On January 8, 2021, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported on challenges to communication for deaf and hard of hearing people because of COVID-19. Face masks slow the spread of COVID-19 but raise communication barriers for people with hearing loss and deafness. Who can read lips that are hidden behind a face mask? American Sign Language interpreters are now commonplace at COVID-19 press conferences. They haven’t reached rock star status, but one ASL interpreter believes “sign language is kind of sexy.”
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Make a fist with your right hand, and with your left, spread out your fingers and splay them over your fist, starting at the wrist.
The sign for coronavirus is a new sign American Sign Language interpreters and the deaf community have become all too familiar with over the p…
Interpreters have been out in the forefront during press conferences with government officials and the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. If you’re a hearing person who doesn’t know what their signs mean, you still might watch them anyway, curious.
“Right now, sign language is kind of sexy,” said Eric Driskill, who coordinates the Deaf Communication Studies program at St. Louis Community College. He cites deaf people on shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “Switched at Birth.” “It’s a cool thing, and hearing people are fascinated by it.”
Driskill, who interpreted at St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s press conferences this spring and summer, said people sometimes recognize him.
“You’re the sign guy,” they’d say.
But they’d also lower their voices and say, “I had no idea how much I relied on reading people’s lips, now that people have masks on. I have trouble understanding people. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, go figure.’”
For the estimated 300,000 people with hearing issues in the St. Louis region, it’s often an added challenge getting rapidly changing information about combating a deadly virus. There are about 650 certified interpreters in the state of Missouri.
Closed captioning services aren’t always reliable or fast. The average reading level for deaf people is the third to fifth grade, and English may not be their first language. Clear masks or shields may not be as safe and may fog up. Masks themselves add another barrier — literally and figuratively.
“If someone were to wear a mask and sign only, I would understand them but it would be harder for me because I rely on both,” said Sarah Prechtel, the executive director of DEAF Inc., an advocacy and education organization. Prechtel was born profoundly deaf, and said that at the beginning of the pandemic she felt isolated, disconnected and disengaged. Her husband, Victor, is also deaf.
She remembers her first trip to a Sam’s Club in March. She pulled up and didn’t realize why people were lining up outside.
Employees wearing masks started talking to her, but she had no idea what they were saying. “I have to read your lips, you have to pull your mask down,” she told them.
“It was just standing there for a minute or two figuring out how to communicate, when all I want to do is go in and go shopping.”
Interpreter Nicole DeVore supervises interpreters for Paraquad, and she and her colleagues have interpreted for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and the task force. She said that signing and communicating with a mask on is an issue because so much of ASL grammar is shown on the face and involves mouth morphemes and movement.
While she often goes in person to things like medical appointments, interpreter work in virtual formats like Zoom has skyrocketed. But video is a two-dimensional space, and ASL is a three-dimensional language, so everyone has to adjust.
“There’s a lot to be said for the advancement of technology for the deaf and hard of hearing,” he said. “But it still has a way to go. And nothing will beat a live, in-person interpreter.”
DeVore set up a dark curtain and lighting in her bedroom so that her hands and face would be more visible to viewers. (Contrasting clothing worn by interpreters is a necessary cliché, but she notes that interpreters often go a bit crazy at industry conferences wearing loud Hawaiian or concert T-shirts.)
Viewers of Page’s press conferences might notice that the interpreter once stood next to Page against a backdrop of flags.
They moved the interpreter’s space off to the side in front of a dark curtain to provide a little more distance and to make the interpreter more visible. The interpreter appears inside a video overlay on the screen.
Interpreter Jesse Schlueter, who now interprets most of Page’s press conferences, said that though most interpreters themselves don’t want to be in the spotlight, one benefit to their visibility is that it’s made people and government agencies realize that accessibility, though required by law, is important.