Less than a week before Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt gave his first large press conference related to the COVID-19 pandemic in the state, Jimmy Mitchell was attending an interpreter training course.
Mitchell, who lives in Ada and lost his hearing when he was young after contracting spinal meningitis, had done some smaller scale interpreting before and wanted to attend a more formal training course.
“I didn’t have any intention of getting on camera and doing live platform interpreting,” Mitchell said during a recent interview with The Frontier. “I just wanted to get some practice. Four days later, (Stitt) needed an interpreter and they contacted me and said ‘Can you be there right now?’”
As the coronavirus has spread throughout Oklahoma, press conferences have become the fastest way for elected officials to get updates and directives to the people they serve. And right beside Stitt, or Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum, or Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, are the increasingly visible American Sign Language interpreters helping carry the message.
Mitchell and Glenna Cooper, who Tulsans will recognize from Bynum’s press conferences this year during the pandemic as well as during 2019’s massive Green Country flooding, recently conducted interviews with The Frontier. Their hearing interpreters (Jacob Alexander for Mitchell, and KT Laughlin for Cooper) listened to questions, then relayed them through sign language, and translated the answers into English.
Alexander said the need for interpreters has “kind of exploded” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Normally interpreters are only called on by the government in disaster situations, like following an earthquake or hurricane.
“But this is the first time on a national level that there has been this type of need,” he said. “This is the first time that everyone in the country really needs to know what’s happening.
“This is a need and will continue to be one after the coronavirus is hopefully gone. We’ve been needing it for many years and this is a catalyst.”
Cooper said she grew up with sign language as her natural language.
“I grew up as an oral deaf person, reading lips,” she said. “My deaf friends would rely on me to use what speech I had to help them … I never thought about myself as interpreting, but I was for all those years, and I kind of got used to it.”
Roughly 5 percent of the population is considered deaf or hard of hearing, according to the World Health Organization. So during these live press conferences Cooper and Mitchell are communicating with a sizable community who otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to know what their elected officials are directing them to do.
“This is potentially life or death,” Mitchell said. “For me, it’s really important because it’s my community. We face lots of barriers every day, not having captions or an interpreter for a meeting in the workplace. This is one of the most important things we’ve been trying to do.”
For both Cooper and Mitchell, the larger stage they’ve found themselves on comes with some added stress.
Cooper said that although she’s translated almost her entire life, it’s different on stage during a live press conference because there’s no room for error, and no time to go backwards and correct a mistake.
“You want to make sure that (you’re) providing accurate information, but we don’t have the luxury of having time to fix a mistake, we just have to keep going. It’s pretty much double the stress of a regular assignment.”
Mitchell said most of his apprehension came early on in the process. He described himself as a natural performer and storyteller, so when he first stood next to Stitt and began signing, everything slowed down and the stress went away.
“I was ready to go,” he said. “It was so important, it was just about getting (the deaf community) the information. I was really honored.”
Part of what helped both Mitchell and Cooper manage the stress was the familiarity they have with their hearing interpreters. Mitchell has worked with Alexander in Stitt’s press conferences and Cooper has worked with both Laughlin and Josiah Fehlauer during Bynum’s.
Alexander said he learned ASL in college because he wanted to teach deaf children. He now works for the Oklahoma City Public School system and is an instructor at OSU-OKC, and said he picked up interpreting “along the way.”
Laughlin, who’s from Ohio originally, said she learned to sign while at college at Oral Roberts University.
“I was going to learn to two-step, and I was at these honky tonks with old wooden floors,” she said. “Deaf people would go there because they said they could really feel the floors move. So I met deaf friends and that’s how I got involved. Now I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
During a press conference, the role of a hearing interpreter is to listen to the speaker, then sign to the deaf interpreter on stage, who then signs for the camera. It may sound simpler to just have a hearing interpreter on stage. But Mitchell and Cooper said there’s no replacement for a deaf interpreter.
“Deaf interpreters have a better sense of mediating between hearing culture and deaf culture,” Cooper said. “Often when hearing interpreters are on stage, deaf people will look to other deaf people for meaning, so sometimes we’ll be reinterpreting even in the audience. Me as a deaf person, when I’m signing to another deaf person, I have more fluency, more natural flow.”
Cooper said she’s had hearing interpreters ask her for advice on “how to sign more like a deaf person.”
“I said, ‘you’ll never sign as fluidly as I do, because I’m deaf.’”
Watch any of Stitt’s press conferences on Facebook live and you’ll see comments from viewers who are enthralled by Mitchell’s facial expressions and gestures. During a press conference on March 25, Donelle Harder, who used to be Stitt’s chief of communications but has been assisting the Oklahoma State Department of Health during the pandemic, tweeted a picture of Mitchell.
His eyes were wide, and his arms were spread. His mouth was wide open. The look was a mixture of shock and fear.
“Is this the sign language interpretation for ‘COVID-19?’” Harder jokingly asked.
Is this the sign language interpretation for “COVID-19”? pic.twitter.com/sSZJTTs36p
— donelle (@HarderRambles) March 25, 2020
Those facial expressions and gestures are an integral part of sign language. Mitchell said that they help convey context and tone to the viewer that wouldn’t be possible with just the hands.
Stitt has often talked while on stage about the difference between mild symptoms and severe symptoms. He’s urged Oklahomans with mild symptoms to stay home, while those with severe symptoms may be urged to take more drastic actions.
Mitchell said there’s very little difference in the signs between mild symptoms and severe symptoms. But when he signs those words, his face and his body language will tell the story.
“It’s an important part of the language,” Mitchell said. “It really is … in English our tone may go up or down, in ASL we use our face. If I’m angry, you’ll see it. If we’re playing around, I might be more light faced.”
Cooper said people have asked her if she can “tone down” her facial expressions.
“I said ‘I can’t tone them down, it would be like making you speak monotone,’” she said. “People think it’s just the signs coming off your hands, but it’s more than that.”
There are five parameters of sign language: Hand shape, palm orientation, where the sign is located in proximity to the body, movement of the hands and facial-expressions.
“People don’t realize it, but even eyebrows are a part of the (ASL) grammar,” she said. “And so is the mouth.”