Signers of the Times

The critical role of sign-language interpreters, especially during public health emergencies.

Governor with ASL interpreter

You’ve seen them at every media briefing given by the governor, the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) and other state officials throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Standing a minimum six-feet distance from presenters and in front of cameras to speak directly to the public, they listen carefully to everything the speakers say and immediately communicate the same vital information in American Sign Language to viewers who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing. They all deserve our gratitude and honored place on this pandemic’s list of unsung heroes.

We’re, of course, praising the hard-working sign-language interpreters, whose collective expertise and skills have been critical to the state’s COVID-19 public information efforts over the past three months, and much longer than that for communications needs during natural disasters.

The sign language interpreters at media briefings are an important component of DOH’s Disability and Communication Access Board (DCAB). Its overall mission and goals include serving as a public advocate for persons with disabilities, establishing guidelines for the design of state and county buildings to provide equal access, and issuing administrative rules for utilizing communication access services. The last of these include sign language interpreters, real-time TV broadcast captioners and computer-assisted notetakers.

We asked Colin Whited, DCAB’s ADA Coordinator, to talk about the importance of providing sign-language translation at media briefings and the skills required of the best interpreters.

What are some guidelines the DCAB follows in its hiring of sign-language interpreters?

Colin: Our guidelines include determining the qualifications of interpreters who may be called upon to provide services and their credentials if they do not hold national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf certification via a state screening process. During the COVID-19 pandemic, DCAB worked with the State and each of the counties to ensure communication access is provided during programs and services for individuals who are Deaf, hard-of-hearing or Deaf-Blind. With social distancing measures in place, this service is especially important.

How have interpreters become even more integral to the state government’s communication efforts during the pandemic?

Colin: Especially during daily press conferences with their rapidly changing information, sign-language interpreters have been critical in receiving and providing effective communication. We appreciate interpreters who possess – and work to maintain – essential skills for interpreting during live emergency video programming. We also applaud interpreters who are willing to put themselves in high-risk situations, such as interpreting for someone exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 during a medical examination. We also commend state and local government entities who have secured sign-language interpreting services for their commitment to ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Have physical-distancing requirements necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way technology is being utilized by individuals with disabilities?

Colin: Physical-distancing measures have made those with disabilities, and society overall, more reliant upon the internet to access information. This is also especially true with the way the state and county governments share resources and make announcements online. DCAB works with each to ensure their content is accessible for individuals with communication disabilities. Additionally, there are sign-language interpreters who, like many of us right now, are cautious about contracting COVID-19 and reluctant to accept in-person jobs. More interpreters have adapted to this by providing their services via video remote interpreting (VRI), which uses web cameras or other video devices to provide sign-language or spoken-language interpreting services.

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