American Sign Language interpreter Regan Thibodeau has worked since March to provide reliable updates about the coronavirus pandemic to deaf and hearing impaired Mainers.
Thibodeau, 42, a certified deaf interpreter from Windham, became widely known here for her dynamic body language and expressive facial expressions during live broadcasted briefings from Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials and state leaders.
Thibodeau is deaf and understands how critical it is for interpreters to be fluent in ASL to correctly translate ideas and information.
ASL interpreters at the many White House press briefings since President Joe Biden’s inauguration have left something to be desired, she said.
“I feel like I am getting broken sentences, incomplete [information] and signs that don’t make sense in the sentence,” Thibodeau said.
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Sometimes the White House has used hearing interpreters who often aren’t clear or understandable to the deaf community. Interpreters also change frequently and this scattershot approach has disappointed, especially after press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last month that for the first time ever, the White House will include an ASL interpreter at all of its briefings.
She wants to change that.
Thibodeau wrote and is among those circulating a petition calling for deaf interpreters to be used by the White House. So far, nearly 6,000 have signed it, and she and others in the deaf community are hoping lots of signatures will help their cause be heard.
“Whether it’s successful or not, I think it’s really important,” said Betty Colonomos, an adjunct professor in interpreting at the University of Southern Maine. “It’s time to make noise and make people aware.”
The professor, who is fluent in both American Sign Language and English, said that deaf people made a big push for equal access during the Trump administration. The National Association of the Deaf sued the White House last year in federal court because the administration didn’t provide any ASL interpretation at the coronavirus briefings.
The association won, Colonomos said.
“They had closed captioning, which is not adequate access for deaf people,” she said. “They need to have sign language. With captions, all you get is words on the screen. It’s not equal access. You don’t get a sense of whether it’s dire.”
Now, with the Biden administration and its stated goal of rebuilding “trust and transparency” at the White House press briefings, it’s critical that deaf people are included. That means having teams of experienced hearing and deaf interpreters who work together. The hearing interpreters listen to what is being said and share that information with the deaf interpreters, who then go on to translate to their audience with body language, facial expressions and more.
“It’s a three-dimensional language. It isn’t just being dramatic and expressive,” Colonomos said. “I don’t think hearing interpreters are bad people. I think they really, really do not realize how unintelligible they are.”
And being clearly understood matters, especially right now, to minimize confusion.
“During a pandemic, it is twice as vital to make the content clearly accessible,” Thibodeau said. “I have a Ph.D. and I am bilingual, but after working long days, I am too tired to also work as my own [deaf interpreter] while watching a White House briefing via a hearing interpreter. I cannot imagine what it is like for ASL monolinguals and others who may themselves be currently fighting COVID.”