It’s nearly 5 p.m. on a spring afternoon as certified ASL interpreter Jennifer Quaintance rushes from her job at the Fresno Amazon headquarters to Fresno City Hall, responding to one of the first news conferences in the Valley concerning COVID-19. Quaintance takes her position near Mayor Lee Brand and as he begins to speak, she begins to sign – her hands moving swiftly and efficiently, while her expressions convey the seriousness of the situation.
When Quaintance completed her disaster response interpreting training a few years ago through the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), she never could have imagined just how much it would impact her today – interpreting during one of the largest public health crises in the nation, even at the expense of her own safety.
Quaintance, just one of two trained disaster response interpreters in Fresno, is a frontline worker that’s not often seen, but equally just as important. In this role, she provides timely and accurate interpreting services for city and government officials, including the mayor and city council.
She knows that the information she is relaying is essential to the health and safety of residents, especially as it pertains to COVID-19.
“It was a bit of a challenge at first because you’re trying to do what the CDC is recommending with mask guidelines and social distancing, but as an interpreter, it’s your job to provide equal access,” Quaintance said.
After graduating from Fresno State’s Interpreting Program in 2013 with a degree in Communicative Disorders and Deaf Studies, Quaintance went on to earn her national interpreting certification, while gaining experience in the field at the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center (DHHSC) in Fresno before completing the Disaster Response Interpreter Training Program.
“Disaster response has always been a really passionate, close thing for me and my family growing up. So I was really excited to be a part of that,” Quaintance said.
Despite the circumstances today, Quaintance is glad that the situation has brought to light a topic profoundly important to her – accessibility for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.
“I would say interpreting for COVID, it’s been really interesting because it’s brought a lot more awareness of accessibility and how truly important it is,” Quaintance said. “It’s been really impactful for the people around me and educating them has been good opportunities for that.”
When she is not providing interpreting services for city officials, Quainance is an ASL Specialist for Amazon and travels throughout California and Oregon – an emphasis to the demand for certified interpreters.
“Luckily my manager is wonderful,” Quiantance said. “He told me ‘yes, you’re an Amazon interpreter, but more generally you are a public resource. So if you need to leave at any time to go interpret something outside of Amazon, that is what’s important’. So I had that flexibility to leave when necessary.”
Another individual who has been seen interpreting alongside Mayor Brand is Dr. Rosemary Wanis, a full-time deaf studies lecturer in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Deaf Studies at Fresno State. For Wanis, who is Deaf and also a certified deaf interpreter, the ability to provide access and also receive it has been monumental during these challenging times.
“Because of the ADA, all emergency information needs to be accessible for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people through captions and through ASL,” Wanis said. “With COVID, it has been more of a challenge as we have to use technology to enhance the information.”
Wanis knew more needed to be done to ensure communication access to everyone across the city – but also the state. With that in mind, this past summer, she spearheaded and organized a group of 14 volunteers, all Deaf individuals who work as deaf interpreters to provide latent interpreting – which means “interpreting after the fact”. The reason for this was clear – information needed to not only be accessible, but understandable.
“So when we initially started, we heard a lot of stories of people who were confused or had misinformation from what was being shared during the governor’s news briefings,” Wanis said. “They thought ‘shelter in place’ meant they could not leave their house at all. They were starving. They literally didn’t have food because they didn’t know that they could go out. Some people had masks, others didn’t. There were some refugees who were going through traumatic experiences, thinking mask means a gas mask.There were tons of misconceptions and misunderstandings going on.”
This misinformation was only compounded by news reports and government briefings by Governor Gavin Newsom, as well as California Health and Human Services’ secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly, that were often times fast-moving, complex and difficult to follow. Within 24-hours of each news briefing, Wanis and her team got to work sorting through the elaborate health and safety information and turning it into a 15-minute message with appropriate photos and graphics, and simplified language for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing audience, in an effort to meet the community’s communication needs.
These videos are then dispersed to various Deaf and Hard of Hearing service agencies throughout the state including here in Fresno at the DHHSC. Information is also shared via the volunteer group’s official youtube channel, which receives over 4,000 views from all over the world, from those who sign in a variety of languages beyond American Sign Language.
“These volunteers with very open, kind and beautiful hearts work diligently all day, every day to get that information and to be able to pass it on to these community members – some whose first language is not English,” Wanis said.
“We strive to reach a broader audience, to give information in the most clear, accurate and precise way possible so that we can protect our communities. Now with latent interpreting, we’re able to meet additional communication needs and anyone who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing can watch and understand the information and the content that’s being shared. As a community, we want to have creative solutions and be able to work together as one.”
One thing Wanis continuously strives to achieve is to amplify the importance of providing interpreting services at news briefings, from the state capitol all the way up to the White House. She works closely alongside Michelle Bronson, executive director of the DHHSC in Fresno, to bring awareness of accessibility needs to the forefront.
Bronson and her team at the DHHSC work diligently to serve individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind and late-deafened, as well as their families and service providers. The organization serves as an ally, a resource and a place of advocacy for its community. During these times, their efforts are needed now more than ever – but she said allies from the hearing community can go a long way in raising awareness and increasing independence for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.
“We want to make sure that we continue with the process and the progress that we’ve already made because we’ve worked so hard to make sure that we have qualified interpreters with the experience, the training, and the skills necessary. Everyone has an important role in maintaining that,” Bronson said.
This includes advocating for and scheduling certified interpreters to be present at local news briefings by local health and government officials, which is not always the case.
“Something we’re always working on and trying to better educate others on is saying ‘Hey, we don’t want to push, but maybe it might be better to have an interpreter there. Even if it’s just a 15 minute explanation of something’. Anything is better than nothing,” Bronson said. “We are part of the fabric of the community and language access benefits the whole community. It should be the standard.”
Bronson said there is currently a high demand for qualified certified interpreters, which is further exacerbated by the severe shortage nationwide. She said Fresno State plays an integral role in producing qualified, skilled graduates to enter the workforce.
An average of 20 students graduate from the Fresno State Interpreting program each year, which helps to alleviate the shortage, but leads to higher demand of jobs in the field.
“We are going through a full revamp redesign of the course curriculum,” said Wanis. “We want to make sure that our graduates are prepared and feel ready and have the right mind, the right attitude and the right skill to be able to start that journey of certification.”
Completing the certification can sometimes take up to five years for some individuals, as the skills and qualifications needed are rigorous and require years of experience and comprehension in the language.
Quaintance said her time in the Interpreting program at Fresno State prepared her to handle the tough challenges she’s faced recently with confidence.
“It was an amazing program,” Quiantance said. “Very rough and strict, but very beneficial. I’m grateful for every opportunity that I had there because it prepared me for what to expect when I graduated, so going out into the real world wasn’t so bad.”
September 20 – 26 marks the 2020 Deaf Awareness Week – a national week of promoting the positive aspects of deafness, encouraging social inclusion, and raising awareness of the organizations that support those who are deaf.