Theresa Lott signs the word for truth or honesty at the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Frankfort. (Michael Swensen for Kentucky Lantern)
Sign language interpreters aren’t quite used to celebrity.
The job is usually more behind-the-scenes. Translating a diagnosis at the doctor’s office, standing off to the side of a stage.
But the COVID-19 pandemic thrust the late Virginia Moore — and her office, the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (KCDHH) — into the limelight. Moore and her colleagues signed the televised news conferences that Gov. Andy Beshear held and started a wave of conversation about accessibility and the dignity of communication and access to information.
With Moore’s death on Derby Day, her colleagues and friends continue that work without her.
Their office in Frankfort is laden with art by deaf creators — a globe made of nothing but hands, hands holding metaphorical ears, multi-colored hands spelling out Kentucky.
In early June, Moore’s empty office chair sat on a circular rug animated with hands signing the letters of the alphabet and the numbers 1-10. Her many awards adorn the walls.
In the window: monkeys stacked in a figurine frozen to say: Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.
The late Moore’s colleagues aren’t interested in fame, said Theresa Lott, one of the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters at the KCDHH and a regular interpreter for Beshear.
“We don’t want the attention on ourselves,” she said. “We want to facilitate language. That’s the goal.”
Lott and her colleagues serve as a surrogate for others’ communication. To do that, they said, one must have the heart of a servant. Their hands, facial expressions and body language are not their own. They embody the message they are translating. A viewer won’t usually get a sense of the interpreter’s personality.
“Our job is to let those people shine,” Lott explained. “And so it can be a little uncomfortable when we are put in that spotlight.”
At a Celebration of Life for Virginia Moore, Beshear said she left behind a “big legacy” and “big shoes to fill.”
And Kim Brannock, a public information officer for KCDHH, said Moore was the “ultimate advocate.”
Meet the women filing her shoes — all while serving the roughly 700,000 deaf and hard of hearing Kentuckians.
Rachel Morgan Kincaid
Both of Rachel Morgan Kincaid’s parents were deaf, so ASL was her first language. As a child she went to speech therapy because, she said, she was “delayed.” Even now, she said, when she’s just talking with her friends or colleagues, she slips into sign.
“If I’m very emotional about something, I will not talk,” she said. Signing is more comfortable.
Though coming from a deaf family helped inspire her to go into interpreting – she started when she was 18 – that path won’t apply to everyone like her, she said.
“The misconception is a lot that just because your parents are deaf that you can interpret,” she said. Training to be an interpreter is a rigorous process involving ethics as well as language.
“There’s a lot more to it than people really understand,” Kincaid said. “So not just anybody can do it. It takes a lot of training.”
Still, Kentucky desperately needs more interpreters, she said, and diverse ones. (Career site Zippia reported in 2021 that in the United States, most ASL interpreters are white and female.)
Had Kincaid not been sick at the time, she would have been the primary COVID-19 interpreter for the governor’s briefings. But, as was her way, Virginia Moore stepped up to help fill in for her.
Their relationship extended beyond the professional, too. Moore drove her to the hospital to give birth to her son, River, more than a decade ago.
Moore even took photos of the birth for her – “up close and personal.”
At Moore’s Celebration of Life service in June, Kincaid performed – in sign – the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day, a final public goodbye.
…I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again
Unlike some of her colleagues, Lott did not grow up in a deaf family. In fact, everyone in her family were CNAs, she said — certified nursing assistants.
Working as a CNA was the path she assumed she’d take in life, so she began working with special needs children in a group home some 20 years ago in North Carolina.
But when the home brought in a sign language instructor to teach nonverbal students how to communicate, Lott was intrigued.
“I was just fascinated,” Lott recalls as she watched the teacher. “I would be watching her, I would be practicing. And she said to me, ‘Do you think you would want to become an interpreter?’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’”
At that time, Lott didn’t have any deaf friends. And no one in her family had gone to college. But she was determined to do whatever was necessary to be like that teacher.
She went through an interpreting training program in the late 1990s and started her career as an interpreter outside of Kentucky. She came to the commonwealth in the heat of COVID-19 — August 2020 — and joined the KCDHH last year.
Like spoken language — the accents, the colloquialisms, the vernacular — ASL changes with geography. Lott, who grew up in Long Island, had to learn new meanings for words. In the north, toboggan is a sled. In the south, it’s a hat.
The contrasts continued: Cart versus buggy. The Kentucky Derby, a thing unique to the commonwealth. The many — 120! —counties, all to be spelled out by hand.
“The language is beautiful and all of that, but there is a lot of mental work that goes into processing two languages and making it sound fluent and native — and making it look fluent and native,” Lott said. “You do have that accent, so to speak, and those variations and dialect and word choice. It’s fascinating. It’s one of the fun parts about it.”
Like Kincaid, Rodgers’ first language was ASL because she grew up in a deaf family. In 2006 she earned her bachelor’s degree in interpreting from an Eastern Kentucky University satellite program through the University of Louisville. She joined KCDHH that year.
Born in Maryland, Rodgers moved to Kentucky in the sixth grade. At KCDHH she coordinates interpreters for state agencies and also works advocating for deaf and hard of hearing people in settings like job interviews and doctor’s offices.
“The difference between a professional sign language interpreter and someone that knows sign language is very different,” Rodgers said.
For one, interpreters often handle highly sensitive information, such as medical records. This is information they cannot share or vent about. It’s their job to interpret and protect privacy in the process.
“We’re in and out of all individuals’ lives,” Rodgers said. “These are people’s personal and private information. And that’s even more so why the professionalism of interpreting is so important.”
Rodgers, a frequent face during Beshear’s press conferences, said interpreting for the screen in that way takes several tolls on the body — shoulders, hands, back.
There’s a small box the interpreter must fit in, meaning some signs have to be made smaller to fit.
“But also, mentally there’s a lot of processing there,” she said. “It’s … physical and … mentally it’s heavy.”
Rodgers, like others at KCDHH, was close to the late Moore, who attended both her births.
“You’re with your work family as much — more than, sometimes, — your family at home,” she said. “Then, working with someone for so long, it’s natural to have … a special relationship.”
Do I have hearing loss?
There were 723,725 Kentuckians with some level of hearing loss in 2020, according to KCDHH. The county with the most was Kentucky’s most populous, Jefferson, with more than 150,000 deaf and hard of hearing Louisvillians. Jefferson was followed by Fayette with around 51,000.
KCDHH says common indicators that you might have hearing loss are:
- You misunderstand people.
- You need people to repeat themselves.
- You speak loudly.
- You have trouble talking on the phone.
- You need increased volume on the television.
An audiologist can help you figure out if you do — and what comes next.
Through KCDHH’s Telecommunications Access Program, eligible Kentuckians can get communication technology free of charge. To make a request you can call the office with just audio at 502-573-2604 or through videophone at 502-416-0607.
The hearing loss stigma
There is a lot of stigma around deafness and being hard of hearing, said KCDHH Interim Executive Director Anita Dowd, especially for people who lose their hearing later in life with no time to adjust.
“It can be life altering, and have a huge negative impact,” Dowd said. “And then that negative stigma of ‘deaf and dumb’” is still prevalent in some circles, though it’s getting better with time, she said.
“Hearing loss is a sensory difference,” she explained. “It has nothing to do with cognitive abilities. Hearing loss becomes a disability when the systems fail the person.”
Having ASL interpreters rise in visibility during the COVID-19 emergency helped ease some of the stigma around being hard of hearing, though, she said.
“It did wonders to educate people that, yes, deaf and hard of hearing people need to know what’s going on just as much as everybody else,” Dowd said. “This is important, scary stuff. I don’t want to get it secondhand. I don’t want to get it three weeks after somebody else does; I have the right to get this now.”
The one caveat, she said, is that while people did get to see ASL frequently throughout the pandemic, they didn’t see people with hearing loss. They didn’t get to see the deaf community.
Still: “I think the visibility of interpreters with the governor through COVID has helped out in a lot of ways,” she said. “And I think we’re still finding out some of those.”
How do I learn sign language – or become an ASL interpreter in Kentucky?
There are two universities in Kentucky where people can study to become accredited interpreters. Those are Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Louisville, according to KCDHH. Both offer Bachelor of Science degrees in the science and art of interpreting.
Kentucky also requires interpreters to be certified and licensed.
If you don’t want to pursue interpretation but do want to learn ASL, there are several options.
KCDHH says there are several places throughout the state that offer sign language classes. For a list, visit this page.
There are also apps that offer basic guidance on signing, such as Pocket Sign and ASL Bloom.
But the best way to practice sign language, the experts said, is like learning any other language: get out and immerse yourself in the culture and conversation.
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