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Signs of the times: Deaf community and interpreters adapt to communicate during pandemic

Signs of the times: Deaf community and interpreters adapt to communicate during pandemic

Helping the deaf in a pandemic

Hearing interpreter Jesse Schlueter signs for the deaf during the morning coronavirus update from St. Louis County Executive Sam Page on Dec. 23 in Clayton.

The sign for COVID-19 looks like the virus.

Make a fist with your right hand, and with your left, spread out your fingers and splay them over your fist, starting at the wrist.

It’s a new sign American Sign Language interpreters and the deaf community has become all too familiar with over the past several months, one of the many adaptations they have made during the pandemic.

Interpreters have been out in the forefront during press conferences with government officials and the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. If you’re a hearing person who doesn’t know what their signs mean, you still might watch them anyway, curious.

Colleen Burdiss, an independent living specialist with Paraquad, talks to Post-Dispatch reporter Valerie Schremp Hahn about her job and the issues deaf people face while communicating during the pandemic. They’re joined by interpreter Darrell Jacobs and Paraquad spokesman Kevin Condon.

“Right now, sign language is kind of sexy,” said Eric Driskill, who coordinates the Deaf Communication Studies program at St. Louis Community College. He cites deaf people on shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “Switched at Birth.” “It’s a cool thing, and hearing people are fascinated by it.”

ASL is its own language with its own grammar and syntax. Some deaf people might use a different system of signed English, called Conceptually Accurate Signed English, or CASE, along with lip reading.

Driskill, who interpreted at St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s press conferences this spring and summer, said people sometimes recognize him.

“You’re the sign guy,” they’d say.

But they’d also lower their voices and say, “I had no idea how much I relied on reading people’s lips, now that people have masks on. I have trouble understanding people. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, go figure.’”

For the estimated 300,000 people with hearing issues in the St. Louis region, it’s often an added challenge getting rapidly changing information about combating a deadly virus. There are about 650 certified interpreters in the state of Missouri.

Closed captioning services aren’t always reliable or fast. The average reading level for deaf people is the third to fifth grade, and English may not be their first language. Clear masks or shields may not be as safe and may fog up. Masks themselves add another barrier — literally and figuratively.

“If someone were to wear a mask and sign only, I would understand them but it would be harder for me because I rely on both,” said Sarah Prechtel, the executive director of DEAF Inc., an advocacy and education organization. Prechtel was born profoundly deaf, and said that at the beginning of the pandemic she felt isolated, disconnected and disengaged. Her husband, Victor, is also deaf.

Deaf community adapts to communicating during pandemic

UPS store owner Scott Campbell, left, signs with Sarah Prechtel as she tries to mail a package to her 2-year-old niece for her birthday at the store in Olivette on Wednesday. Prechtel is the executive director of Deaf Inc., an advocacy and education organization, and she was born profoundly deaf. "There are three UPS stores near where I live, but I go to this one because it is so much easier to communicate," Prechtel said. "Scott is also a friend of mine and I like to support his business." 

She remembers her first trip to a Sam’s Club in March. She pulled up and didn’t realize why people were lining up outside.

Employees wearing masks started talking to her, but she had no idea what they were saying. “I have to read your lips, you have to pull your mask down,” she told them.

“It was just standing there for a minute or two figuring out how to communicate, when all I want to do is go in and go shopping.”

Interpreter Nicole DeVore supervises interpreters for Paraquad, and she and her colleagues have interpreted for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and the task force. She said that signing and communicating with a mask on is an issue because so much of ASL grammar is shown on the face and involves mouth morphemes and movement.

Deaf community adapts to communicating during pandemic

UPS store owner Scott Campbell works on a computer behind a barrier where stickers are placed to notify customers that he and other employees are deaf and read lips at the store in Olivette. 

“You’re kind of cutting the language in half and have to figure out ways to convey things,” she said.

While she often goes in person to things like medical appointments, interpreter work in virtual formats like Zoom has skyrocketed. But video is a two-dimensional space, and ASL is a three-dimensional language, so everyone has to adjust.

Darrell Jacobs, the office manager for Deaf Way, a division of Paraquad, has interpreted for Krewson’s live Facebook updates and the task force.

“There’s a lot to be said for the advancement of technology for the deaf and hard of hearing,” he said. “But it still has a way to go. And nothing will beat a live, in-person interpreter.”

He said his best friend is deaf, but his voice-to-text feature on the friend’s devices does not recognize him. “Alexa is not having it,” said Jacobs. “And he speaks pretty clearly.”

DeVore set up a dark curtain and lighting in her bedroom so that her hands and face would be more visible to viewers. (Contrasting clothing worn by interpreters is a necessary cliché, but she notes that interpreters often go a bit crazy at industry conferences wearing loud Hawaiian or concert T-shirts.)

Viewers of Page’s press conferences might notice that the interpreter once stood next to Page against a backdrop of flags.

Mayor Krewson announces retirement

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson announces that she will be retiring and not running for reelection at a press conference on Nov. 18. Paraquad provides interpreters for the mayor and the city's task force. Interpreters often wear dark or non-contrasting clothes to appear in an "unobtrusive manner."

They moved the interpreter’s space off to the side in front of a dark curtain to provide a little more distance and to make the interpreter more visible. The interpreter appears inside a video overlay on the screen.

Interpreter Jesse Schlueter, who now interprets most of Page’s press conferences, said that though most interpreters themselves don’t want to be in the spotlight, one benefit to their visibility is that it’s made people and government agencies realize that accessibility, though required by law, is important.

“A deaf person requesting access through an interpreter or captions is the same as a hearing person requesting audio,” he points out. “Deaf people deserve the access that you and me take for granted every day.”

Schlueter’s wife, Lee Jackson, is deaf, and he sees the access issues when they go to a movie and the captioning device runs out of batteries, or when the captions on newscasts are inaccurate, delayed or missing altogether.

He was at first overwhelmed by the attention he got by being so visible.

“If it wasn’t for the deaf community, I wouldn’t be on TV. I’m there for them, not for me. It puts it out there that there’s many people that need this.”

Rebecca Pursley often interprets for Krewson’s Facebook live updates. “As an interpreter, I am the accommodation to ensure equal access and opportunity,” she wrote in a statement. “I hope one of the unseen benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the normalization of interpreters being seen clearly on screen and in the public.”

Meanwhile, hearing people can help by simply being more aware and understanding. Businesses can have clear masks available to employees who might need them to talk to a customer. Everyone can learn some new signs, or call television stations to advocate for better captioning services.

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Colleen Burdiss is an independent living specialist at Paraquad. She and her husband are deaf, and they have learned to advocate for themselves while out and about in the community. Not everyone can do that, advocates say. Burdiss’ job involves advocating for others.

She recently heard from a deaf and partially blind woman who was hit by a customer who thought she was ignoring her.

“There’s a fear there that people have in the beginning,” she said. “They don’t know what to expect of people’s behavior. I just say, please be kind. Some people have invisible disabilities.”

Prechtel, the DEAF Inc. director, said their 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter have learned to pull down their masks while talking to their parents in public.

“They were doing that in the first couple of months,” she said. “That’s how easy it is to educate yourself. When you educate yourself, you become aware, and it’s an easy thing to do.”

'If it wasn't for the deaf community, I wouldn't be on TV. I'm there for them, not for me. It puts it out there that there's many people that need this.'

Interpreter Jesse Schlueter


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