Amid the daily coronavirus briefings by multiple levels of government across Canada, a new public service figure is stepping into the spotlight — the sign language interpreter.
Kenneth Searson has watched the profession grow across the country for years now. The Ottawa retiree, who is deaf, recalled being left out of certain meetings — because of a lack of interpreters — during his 36 years working for the federal government.
Today, the 83-year-old feels proud to see so many interpreters conveying vital information daily — including his daughter Brenda Jenkins, regularly seen translating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s coronavirus briefings into American Sign Language (ASL).
The Accessible Canada Act, new legislation enacted in 2019, states that “all persons must have barrier-free access to full and equal participation in society.” It also recognizes that ASL, Quebec Sign Language and Indigenous sign languages are primary languages of communication for deaf communities.
Thanks to the act, passed last June, “we are now seeing the presence of more and more sign language interpreters throughout Canada,” said Jenkins, who was raised with sign language.
“I am a child of deaf adults. This is my community. So I’m thrilled to see that there is finally parity and access for our community.”
With so many Canadians tuning in to every COVID-19 press conference, the sign language interpreters alongside municipal, provincial and federal officials have become familiar faces in many households.
Among those who’ve popped onto the public’s radar is Nigel Howard, seen regularly alongside Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer for B.C., and Vancouver MLA Adrian Dix, the province’s minister of health.
3-year-old fascinated with ASL interpreter
Michelle Thorne’s son Brody is one of Howard’s youngest new fans. The nearly three-year-old toddler, who was born with cerebral palsy, has started learning ASL with his family and is riveted when Howard appears on-screen.
“He loves to watch Nigel and stands in front of the TV every time he is on. It is so wonderful to see how much more [Brody] is signing after watching Nigel,” Thorne said.
“We wanted to say thank you to you, Mr. Nigel, for giving us something to watch every day and helping our family to get more involved in signing for our son.”
William Hunter’s appreciation of Howard was such that the Prince George, B.C., construction company health and safety manager set up a Facebook fan group for the interpreter — one of several that have emerged.
Hunter, who has spent years working alongside heavy construction equipment, said he is slowly losing his hearing. Howard has helped him realize how critical interpreters are in aiding the deaf community keep track of what’s going on in the news.
Watching Howard, “it’s sparked something in me,” Hunter said. Though he doesn’t understand any sign language, he’s now hoping to learn.
‘Absolutely, emphatically conveying messages’
Despite advances in voice-to-text, transcription or closed captioning technology, those aren’t anywhere as effective as ASL interpreters like Howard, whose expressive delivery is able to convey, not just information, but also the appropriate tone, emotion and gravity, according to Charlotte Millington, a fan who posted about Howard on social media.
“He is absolutely, emphatically conveying messages beyond the parameters of simple ASL… He’s giving us the full understanding of what’s happening,” said Millington, regional vice-president of the Hospital Employees’ Union for South Vancouver Island.
Howard himself says he is currently “beyond swamped” with messages from the public, but would rather the focus be on the news itself.
“The focus should be on the people who present daily information, as well as the people out there being affected” by coronavirus, he said in a text message to CBC News.
“It is just my job to do to the best of my abilities, to ensure language accessibility for all.”
With so much information — and so many updates — going out to the public amid the pandemic, “I cannot think of another time where the provision of qualified interpreters is more important,” says Wayne Nicholson, president of the Canadian Association of Sign Language Interpreters (CASLI).
And given the increased attention on interpreters at the moment, Toronto-based Nicholson is hoping that they will become a regular fixture at important features and news conferences, since the deaf community has long called for them.
“All news is important for the deaf community to receive. It would do the community such a disservice to be providing interpreters only during this time and not for all future updates,” he said.
Like any spoken languages, sign languages evolve — especially in this moment. “As the terminology used to discuss the coronavirus unfolds, so does the deaf community’s language used to express it,” Nicholson explained.
For instance, there had been no universal gesture to denote the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 until recent days.
Choosing a sign for coronavirus
“Signs are evolved and developed within the deaf community. As the deaf community gathers, they start to talk about new vocabulary and they then decide among themselves what is a suitable sign. We receive that sign and use it,” said Jenkins, the Ottawa interpreter.
“Currently, there is a Facebook page where all of the interpreters and deaf interpreters are coming together to discuss ‘Well, let’s make sure that we’re streamlining the signs that we’re using across the country.'”
It’s not unlike how the scientific community comes together to decide on a specific term for a specific virus, she pointed out.
Jenkins calls it humbling and a privilege to be doing her job at this unprecedented moment in time.
“The recognition needs to go to the [deaf] community because they’re the ones that have lobbied for the recognition of their sign languages and finally are getting access to daily communication at this critical time,” she said.
Given the current boost in visibility in what she, Howard and others are doing during the pandemic, Jenkins also hopes it will inspire others to join them.
“There is such a need in our community for more sign language interpreters … I’m hoping that our youth will see that this is a viable career because there is definitely a need for more interpreters in Canada.”