Deaf since contracting scarlet fever at age 3, John McKenny has faced struggles staying informed. It doesn’t help that, at 95 years old, his vision is fading, too.
With the worldwide coronavirus pandemic ongoing, McKenny yearns to understand how to best protect himself and others. But on-screen captions on most news reports go by too quickly for the Kingsville resident to read, if they’re even there at all. The 1945 graduate of the Maryland School for the Deaf is brought back to the feelings of his youth.
“Often, when news was happening,” McKenny said, “I felt very left out.”
McKenny is one of about 1.2 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Marylanders who are not only facing the coronavirus pandemic, but also striving to stay informed about it. They’re helped by the presence of a Certified Deaf Interpreter at Gov. Larry Hogan’s news conferences. Each time Hogan presents an update to Maryland, a CDI is feet from his side, relaying the governor’s message in American Sign Language to his fellow members of Maryland’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
In recent weeks, that CDI has been Jimmy Beldon, who is contracting with the Mid-Atlantic Interpreting Group to stand beside Hogan as he updates the public. At a time when information is vital, Beldon, a 54-year-old resident of Frederick, recognizes the importance of his presence.
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“I feel that this is my contribution,” Beldon said through interpreter Nancy Bender, “that I'm able to level the playing field for people who communicate using sign language.”
Beldon is not alone at Hogan’s news conferences. He and Jesse Conrad, who signed at Hogan’s earlier coronavirus updates as well as this year’s State of the State Address, have been paired with hearing ASL interpreters, who stand off-camera at each briefing. One of Anna Rose, Patty Moers-Patterson, Becky Frey or Katey Nash has served as that hearing interpreter, translating Hogan and other officials’ spoken English into ASL, which the CDI then relays with added expression and emphasis that bolster the deaf audience’s understanding.
“Our first priority is to keep Marylanders safe, healthy, and informed," Hogan said in a statement. "Our administration is committed to ensuring that our citizens receive timely and equal access to critical information. I am proud to have a Certified Deaf Interpreting team at all of my press conferences.
"When I said that we are all in this together, I meant it, and we will get through this together.”
The director of the Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing said Hogan’s commitment to accessibility is inspiring, setting a precedent for other states.
“We’ve been called on to provide technical assistance to other states in terms of sharing what we have been doing here in Maryland," Kelby Brick said through Rose. "Governor Hogan has always been committed to making sure every constituent in the state of Maryland knows what’s going on, on a daily basis.
“Our lives depend on that, particularly in this case.”
‘One of the best’
A third-generation deaf American, Beldon grew up in a family where ASL was everyone’s first language. His mother, Elizabeth, was a deaf interpreter herself. He knows others in the community weren’t as lucky.
“So many deaf people in the country do not grow up in deaf families,” Beldon said. “They really don’t start their language acquisition until they arrive at school, so there’s a tremendous delay."
That created a desire to help. Beldon has spent a quarter-century in the interpreting field. The former vice president of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, he helps train hearing and deaf interpreters, with Brick among his pupils.
His children are deaf, too. One of his sons, James Paul, has interpreted Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s announcements during the pandemic, which Beldon points out proudly.
“Within the deaf community,” Beldon said, "this is such an important role.”
That is especially true in the present, when information can save lives. A 2011 Johns Hopkins study determined more than one-fifth of Americans age 12 or older are considered deaf or hard of hearing. Per capita, Maryland’s deaf community is one of the nation’s largest, Brick said.
“We’re so fortunate to have him local in the state of Maryland and be able to take advantage of all he has to offer,” Brick said. “Many people will tell you Jimmy’s one of the best in the business.”
Once an upcoming press briefing is announced, Beldon coordinates with Brick and his office to learn the focus of the news conference and which government officials will be attending.
“I definitely don’t want to be standing there cold without information and just kind of spontaneously winging it,” Beldon said. “It’s so important to create that equivalent message.”
Once he’s in Annapolis, he and his hearing partner go over what they each know. Neither, however, is provided with Hogan’s full speech in advance. They are interpreting on the fly, with the background knowledge Brick and others provided helping guide them.
“This is incredibly important work," Beldon said. “For all deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Maryland to have this kind of access, this direct access, it sends a strong message, a very important message."
With Beldon, Maryland’s deaf community knows it’s receiving a clear, accurate interpretation of Hogan’s updates, said Gina D’Amore, the president and CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Interpreting Group.
“People really value his message,” D’Amore said through Bender. “When he’s bringing the content to the masses, people know it’s accurate. They have a lot of faith in what he’s saying."
All about access
Not all in the deaf community can watch Beldon. He and D’Amore mentioned the struggles to inform the deaf-blind. Brick’s office also is concerned about those without internet access, encouraging “video phone trees” where people who have seen the press conferences or Brick’s short social media videos spread the word to those who haven’t.
The hope is to find more ways to make information accessible for all, and D’Amore said Hogan’s use of a CDI certainly helps. Although it was once routine for a hearing interpreter to work alone at public addresses, tandem deaf and hearing interpreters have become more common, to the benefit of native ASL speakers.
The language occupies a three-dimensional space, while English is linear. Brick, also a CDI, used the example of spreading his fingers apart to demonstrate people spacing out, reflecting social distancing guidelines.
Beldon referenced placing the federal government above the state government to show funding flowing downward.
CDIs also add context with emotion and emphasis, said Janet Weinstock, the secretary of Maryland Deaf Senior Citizens Inc. Although captions are better than nothing, they lack the physical cues that an interpreter such as Beldon provides, added David Tossman, a spokesman for the Howard County Association of the Deaf.
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“They really convey the exact same emotion that the speaker is,” Weinstock said by phone through the Sorenson Video Relay Service. “The signs are stronger. There’s more emphasis. There’s more expression.
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"I just can understand it at a whole different level.”
President Donald Trump’s press briefings don’t feature an on-screen interpreter, and because they are broadcast live, they generally lack immediate captions.
Larry Gray, the chair of the Maryland Advisory Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said that if there are no interpreters or captions, those who are deaf might wait hours for transcripts or news reports before they can be as informed as hearing individuals.
An on-screen interpreter also helps normalize deaf individuals’ needs to those who can hear, Gray said.
“It’s about access, as such critical information can save lives,” Gray said in an email.
Beldon’s presence helps spread that potentially life-saving information.
“To know that Maryland is really improving access to communication, I’m really humbled and honored to be a part of this entire effort,” Beldon said. “I just hope it’s something that continues.”