Seeing ASL interpretation at COVID-19 briefings 'an awesome experience': advocate
Interpreter had to come up with creative ways to sign new terms, like COVID-19 and coronavirus
Eleven months ago, Karen Nurkowski was called on to interpret a provincial news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, few Saskatchewan cases were confirmed but people were worried.
It was a challenge. There were new words that hadn't been signed before — like as COVID-19 or coronavirus — and she needed to keep up with both reporters' questions and the premier, health minister and chief medical officer's comments.
However, while watching on the screen, it was a first for people like Patricia Spicer — a deaf woman and advocate, who was seeing sign language in a provincial news conference for the first time.
"I was so happy. Everybody was so happy. Everybody in the deaf community was so happy to get information about the pandemic," Spicer said through an American Sign Language interpreter.
Spicer said Nurkowski was interpreting the words into her first language. She said this meant she could understand the full story, which reduced stress and anxiety about the pandemic.
"I have that feeling of being included," Spicer said. "Now we are right up to date with everybody else. The frustration is gone. We don't have to fight for our rights. Everything has all come together. It's been an awesome experience."
Closed captioning not the same as Spicer's first language
At the provincial news conferences, there is closed captioning offered, however Spicer said this is not equal to having an ASL interpreter. Spicer said English is not her first language and the captioning doesn't incorporate facial expressions and body movements.
"It's like the tone of voice of a person speaking," Spicer said of facial expressions. "They have intonation, their voice raises and lowers and has different tones, meaning different things … the expression is very key."
Masks make it difficult to understand tones, which has been a challenge during the pandemic as well, Spicer said. Nurkowski signing without a mask — while being physically distanced — is an important part, she said.
New wave of people seeing ASL for the first time
There's been another effect of having an interpreter at news conferences: awareness of ASL. Spicer said the hearing community is recognizing how it gives deaf people access to information and are potentially seeing ASL in action for the first time.
"They think that American Sign Language is a very fascinating thing to see and they want to do it," Spicer said.
As a result, Spicer's ASL classes at the Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, Regina Branch have been sold out. Spicer said most of the people taking the classes aren't going to become interpreters but are doing enough so if they meet a deaf person they can have a conversation.
Spicer hopes the new interest will result in more people becoming interpreters. Nurkowski is seeing that effect too. She's been contacted by many people about her work, and even though there's a risk of COVID-19, she said it's needed and rewarding.
"It's nerve wracking to be in front of the TV cameras … But I know that somebody out there is watching that needs that information, so it makes it worth it."
'Top guy,' 'Dr. S': Unique signs for Sask. press conferences
While interpreting a conference, there are a variety of words Nurkowski has had to troubleshoot herself, such as premier.
"There's not exactly a true sign in American Sign language for 'premier.' I would have to spell it," she said. "To do that every time it's a bit tedious and also finger spelling when it comes to being on a screen."
Instead, Nurkowski will spell out premier the first time, then use the shortcut "top guy." Similarly, she would spell out Dr. Saqib Shahab and Scott Livingstone, then refer to Shahab as "Dr. S" and Livingstone as "Scott L."
"Nothing fancy, but that's how I just did it. Some of them you do on the fly and some you do with forethought," she said. "It's survival. It's what you have to do."
In the future, Spicer would like to see an interpreter at all major events, such as weather emergency broadcasts or important government broadcasts. Nurkowski said she thinks having an interpreter will become a standard because now people know what it's like.
"This is a step in the right direction for the future and that things will be more accessible, hopefully, the important things," she said. "American Sign Language is not going anywhere. It will always be needed. There's always going to be somebody who needs sign language to communicate."
Spicer said another way to improve the current situation would be to start with children, planting the seed for young students to begin to learn how to sign.
"Maybe they'll grow up to be police officers or a nurse or a firefighter or EMT where they might need those skills," Spicer said. "Start them when they're young and when they get old enough to decide what they want to do for their future, then they could take a class."
Students learning simple phrases in schools could also help teach deaf children that they are included, she said.
"Kids are sponges and they would just pick it up so quickly," Spicer said. "And American Sign Language is a real beautiful language."
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