ASL interpreter at Santa Barbara County Public Health Department COVID-19 briefing
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department’s weekly COVID-19 briefings include an American Sign Language interpreter, a pivotal service for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community during the pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which paved the way for equal opportunity and access for people with disabilities. 

Title IV of the ADA covers telephone and television access for people with hearing and speech disabilities, a service that has been pivotal for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Santa Barbara’s Independent Living Resource Center keeps an American Sign Language interpreter registry to ensure communications access at meetings, including the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department‘s weekly COVID-19 briefings.

Josephine Black, one of the few ASL interpreters for Santa Barbara County, said there is a vast technology gap for a number of different groups of people. Providing ASL interpreters to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is an effective way of disseminating important public service messages, she added.

“You have to give people this information in a way that’s accessible to them if they are expected to follow the guidelines and rules set forth in the briefings,” Black said.

Black said she has been interpreting around the county for about 40 years, and started disaster interpreting in 2017 when the Thomas Fire wreaked havoc on the Santa Barbara community.

“COVID briefings are different from the Thomas Fire briefings because there were a lot more players speaking about the fire,” she said. “There’s a lot less people speaking at these briefings than there were for the fires.”

California’s Office of Emergency Services has a pod of disaster response interpreters to properly disperse information throughout the community.

“During a disaster, communication becomes especially critical,” according to Cal OES. “Information delivered at press conferences by public officials and broadcasted on television during a disaster needs to be effective, understood, consumable and actionable by the whole community.”

This branch of services really got its jumpstart during California’s deadly 2017 fire season, according to Ventura County interpreter Kelly Turner. She also has been disaster interpreting since the Thomas Fire.

Turner said the COVID-19 briefings are different because of their widespread reach and volume of public information.

Kelly Turner, ASL interpreter for Ventura County

Kelly Turner, an American Sign Langage interpreter for Ventura County, has been disaster interpreting for three years, spreading public service messages to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. (Jade Martinez-Pogue / Noozhawk photo)

“It can be scary because sometimes when you get up there, you don’t know who your audience actually is,” she said.

Turner said she often receives texts or emails expressing appreciation from the community members she serves.

“People are often shocked,” Turner said. “It’s not an everyday thing to see their language on a screen.”

Simply adding captions to screens is not always an effective way of reaching the deaf or hard-of-hearing community, Black said, adding that on-screen captions tend to be faulty or don’t stay on the screen long enough for people to fully process.

“Getting more interpreters on screen anywhere there is a press conference is vital,” Turner said. “Everyone needs to be able to access this information.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.