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Conference Interpretation
Sign language

Saamanta Serna describes herself as a Coda – the child of a Deaf adult. She grew up up with a Deaf mother and a father who is hearing and an American sign language (ASL) interpreter, and later decided to pursue interpreting herself after high school.

Now a certified ASL interpreter, Serna has done frequent in-person interpreting for medical appointments during Covid. She has also noticed a change in the world’s perception of sign language since the beginning of the pandemic: more people are paying attention.

Conveying updated information to everyone in the time of Covid is a matter of life or death, as the Trump administration learned recently after losing a groundbreaking federal lawsuit to the National Association for the Deaf, which ensured that a sign language interpreter must be present in Covid briefings and visible on the live feed from the White House. The Trump White House did not include its first sign language interpreter on a Covid briefing until 11 November, a full nine months after the pandemic reached America.

ASL is a common sign language – though by far not the only one – for people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing (deaf refers to the physical condition of deafness, while Deaf refers to belonging to the Deaf community). About 15% of adults in America report hearing loss, and about 1 million use sign language to communicate. ASL has its own rules and incorporates hand movements as well as facial motions, grammar and word ordering distinct from English, from which it is completely separate. Marla Berkowitz, a certified Deaf interpreter, explains that ASL “entails five parameters: handshapes, palm orientation, location (space on the body, around the signer), movement and of course, facial expressions”.

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