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Before the novel coronavirus pandemic began, not many people in the state had heard of American Sign Language interpreter and University of Southern Maine professor Dr. Regan Thibodeau.
But after daily press conferences during which Thibodeau, who is deaf herself, translates what Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah is saying about coronavirus for the state’s deaf community, she is no longer little known. Her expressive facial expressions and dynamic body language, which convey meaning in American Sign Language, have made the 41-year-old from Windham something of a bright spot in an otherwise difficult situation.
Some viewers, though, have taken to weighing in on social media about whether they find her work powerful — or distracting.
Thibodeau, a native user of ASL who was born deaf, is taking it all in stride.
“I imagine for some people, it’s disorienting, because it’s a language they don’t know or understand,” she said Wednesday.
She hopes that over time, the public will get used to it, which is what happened about 15 years ago in Massachusetts when that state began using a Certified Deaf Interpreter — an ASL interpreter who is deaf, not hearing — for press conferences.
“It became the new normal,” she said.
During the Maine press conferences, a team of two hearing interpreters listen to what Shah and other state officials are saying. They sign it to Thibodeau, who quickly figures out how to best convey the message to people who depend on ASL. The expressiveness in her face, hands and body is all part of how she does that. She uses a hearing aid, but it only tells her if sounds have stopped or started.
“ASL face expression is not only about emotions or tone — it’s also about showing if a phrase is a question or a declaration,” she said.
As well, in ASL, information is organized through the use of space, she said. For example, if Shah is talking about getting a new order of personal protective equipment that will arrive soon, she puts that in the future space, which is literally in front of her. If the CDC director is giving data from last week, Thibodeau puts it behind her.
Even if it looks a bit unusual to those who don’t speak ASL, it makes all the sense in the world to those who do.
“My work as a [Certified Deaf Interpreter] is to reach those that don’t access English at all,” she said. “These are native ASL users — their first language is ASL, not English. Otherwise, what’s the point of having an interpreter that interprets to an audience that already can access English?”
In the past, it was more common for hearing interpreters — ASL interpreters who can hear — to do this work, but there can be drawbacks to that, Thibodeau said. Many hearing interpreters only begin to use their faces when they go into interpreting, so they haven’t learned all of the ways that expressions mark grammar and much more.
“Often, hearing interpreters will sign smaller and move smaller — but it’s monotonous, and kind of like mumbling,” she said.
No one could accuse Thibodeau of being monotonous or mumbling. In fact, some members of the deaf community, or their relatives, have reached out to her to tell her they appreciate her work. That’s what Terri Milligan of Gray did when she saw how helpful Thibodeau’s interpretation is to her adult son, who is deaf and has mild cognitive impairment as well.
“She’s doing something extraordinary, and that is deaf interpreting,” Milligan said. “For someone like my son, a hearing interpreter might not get him the full message. He’ll be watching [Thibodeau]. He’ll get the full understanding. It has made such a difference, I think, for his anxiety. He feels really secure in the information, and he gets it every day. He understands everything she’s saying.”
Milligan said that she’s aware that some people watching the press conferences have been “taken aback” by Thibodeau’s expressiveness.
“What she’s doing is exactly what a deaf person will want and need to convey the message. This is a needed position in our world,” she said.
It feels important to Thibodeau, too, who would like people to know that she’s “a girl from the woods” who was raised in Falmouth by a single father who did his best to make sure she had what she needed. Back in 1984, he was the first father in the state to win full child custody, she said, and she has clearly absorbed some of that fighting spirit. Her whole life, she has had a goal of communication advocacy and helping others fight for their rights.
Towards that end, she has been something of a pioneer. In 2019, when she received a doctorate in public policy from the University of Southern Maine, she became the first deaf Mainer to earn this degree. She wanted to earn it to show other deaf people that it can be done.
She’s married to Jami Grendell, a hearing man, and they use ASL to communicate together. They have two children — 10-year-old Sawyre and 13-year-old Averi. She describes them as “CODAs,” or children of deaf adults.
“Which basically means they are bicultural,” she said. “Only CODAs know what it’s like to have to go get their deaf mom to let them know they are bleeding, lol.”
Thibodeau loves hiking, biking, painting and going to burlesque shows to support her husband, who performs with a burlesque troupe for men. She also is an enthusiastic fan of signing for karaoke singers.
“That’s so fun because it’s more interpreting, but without any risks or demands, so I can be creative,” she said.
That creativity shines in a video she made last fall she calls a “lip sync social experiment.” In it, she tries her hand at lip syncing to a Melissa Etheridge song while pretending to play a guitar. In three different inset windows, she shows different sign language interpretations of the song, including a version from a “performance interpreter” and from a so-called “flat interpreter,” which she said is what many hearing interpreters employ.
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“It was so hard,” she said of her own lip sync performance, which she practiced relentlessly. “I had to memorize the beats.”
Still, for deaf Mainers such as Bryer McDougall, 27, of Millinocket, and Konner Looney, 24, of Old Town, Thibodeau’s day job working as an interpreter during this public health crisis is what really matters.
“It’s incredibly important to have a deaf interpreter,” McDougall said. “I’m the one deaf person in my area so I can’t even share information with deaf peers. I have seen Regan interpreting. I do see that I have the information I need, and I’m so thankful for that.”
The information Thibodeau is relaying is not just important — it’s vital, Looney, a non-traditional communication consultant, said.
“She’s allowing access to every deaf person in the state of Maine,” he said. “A lot of people have been talking about how much she’s over-emphasizing her expressions, but she’s not. She’s absolutely matching correct ASL grammar.”
He doesn’t have a lot of patience for those people.
“We are always considered secondary, if at all,” he said of the deaf community. “We’re looking at a national crisis right now, and [Thibodeau’s] up there making sure that deaf Americans know what is at hand.”