My Conversation With The Maine CDC’s Deaf Sign Language Interpreter
You may not know who Dr. Regan Thibodeau is, but if you've watched any of the Maine CDC press conferences you've seen her.
Regan is the certified deaf interpreter that has gotten a lot of attention on social media for her very expressive way of interpretation. It's something that a lot of people who don't know American Sign Language may not understand.
Regan has been deaf since birth, so she grew up using sign language. She's been teaching ASL interpretation at USM for 21 years and got her PhD in 2019 there as well as the first deaf native Mainer to earn their PhD in Maine.
I had the chance to chat with Regan on Facebook Messenger recently and learned a lot from her that I didn't know about how American Sign Language works and why a Certified Deaf Interpreter is an important asset to conveying important information to the deaf, like she does for the coronavirus Maine CDC press conferences.
Q: As an interpreter who is deaf yourself, how are you able to interpret for viewers?
A: I have two hearing interpreters working together diligently in ensuring I am getting everything that is being said so that I can get the message across to people who are accessing the same content in ASL (American Sign Language). It takes a whole team. Someone from the hearing culture that is proficient in English and someone from the deaf culture that is proficient in ASL to come together and exchange information as accurately as possible with such sensitive information. The more people we can reach, the better. So reaching those who do not use English as their primary language, therefore aren't using closed captioning or news given in printed English, really need CDI (Certified Deaf Interpreter) services in order to get the most native access to their primary language.
Q: You’ve been noted for your very animated style of ASL including many facial expressions. Many who don't use ASL don’t seem to understand the importance of your expressions when watching these press conferences. Can you explain that?
A: Facial expression in the hearing world tends to be rude or inappropriate unless given in the extremes such as being upset or excited. However, while we do share those sentiments, most of our ASL grammar such as punctuation, intonation, tensing, transitions, even run-ons, occur within the face and head tilting. Shoulder shifting shows dialogue for example. If you covered a signers face and only had their hands shown, it would not mean anything. It could be a lot like hearing people watching a movie without seeing anything happening the entire time because the screen broke, but only the audio came through. It's hard to connect what is said without seeing the movie.
If you have seen interpreters before that sign smaller and are less expressive, that typically means ASL is their second language and that they didn't grow up using sign language. This means we will miss getting this critical information to a huge group of people that need ASL access.
Q: During a recent press conference, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah took a moment to recognize you for the excellent work you have done in conveying the information in these press conferences to deaf viewers.
Yes he did, I think to show that they requested for this type of service intentionally and recognize CDIs as someone that they want to use to get the information to a marginalized minority. Think about the D/HH (Deaf/Hard of Hearing) kids at home because all of the public schools are closing. A CDI allows for them to better understand why things may be changing in their environment. It is visually obvious that we are working on a new normal but where are they accessing the WHYs of this?
I am aware of the (reactions from) viewers. I am most concerned with successfully doing my job that I was hired to do. As a CDI, I want to be sure the marginalized linguistic minority is able to access and understand better what is going on so I monitor for that mainly. However, I did take heed that I should no longer wear heels so I can help reduce concerns that are easily amended.
I am grateful that they trust me to interpret what they all work tirelessly to gather; information that keeps the public (including health workers and factory workers. Yes many of them are also deaf themselves) informed and educated to maintain their jobs with care. It is an honor for our team to be trusted to exchange this information.
Regan wanted to put the spotlight on people that CDI's help. You may have seen the viral video that was posted by our mutual friend MJ Grant. Her mother is deaf and suffers from dementia and she posted a video of her mother suddenly realizing the woman she was with in the car was her daughter. CDI's like Regan are vital to people like MJ's mom.
You can learn more about Dr. Regan Thibodeau in this story featured on News Center Maine's 207 that aired last year when she earned her PhD.