ASL Interpreters Explain Importance of Their Work During the Coronavirus

All 50 state governors have added an ASL interpreter to their briefings, though the White House has not done so.

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They’re used to explaining speeches and press conferences, but American Sign Language interpreters are saying the coronavirus pandemic has presented the most difficult and inspiring assignment of their careers.

"This is something that is literally life or death," said Rorri Burton, one of the interpreters contracted by Green Translations who have been delivering Los Angeles County’s coronavirus updates to the deaf and hard of hearing. They serve counties every day during the briefings.

"That can get emotionally draining," said Neil Cordova, another ASL translator for Green Translations.

"There are certain things that come up every day that [make you realize], 'I have to understand this first before I'm able to incorporate it,'" Burton explained. "You just have to really think fast."

Burton also said she and her fellow interpreters don’t wear face masks while translating for county officials.

"We can't,'" she explained. "ASL is a visual, gestural language and includes a lot of what are called non-manual markers – things that [aren't] just your hands flapping in the air. It's not just your hands moving and involves your body. It involves your body; it involves your facial expressions."

All 50 state governors have added an ASL interpreter to their briefings, according to the National Association of the Deaf. Only the White House has not done so.


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And while much of television is captioned as required by law, the same does not apply to all live news broadcasts. Even when captioning is available, it cannot always provide the accessibility ASL can.

“We want to make sure that we’re reaching every single person, not just the people that can read English well,” Cordova said.

While the interpreters do their work for doctors and colleges, all their time on television has led to some encounters with surprise fans.

"I was in a store, just looking for some chips and salsa, and this woman was like, 'Oh, my God, it’s you!'" Burton said. "I'm like, 'Who? Where? What are we looking at?'"

"It's important to remember that it's not about us as the interpreter. It's about being an ally and supporting a marginalized community – an underserved community."

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