Since March 27, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have hosted a nightly live broadcast online and on television to update the community and take questions from reporters regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

And every night, there’s been an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter there with them, turning each phrase into gestures for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The workload during the pandemic has remained steady, said ASL interpreter Hannah Jane Bull, “but the work has just changed. It’s more last-minute emergency … and public work.”

And they’re on television much more, said Bull, who works for Services by Vital Signs. That company has been hired by the City to provide ASL interpretation. “We’re always there, but now more people are seeing us.”

The daily updates are relatively short, less than an hour, compared with the three and sometimes five-hour City Council meetings on Thursdays, during which 10 Council members and the mayor discuss various policies (most related to COVID-19 these days) and take votes.

In Council’s chambers and at the live update, a separate camera and backdrop are set up for the interpreters off to the side. When there’s an emergency update at the emergency operations center, they will stand near the podium, maintaining social distancing.

“The City has always been really good about providing [ASL and accessibility] services even before the pandemic,” Bull said. “Compared to other cities, San Antonio is really on top of it.”

For years the City has provided ASL interpreter services upon request for all City Council meetings, public meetings, select news conferences, and all Office of Emergency Management news conferences, said Laura Elizabeth Mayes, assistant director of the City’s Government and Public Affairs department. Closed captioning is available for Council meetings and the City uses Deaf Link, a national subscription-based accessible emergency alert system based in San Antonio.

Deaf Link has created a website that has all its alerts in one place here.

In 2018, the City launched an initiative to provide post-production interpretation: videos of ASL interpretation that would be added to published meeting recordings, Mayes said.

“Closed captioning isn’t necessarily the most accessible,” she said. “It’s not a substitute for ASL.”

Beyond spelling out proper nouns, ASL has no roots in English – or any spoken or written language, said Bull, who has been a professional interpreter for five years. “ASL is actually completely different than British Sign Language.”

Captioning, news articles, and City updates in text form are not going to mean anything to a person who is deaf that uses ASL, she said. Many don’t read or write English and the ability to “read lips” is rare.

Because Council meetings are so long, especially these days, two interpreters are sent. They take turns in 20-minute increments to avoid getting tired and mitigate repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. They dress in plain, dark clothing to avoid distracting the viewer from what’s being said, Bull said.

“Anything to make it clearer or crisper,” she said.

They also use facial expressions. For instance, when a Council member is sternly disagreeing with someone, the interpreter’s expression will convey their delivery.

“Otherwise [the viewer] wouldn’t have that information,” Bull said. “I would say it’s standardized. Every interpreter you see in a public setting like this has to be accredited and certified.”

ASL interpreters can put their own flair on gestures and expressions, but when they are interpreting other people, she said, “the goal is to convey what the speaker is saying and how they are saying it. You don’t want to put your own spin on it.”

Council meetings have their own vocabularies even in English, so ASL interpreters must come up with ways to describe bureaucratic processes and terms – just as they do in medical and legal settings.

“If you’re able to spell it out completely and give a brief definition of what that word is, that’s typically what I’ve seen in the industry,” Bull said. “There’s a sign for almost everything.”

Services by Vital Signs’ Hannah Bull has been a professional ASL interpreter for five years. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The pandemic, too, comes with new vocabulary.

“[The sign for coronavirus] didn’t exist before,” Bull said. “The deaf community is very communicative … as a consensus they created a new vocabulary word for that.”

There is no official committee or agency that approves signs, she said. “It’s totally community-based. Languages develop geographically naturally and so our American word for coronavirus is probably different from the sign language they’re using in France or Britain.”

“For private medical clients I get feedback from them all the time and also on Facebook,” she said. “There’s a ton of deaf-run Facebook groups, deaf-run coffee groups – those are transitioning to Zoom groups now. They get together and discuss issues in the deaf community.”

It’s hard to know for sure how many people living in the San Antonio area are deaf or hard of hearing, said Kay Chiodo, who founded Services by Vital Signs and Deaf Link.

The U.S. census doesn’t ask if residents are deaf or hard of hearing, but the smaller American Community Survey (ACS) does. ACS data from 2018 estimates that nearly 4 percent of San Antonians have a hearing difficulty.

Chiodo estimates that there are likely more households that rely on ASL and, during the coronavirus pandemic, she’s noticed an uptick in requests for interpreters at doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals. There has been a shortage of certified ASL interpreters in the U.S. for years, according to Forbes.

While the City is providing a lot of accessibility, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the private sector nationally, she said. “We get calls [from people who are deaf] saying I need help here and they refuse to provide an interpreter.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that interpreting services are provided, but its provisions allow public and business entities to demonstrate that the cost of providing those services could cause an “undue burden.”

In 2007, Chiodo established No Barriers Communications, a nonprofit that advocates for equal access to information and services for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

People who are deaf don’t interact with the same world as hearing people do, she said, quoting Helen Keller: “Blindness separates us from things … but deafness separates us from people.”

Chiodo has heard of – and been personally involved in – a long list of situations where deaf people are dangerously underserved, including some at pharmacies and emergency clinics.

“It really irks me when someone says, ‘Those poor deaf people, they can’t read or write,'” Chiodo said. “[The written word] is not their language. … But I also have deaf people who work for me who can read and write in English better than I can.”

Her passion for deaf rights comes from her childhood.

Chiodo was abandoned by her parents and living on the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas, when she was picked up by state troopers at the age of 6. She was passed around from foster home to foster home for at least a year.

“I didn’t conform to rules very well,” she said. “I would just leave.”

She was eventually told the next place that she would be sent to was her “last chance,” she said. It was a home for deaf children.

“Back in the old days … deaf children were thought to be broken,” she said, but it was among these kind children that she felt safe for the first time in her life.

“This was a family that never judged me and I never ran away from,” she said. “They gave more than a language, they actually taught me not to hate.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org