Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Signs of the Times: As COVID broke, the commonwealth quickly pivoted to get vital health information to PA’s deaf community

Cren Quigley & Cindi Brown

The call came while Melissa Hawkins was in a staff meeting. Gov. Tom Wolf needed a sign language interpreter for a news conference. On that day in March, reporters were crammed into the PA Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) media room.

Hawkins wonders now: How did anyone survive?

“Nobody even had a sign for COVID,” said the director of the Pennsylvania Office for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing. “There was nothing. Nobody really knew much about it. The rumors were going around. The deaf community had no idea. They had no idea what was going on. We were not prepared for the escalation of how quickly it was going to happen.”

COVID-19 has ushered in a new age for sign language interpreters. In Pennsylvania, a complex machine whirs away behind the onscreen interpreters who communicate health messages to the state’s 1.2 million deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens. In the process, they have raised public awareness of the role interpreters play and the challenges faced by the deaf.

As Debi, the now-familiar interpreter with the long hair and expressive face, puts it, she used to get shocked looks at the store when trying to explain to people that she is deaf, and they needed to find another way to communicate. Now, people know “that they should be gesturing with me, as opposed to speaking louder.”

“I think it actually makes it easier for the deaf community to interact with those other members of society who are not deaf,” she said.

 Again and Again

On a brisk Monday morning, a door in the PEMA media room opened, and Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine stepped to the podium. Cren Quigley took his socially distanced place beside her. Behind the cameras, another woman stepped onto a kind of soapbox built into the industrial-carpeted floor. She faced Quigley.

You’ve seen Quigley. He is the male half of the state’s two COVID-briefing interpreters. But the unseen woman on the soapbox is integral to the process. This is Cindi Brown, and she is the hearing interpreter in the room.

Quigley and Debi (who asked that her last name not be used) are deaf. They are also Certified Deaf Interpreters. Among all interpreters, CDIs are the elite—highly trained professionals, certified with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and skilled in communicating to deaf people of all comprehension abilities. Some, but not all, deaf people use American Sign Language. Others use an English-language amalgamation known as pidgin sign English. Some read lips. Others don’t. Some have limited vision.

“If you only communicate in sign language, you don’t get a lot of what is said, or if it’s just captioning, you might not see the captioning that’s put on TV,” said Hawkins, who is deaf and who spoke answers to questions translated by Brown via Zoom call.

All deaf interpreters qualified to work on state, court, health care and other certain business must be registered with the state, proving their training and capabilities under a law known as Act 57. Of the 601 state-registered interpreters, only 11 are CDIs. When that first news conference turned into briefings “again and again and again,” Hawkins realized that a CDI was needed to reach the full scope of the deaf community. Quigley and Debi answered her call.

Brown, a state-registered interpreter, became their hearing translator for briefings. From her spot on her box, she puts the speaker’s words into pidgin sign English, which the CDIs instantly turn into their universally recognizable, and very expressive, translation.

Pennsylvania’s interpreters “are really putting that message out there beautifully and professionally,” said Hawkins, whose office is in the Department of Labor & Industry.


Why do the interpreters wear black? With light-skinned interpreters, it’s for contrast with the hands.

“It’s just much easier for deaf people to see the hands and facial expressions,” Debi volunteered, also speaking through Brown. “I know. Black is boring, and my closet is full of boring black clothes, but it does help make it easier for the deaf people.”

Hawkins jumped in.

“You can always tell when we’re not working because we wear colors,” she said.

Debi affirmed with a “yay” gesture of upraised fists and a seated Snoopy dance.

Why are CDIs so expressive? CDIs employ the full vocabulary available to them—ASL, regional dialect and the vivid facial expressions that make the message accessible to deaf viewers with limited language skills. Raise the eyebrows for a yes-or-no question (“Are you coming with me?”). Furrow the brows for a who-what-where-when-why variety (“When are you coming?”).

“I’m very expressive because I am from a family who is deaf,” Debi said. “I went to a school for deaf people. So, my expression seems to be more obvious than some other people’s. Some people love to watch my expressions.”

Here’s irony. Debi studied biology in college. Her favorite subject? Viruses.

But an aunt who was an interpreter encouraged her to give it a try, so she did a bit on the side. After graduation, an interpreter referral agency called, and she figured it would make a nice summer gig. That was about 25 years ago.

Brown’s brother, 12 years her junior, is deaf. She became his interpreter when the family couldn’t find one, “and here I am, 22 years later.”

“Thank goodness for both of you,” interjected Hawkins.

She is this crew’s teambuilder. Every day, they park at PEMA headquarters, ready—black outfits at hand—to interpret for last-minute briefings. Occasionally, they enjoy a break when a briefing is canceled.

Each endures the pressure cooker with help from family, friends or pets, including Debi’s three dogs, and Hawkins’ menagerie “from an iguana to horses.” When Brown praised Hawkins for her hard work in obtaining CDIs for the briefings and keeping communications flowing, Hawkins was near tears.

“We’ve gone through a lot in the past few months, and definitely, it’s been challenging, taking us away from our families, taking us away from our pets,” she said. “We’re definitely a really tight team now, all of us, and I consider them my family.”

 Part of the Team

Language evolves, said Debi, “and the same thing happens with American Sign Language.” The deaf community doesn’t invent new signs as much as form different ways of conveying information through movement and expression.

Of course, a sign for COVID-19 has materialized. Make a fist with one hand and spike out the fingers of the other. Place spiked hand on top of fist in a kind of, well, corona, and what do you have? The spiky ball of the COVID virus.

The briefings continue. Hawkins praises Wolf and Levine for their support.

“We’re not just people standing in the back of the room,” she said. “We’re part of their team.”

Commonwealth Media Services, producer of the broadcasts, keeps the lighting noticeably bright in the PEMA media room and created the innovative two-camera format that puts the interpreter beside the speaker on the screen, although they are socially distanced in real life.

Sometimes, Debi is recognized in the grocery store, but she won’t accept the “celebrity” tag. Family and friends know her, and the deaf community is proud to see CDIs on stage. Some mornings, the drive to Harrisburg from her home in Chester County looms like a chore, but then she remembers the why.

“In the back of my mind, I’m always saying, ‘Yes, yes, the deaf people are depending on you to provide them with the message,’” she said. “And I know that I want deaf people to know what’s going on, so I’m here to provide information for deaf people. It’s not my choice to be here. I’m here so deaf people understand what’s going on.”

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