COPING WITH COVID-19: Ensuring Accessibility for the Deaf

A Q&A with Noah Buchholz on interpreting for the governor’s press conferences
Noah Buchholz

As the Princeton Theological Seminary community concludes another academic year and transitions to the summer months, the COVID-19 crisis continues. The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the face of ministry in many different ways, and community members are offering windows into their day-to-day lives. We hope you find comfort and hope as you read about tips, techniques, and testimonies from members of our campus and alumni community.

A PhD student at Princeton Seminary, American Sign Language (ASL) instructor, and Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI), Noah Buchholz, ThM '18, MDiv '14, shares his experience providing ASL translations for Governor Murphy’s press conferences.

Q: How did you become involved in providing ASL translations for the governor’s press briefings?

A: I’m one of only three CDIs in New Jersey — this is very unfortunate, we really need more CDIs. The Deaf community in NJ worked with the governor’s office to make a transition from using hearing interpreters only to using CDI-hearing interpreter teams. As soon as this happened, they asked me to join the press conference team. I usually interpret only during the summer because I’m busy during the school year, but I decided to do this because there are not many CDIs out there and it’s very important to make information about COVID-19 accessible to Deaf people.


Q: What has this process been like?

A: I’ve been interpreting the governor’s press conferences on COVID-19 since the middle of March as a CDI. I’m part of a team of four hearing ASL-English interpreters and three CDIs. We take turns interpreting the press conferences Monday through Saturday. CDIs are nationally certified, professional interpreters who are Deaf themselves. The interpreting process that involves a CDI typically looks like this: the hearing interpreter signs to the CDI what the hearing client says and then the CDI signs to the Deaf client what the hearing client says based on the hearing interpreter’s interpretation. Conversely, the CDI signs to the hearing interpreter what the Deaf client says and then the hearing interpreter speaks to the hearing client what the Deaf client says based on the CDI’s interpretation.

There are several reasons for using a CDI in an interpreting situation, instead of just a hearing interpreter. First, most hearing interpreters are not native or near-native in ASL. Many spoken language interpreters are native in both spoken languages they work with. This is not the case with ASL-English hearing interpreters. Many, if not most, CDIs are native or near-native in ASL, so they are able to help convey ASL messages more effectively. Second, CDIs, being Deaf themselves, are highly knowledgeable of Deaf culture and Deaf experience. This helps with the cultural meditation of the interpreting process in many different ways. Third, many CDIs, having socialized with Deaf people with many different signing backgrounds as active members of the Deaf community, are highly skilled in using and comprehending various signing styles, including “atypical” signing styles. For this reason, they are able to work within a wider range of signing styles than hearing ASL-English interpreters.

For the press conferences, the hearing interpreter stands behind the camcorder that is dedicated to filming the ASL interpretation. They sign to the CDI what is being said and then the CDI signs to the camcorder. One of the primary reasons we use CDIs for the press conferences is that CDIs help convey the message in a way that it is comprehensible to as many Deaf people with different signing backgrounds as possible. The hearing interpreter “transliterates” specific words and phrases and let the CDI decide how to sign them in a way that they’re easily understood by most Deaf people. It is critical that Deaf people have highly accessible ASL interpretation for emergency press conferences because they might be unable to get information about emergency matters elsewhere.

The governor’s office has been an invaluable asset in making this interpreting process possible. They were willing to make a transition from using hearing interpreters to using CDI-hearing interpreter teams for their press conferences. Also, their media team is an incredible team. They have set up a camcorder that is dedicated to filming the ASL interpretation in order to ensure that the signing interpreter is in the frame at all times. They set up a TV monitor with the PowerPoint presentation on it behind the camcorder so that the interpreters may see important names and numbers easily. It is evident that the governor’s office is very eager to provide Deaf people optimal access to communication.

Q: How has your experience with interpreting press conferences been?

A: Interpreting the press conferences can be exhausting. The topic is, of course, heavy. It can be emotionally draining to interpret bad news over again and again, especially reports about those who have passed way. I guess one important skill for interpreters to have is staying sane yet not being too distant or apathetic while interpreting in a difficult situation. This kind of assignment is definitely different from many of my other assignments. Of course, one reason is that this whole COVID-19 situation is unprecedented. In addition to this, I tend to interpret in consultative settings (one-on-one meetings with doctors, social workers, etc.). This assignment requires me to constantly think on my feet. I can’t stop the press conference and ask for clarifications; I have to make many difficult translation decisions quickly and keep going. The gravity of the situation definitely puts more pressure on the interpreting process, but, to be honest, I really enjoy the challenge and feel motivated to do this kind work because I know this is very important for many Deaf people.

Q: What does a typical day for you look like during the pandemic?

A: When classes were in session, I’d get up very early in the morning so that I could do work before having to take care of my two precious kids, who are six and two years old. During the rest of the day, my wife and I take turns taking care of the kids (my wife works full time). In the beginning, my wife and I kept checking the news about COVID-19. Eventually, we realized that it was emotionally draining, so we decided to read the news in the morning during breakfast only. In the evening and during the weekend, we try to keep ourselves sane by coming up with different fun activities for our family to do together.

Q: How are you doing?

A: I’m doing well! I’m grateful that Princeton Seminary has done a lot in order to ensure that people living here feel safe. Also, I thank Dean Shawn Oliver, James Gilchrist (Associate Director of Support Services), Lindsey Trozzo (Associate Director of Digital Learning), and my professors for making sure that I’m still able to effectively work with my interpreters and captioners online. Of course, I thank my interpreters and captioners as well. They worked hard in order to make sure the quality of their services did not diminish after having to transition to online.

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