SPOKANE, Wash. - Information on the novel coronavirus is constantly changing, and city, state and federal leaders are working tirelessly to bring us updates on where the battle to contain COVID-19 stands.
It's vital information that everybody needs to know. Emphasis on everybody.
During a pandemic or a national emergency, seconds count and that timely information might otherwise be delayed for the deaf community if it weren't for a special groups of people: American Sign Language interpreters.
If you see Caroline Allen out and about around Spokane, she might look familiar. That's because she's been sort of a rock star during the pandemic.
"I'm not a rock star," Caroline laughed when I spoke with her on Thursday.
Ok, so she's not a rock star per se, but with weeks upon weeks of daily briefings from local leaders, interpreters like Caroline have definitely been thrusted into the spotlight.
Caroline stands next to Spokane County health officials during their daily COVID-19 briefings and uses her hands to deliver crucial information on COVID-19 to the deaf community in the Inland Northwest.
"At this time right now, we don't have a lot of room to make a mistake," Caroline said. "A lot of people's lives are potentially at risk."
It's super critical right now when we're on a worldwide pandemic of life and death and making sure everyone, no matter where they come from, hears the information and if they can't hear it, they're able to see it."
It's a situation Caroline has prepared for her entire life.
"It's important to me because it involves my mother," she said. "Going to my heart, my mom is important to me and she is deaf and having access to what is happening and how to keep her safe is very much in the front of my thoughts."
Caroline's been a professional interpreter for more than 30 years, but her experiences began well before her career started. She was born into it.
With two deaf parents, Caroline can recall serving as an interpreter for her mom and dad. Everything from day to day things to being the one to tell them doctors needed to perform a blood transfusion on her brother.
At that time, it was necessary.
"In the past growing up in the this area, that service wasn't readily available, therefore that pressure was on me as a part of my family to get that information across to my parents," Caroline said.
She's been relaying important information to not only her family, but to the deaf community in the Inland Northwest ever since.
Think of every major event in the past 30 years. Caroline has been letting the deaf community know what's happening as it's happening.
"Letting my parents know that a cloud of ash was on its way, there was really no other avenue to get that information," Caroline said while recalling telling her parents that Mt. St. Helens had erupted.
She's signed through presidential campaign visits, the ice storm, wind storm, and now the coronavirus pandemic.
There are approximately 350 deaf, hard of hearing or deaf & blind individuals in our area who depend on Caroline and American Sign Language interpreters like her to let them know what's going on in our community during emergencies, and it's not as simple as you might think.
Sign language isn't visually equivalent to spoken or written English. It is its own language with its own grammar and rules.
On top of that, you must be able to quickly translate spoken word into sign language, and someone well-versed in ASL can even include the tone of the message.
"You as a hearing individual can hear that in a message, but the deaf audience is unable to hear it," Caroline said while talking about tone. "When an interpreter has the fluency in ASL they can share that in a visual fashion and those animated motions are very much the tone of the message."
One example of someone able to inflect tone into their ASL message would be Gov. Inslee's interpreter for his press conferences, Terry Dockter. The man with the goatee steals the show with his animated expressions of the Governor's message during his briefings.
Caroline says she knows Dockter and speaks fondly of him. Dockter himself is deaf and uses a hearing interpreter to relaying what Gov. Inslee is saying to the citizens of Washington.
That might sound like one extra step, with a hearing interpreter acting as a middleman, but Caroline says for the deaf community, that's actually preferred because an interpreter with hearing might lean more toward the literal English translation when signing, whereas an actual deaf person is able to sign more accurately for the audience when going through a hearing interpreter.
"They work with a hearing interpreter as a team and that hearing interpreter, depending on the deaf interpreter's needs, that interpreter will either interpret in English word order or interpret in ASL and then the deaf interpreter will modify some of those sign choices while making sure they're meeting the needs of the community at large," Caroline said.
Think of it as a filter of sorts. A hearing interpreter can get the message out to the deaf community, but a deaf interpreter can make that message even clearer.
Caroline's entire life has been speaking to those who can't hear. It's a field that thankfully has seen progress in the past 30 years and will hopefully see even more in the years to come.
"Now it's becoming more readily available, which is a fabulous thing," Caroline said. "It's important that we all take care of each other and work in this together fashion. That's really, really important, even if it's in a marginalized, small group of people.
Caroline might not be a rock star, but with her near-daily interpretations of Spokane County's COVID-19 briefings, she's certainly become somewhat of a local celebrity and she's thrilled to be doing her part to keep the people and the community she loves so much safe during uncertain times.
If you're interested in learning more about American Sign Language or interpreting, there are several classes available at local colleges and universities, including Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College and Eastern Washington University. Check on availability with COVID-19 restrictions in place.
Online courses are also available at Galludet University.
And if you're interested in the convenience of downloading an app on your phone and learning from your couch, check out The ASL App.
Additional resources for the deaf community, or anyone looking to find out more, include: