Translator Spotlight: Interpreting ASL during COVID-19

hands showing American Sign Language signs

COVID-19 has unfortunately affected some communities more than others. To that end, there have been many stories about masks interfering with how Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people communicate, specifically as it relates to their ability to read lips.

There was a viral video of a cop helping a frustrated deaf woman at the DMV,  a story of a pro bono ASL interpreter covering social unrest and a deaf teen on social media bemoaning the lack of ASL interpreters at debates.

There is no denying that COVID-19 has shone a light on the need for ASL interpreters.  We talked to iTi’s Scott Cawley to get some perspective on what it is like to be an ASL interpreter during a pandemic. Scott previously spent 16 years as an interpreter for the state of Connecticut and also worked as a medical interpreter for Yale-New Haven Hospital.

iti's ASL interpreter Scott Cawley

A passion for communication is why Scott went from being a paramedic to an ASL interpreter.

iTI: What made you want to get into this field? And what made you want this to be your career?

Scott: I decided to go back to college for a second career and met a great group of deaf students while I was taking my first ASL class. My desire to communicate with them became a passion to learn the language.  I was told early on in my studies that male medical interpreters were in high demand. The challenge became to combine my previous career as a paramedic with my newfound studies in ASL interpreting.  Communication became my passion.  Both the Deaf and interpreting communities inspired me to make a change. I had strong support from both and felt that I could make a positive contribution.

iTi: What has it been like on the medical side of interpreting since COVID-19 hit?

Scott: The first thing they always say, ‘Oh, thank God you’re here.’ There is a lot of miscommunication. Facial expressions are a huge part of nonverbal communication and the use of face coverings has limited this portion of ASL. It has been a challenge, to say the least.

iTi: How difficult have masks made communicating with clients?

Scott: Being unable to see facial expressions poses a challenge for both the client and the interpreter. The clear mask is useful in most cases now, but the N95 and full PPE are required when dealing with patients who are a COVID-19 risk. That becomes extremely frustrating for the client.

iTi: What is the hardest thing for you to sign?

Scott: Idioms and metaphors. An example would be: ‘If it’s not one thing, it’s the other.’ This idiom is used quite often. Idioms and Metaphors are interpreted for the conceptual meaning in ASL and tend not to be word-for-word interpretations.

iTi: What is the most fulfilling part of being an ASL interpreter?

Scott: Seeing communication and understanding happen between two cultures.  One difference between the Deaf and hearing cultures is how each perceives language. The Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing culture relies on a variety of communication markers for understanding, like visual-gestural communication, facial expression, classifiers (manual handshapes), and body language. Spoken language has words that are spelled the same, but mean different things, while it corporates tone of voice and inflection as well.  It is a rewarding feeling when everyone understands each other.

iTi: What is the most important skill to be an ASL interpreter?

Scott: Flexibility and an open mind. The ASL interpreter must be able to interpret a variety of language modalities within the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community. Knowing sign language is only one piece of the puzzle. Every client has their own communication style and method.

iTi: Is there another interpreter to help you in certain situations?

Scott: Any assignment of more than two hours requires two interpreters. Some assignments that are denser in language require a team, regardless of how long the job takes. There are a few reasons for using multiple interpreters. One is that studies have shown that errors in interpreting begin to occur within the first 20 to 30 minutes. Another is a long assignment that can cause fatigue and possible repetitive injuries.

iTi: What makes ASL so different from English?

There are a few things, but the most glaring difference is the grammar and syntax.

English: I will go to the store.

ASL: Store, I go.

iTi: What is the hardest part of being an ASL interpreter?

Quote on being an ASL interpreter during COVID-19

Scott: The hardest part is making sure I match the clients’ language. The ASL interpreter must communicate with all users of sign language on the “ASL continuum.” The ASL continuum refers to the different language modalities used by each person in regard to their educational background, culture, and the modality used during their early education. An interpreter can work with one client who Signs Exact English (SEE) and speaks clearly, but cannot hear enough to understand language, and then go to another client who is profoundly deaf and requires both vocal and manual interpretations (visual/gestural, ASL word order). The second hardest part is educating hearing people about the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community and the need for a professionally certified interpreter. You have to educate them on the importance of communicating in a language that is understood clearly by the client.

iTi: Why is it so hard to find ASL interpreters?

Scott: The process of becoming an ASL interpreter is very challenging. There are few schools that provide interpreting programs and the certification process is very demanding in studies, experience, and practice.

iTi:  What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an ASL interpreter?

Scott: Take a formal sign language class. These classes are widely available and can be found in most community colleges and some state colleges. Aside from that, the best advice I can give would be to become involved in the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community the best you can. There are opportunities to go to full-immersion programs, camps for the deaf, and Deaf community events.

iTi: Thanks, Scott!

Scott: Anytime.

ASL interpreters like Scott are the bedrock of language services and on behalf of the hearing community, we thank him for his contributions to society. Need ASL interpreting? Don’t hesitate to contact iTi! We have a team of experienced, professional and certified ASL interpreters ready to help.

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