Saamanta Serna describes herself as a Coda – the child of a Deaf adult. She grew up up with a Deaf mother and a father who is hearing and an American sign language (ASL) interpreter, and later decided to pursue interpreting herself after high school.
Now a certified ASL interpreter, Serna has done frequent in-person interpreting for medical appointments during Covid. She has also noticed a change in the world’s perception of sign language since the beginning of the pandemic: more people are paying attention.
Conveying updated information to everyone in the time of Covid is a matter of life or death, as the Trump administration learned recently after losing a groundbreaking federal lawsuit to the National Association for the Deaf, which ensured that a sign language interpreter must be present in Covid briefings and visible on the live feed from the White House. The Trump White House did not include its first sign language interpreter on a Covid briefing until 11 November, a full nine months after the pandemic reached America.
ASL is a common sign language – though by far not the only one – for people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing (deaf refers to the physical condition of deafness, while Deaf refers to belonging to the Deaf community). About 15% of adults in America report hearing loss, and about 1 million use sign language to communicate. ASL has its own rules and incorporates hand movements as well as facial motions, grammar and word ordering distinct from English, from which it is completely separate. Marla Berkowitz, a certified Deaf interpreter, explains that ASL “entails five parameters: handshapes, palm orientation, location (space on the body, around the signer), movement and of course, facial expressions”.
Even within ASL there are wide variants, differences in rhythm or slang, even regional accents and dialects. Black American Sign Language (BASL), for example, is a dialect of ASL developed during segregation. Black d/Deaf Americans, denied deaf education, socialized language differently than white d/Deaf Americans, with unique hand positions and word formations. Nakia Smith, a 22-year-old who is the fourth deaf generation in her family, explained this recently in a video from Netflix. (Smith’s TikTok channel, which featured her and her grandpa signing and explaining BASL, recently went viral.)
TikTok videos from d/Deaf creators like Smith (her TikTok username is itscharmay) and Diandra Hooper (theoriginaldeafbae) have helped bring sign language to the hearing masses. Instagram and Twitter are also full of accounts featuring video clips where people can learn a sign a day.
Perhaps the interest in signing is due, in part, to pandemic mask-wearing. Masks muffle speech, making it more difficult to communicate using spoken language, even for those who are hearing. For those like me, who are hard of hearing and utilize lip reading, it’s virtually impossible.
More people than ever are also being exposed to sign language through frequent Covid-related press conferences. Alongside governors and medical officers, in press briefings and media events, on television and online, sign language interpreters are working to pass on vital information.
Translating spoken English to sign language requires interpreters like Berkowitz, who is also certified by the supreme court of Ohio and the Ohio department of education. She made national news with her work signing for Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine. Admirers made a Facebook fan page, and she even has her own bobblehead doll.
Other interpreters who have gone viral recently include Nic Zapko, who works with the Minnesota governor, Tim Walz; David Cowan, known for interpreting Governor Brian Kemp’s press conferences in Georgia; and Arkady Belozovsky, who grabbed the world’s attention when he interpreted an intense exchange between the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, and reporters.
Viewers have been drawn to Berkowitz’s energy, animated manner and expressions. Facial expressions, as Berkowitz said, “are an equivalent to intonation, revealing feelings, thoughts and mood while simultaneously utilizing the grammar markers (eye-gazing, eyebrow raised/lowered …) to distinguish statements from questions”. It’s not simply dramatic effect, but essential to the language. “I wish that people would normalize this communication access versus just making it a show,” said Serna.
Why Deaf interpreters are a crucial tool during the pandemic The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ The Guardian.