Martell and Debbie Johnson-Powell are the sign language interpreters assigned to Nova Scotia's COVID-19 briefings. (Submitted by Richard Martell)

As Nova Scotians tune into the province's COVID-19 briefings every week, they are usually greeted by the smiling face of a sign language interpreter nestled in the bottom corner of the screen.

That's Richard Martell, a deaf sign language interpreter who has been providing crucial information to thousands of deaf and partly deaf Nova Scotians for more than a year.

Although he is alone in the little grey box at every briefing, Debbie Johnson-Powell is never far away.

Johnson-Powell, a hearing sign language interpreter, works behind the scenes to listen to Premier Iain Rankin and Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health.

She then relays that information to Martell in American Sign Language, so he can share it acurately — linguistically and culturally — using Maritime Sign Language.

The duo work as a well-oiled machine to provide 58,000 deaf and partly deaf Nova Scotians important details about the pandemic.

"I don't want to just give them the information — I want them to see the seriousness of it and have equal access to everyone else," Martell said in sign language Sunday.

"I think it's something that's needed and I enjoy doing it."

'I want all deaf individuals to be safe'

Martell and Johnson-Powell have been at almost every COVID-19 briefing since the start of the pandemic.

The two interpreters both learned American Sign Language as their first language.

Although she hears, Johnson-Powell grew up with two deaf parents and a deaf brother. She has since worked as an interpreter for 40 years. 

Martell, who is deaf, learned the language by working with other deaf children and adults. He is now a sign language consultant.

If there was no one there to present this through interpreting means, they wouldn't know what the rules are and how to stay safe.- Richard Martell, deaf sign language interpreter

So last spring, when he was asked by the Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians to interpret the briefings, he jumped at the chance.

"I wanted to do this because I want all deaf individuals to be safe. I want them to be able to understand the importance of this information — that [COVID-19] could cause death," Martell said, adding that most deaf viewers have been getting tested and vaccinated.

"If there was no one there to present this through interpreting means, they wouldn't know what the rules are and how to stay safe so this way, they have this information and they see the seriousness of it and the importance of staying home."

Martell said that's why sign language is so important. He said over the years, deaf people didn't have access to important information because interpretation wasn't available.

Martell, the deaf sign language interpreter assigned to COVID-19 updates in Nova Scotia, seen in the bottom left corner, with Premier Iain Rankin and Dr. Robert Strang. (Nova Scotia Government/Facebook)

Johnson-Powell said the COVID-19 briefings have created more recognition of the language.

"Now people are exposed to deaf interpreters and they are exposed to the language and now there seems to be more and more interest for people to learn the language," she said.

Martell said he hopes having sign language displayed at the COVID-19 briefings shows that it is needed in more areas of society, like hospitals and courtrooms.

"We should continue that and to have the government of Nova Scotia provide that — making sure that it's all accessible for everyone — I think that is the important issue," he said.

'Helps stop the spread'

Both Johnson-Powell and Martell said they didn't expect the COVID-19 briefings to continue for more than a few months.

But even after a year, they still find the work rewarding.

"I'm excited about doing the work. I'm excited about the experience and giving the deaf community the support and information," Martell said. 

"They now have access to the regulations and to the medical information that helps stop the spread."


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