An ASL interpreter signs while Gov. Kate Brown gives an update on COVID-19 in March.
An ASL interpreter signs while Gov. Kate Brown gives an update on COVID-19 in March. motoYA NAKAMURA / MULTNOMAH COUNTY

Update, Thursday April 9:

We're now including an ASL interpretation of this article from a Certified Deaf Interpreter.

Original English version, Tuesday April 7:

Like many Portlanders, LilLouie Barrios isn’t going to work right now.

Barrios had a job in construction, but like many of his friends, his work has dried up because of the economic fallout of COVID-19. But the challenges he and his friends face as newly unemployed people are compounded, Barrios said, by the fact that they are Deaf.

“A lot of us Deaf employees have been laid off and lost jobs, which broke us emotionally to know that we would have to fight harder to get new jobs,” Barrios told the Mercury in an email. “It’s not easy for us Deaf people to find jobs.”

On top of that, Barrios said, are the unique challenges that come with accessing unemployment insurance. Scheduling an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for an unemployment or social security meeting was difficult before COVID-19 began forcing mass layoffs, Barrios said, and it’s only grown more challenging with the new strain on the system.

“Requesting an interpreter for an unemployment meeting is more complicated,” he said. “It’s a huge bureaucracy. They would schedule my meetings weeks later due to ‘no interpreters available.’

The only way to get the process moving a bit faster, said Barrios, would be paying for an ASL interpreter out of his own pocket.

Barrios’ dilemma is just one example of how Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) Oregonians are watching the usual barriers to equal access grow more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic. As government agencies and organizations scramble to ensure accessibility to resources and information during a public health crisis, many DHH people and ASL interpreters say the problems they’ve faced for years have been exacerbated.

“This has been a battle that’s been going on for many years,” said Saamanta Serna, vice president of the Oregon Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (ORID), the state chapter of a national professional organization of interpreters. “It’s not like our elected officials are not aware of it.”

On March 23, ORID sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, which stated that Oregon’s 187,000 DHH residents “do not currently have access to the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe as well as in compliance with requests of state and local governments to prevent the spread of the disease.”

The letter also provided detailed suggestions for how to make official government announcements and press releases more accessible; at a minimum, ORID said, an ASL interpreter should be present at every official public meeting. Ideally, a combination of ASL interpretation, captioning, and an English transcript would be available for every announcement.

The state, county, and Wheeler’s office do typically provide ASL interpretation for these events, but failed to provide it for at least one joint March briefing on COVID-19 developments because it had been arranged with little notice, spokespeople from these offices told the Mercury.

Meanwhile, federal agencies—including the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—routinely fail to provide ASL interpretation for public briefings.

The reason this interpretation is so important, Serna said, is because ASL is most Deaf Oregonians’ first language. While many Deaf Americans can read English—and therefore can access written government materials, captioned videos, and media articles—English is their second language, meaning some important nuances can get lost in translation.

Barrios said he’s seen fellow Deaf people struggling to interpret the news about coronavirus in Facebook groups he belongs to. He compared the confusion to a game of “telephone.”

“It turned out into an uglier war between Deaf people,” he said. “We argue about who’s right, who’s wrong. No one knows what exactly is going on, there are more and more misunderstandings and miscommunications in Deaf groups. … ASL interpreters step in and try their best to clear up messages.”

Andrew Tolman is one of those interpreters trying to reduce confusion. Tolman is the founder of Fingers Crossed Interpreting, an organization that provides ASL interpretation for political and activist movements. While socially distancing, he’s transformed half of his bedroom into an office so he can provide remote interpretation and captioning for everything from local arts organizations and political campaigns to national media coverage of White House press briefings.

Tolman said many media organizations and government agencies use auto-captioning software that results in a well of inaccuracies.

While the demand for quick, accurate interpretation has increased because of COVID-19, Tolman said the main problems he’s facing as an ASL interpreter haven’t changed.

“The scramble of us needing to cover things that are inaccessible coming out of local and national politics is not new,” he said. “It’s something that’d been going on for years and years.”

Both Tolman and Amanda Hays, another ASL interpreter in Portland, said Wheeler’s office has been inconsistent with providing ASL interpretation, both before and during the coronavirus crisis.

“I have had my home set-up ready to go when watching local announcements,” Hays said, “knowing the likely chance of there being no interpreter provided and scrambling to coordinate live captions while I inform the community I will be providing access.”

Amanda Hays provides ASL interpretation while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Amanda Hays provides ASL interpretation while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy of Amanda Hays

Tim Becker, a spokesperson for Wheeler, said the mayor’s office has a “standing rule to always have an ASL interpreter” at press conferences.

As the coronavirus has upended business as usual for many Portland workplaces, video conferences have become a go-to alternative for many workplaces and organizations. That presents another challenge for interpretation.

“To maintain social distancing for presenters and the press, Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts have replaced traditional press conferences,” said Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, a spokesperson for Multnomah County. “The issue is when we have more than three or four panelists, the ASL interpreter on the recording is this tiny box that is very hard to see. We are working with broadcast journalists and our own videographer to capture the interpretation simultaneously but separately and then imbed so it’s easier to see.”

Myles De Bastion, the founder of Cymaspace, a local nonprofit that makes cultural events accessible for DHH people, said he’s also ran into challenges as local artistic events move online. He said Cymaspace has run into “many challenges associated with the high cost and complex technical barriers of providing interpreters and live captions remotely.”

“We are learning every day by testing new workflows and software while working closely with interpretation and captioning providers to train them in a whole new set of technical skills,” De Bastion added.

Philip Wolfe, a Deaf Portlander who is currently running for Portland City Council, said he’s encountered similar problems when participating in public forums through Zoom video calls.

Wolfe also worries about what he and fellow DHH Oregonians might face when attempting to access emergency services related to COVID-19. Wolfe said he’s had negative experiences before when interacting with Portland police officers, and while visiting court and hospital emergency rooms, when an ASL interpreter was not immediately provided to him.

“I’m not feeling good, and now I’m having to explain things, having to call interpreters,” Wolfe told the Mercury through an interpreter. “And this is during my time of pain, my time of discomfort. I’m now having to take on the role of educating somebody when I need help.”

While Oregon’s medical system is under strain because of COVID-19, Wolfe said, this lack of accessibility will likely become a “complex and compounded issue.”

Adding to the problem is the fact that not all ASL interpretation services are created equal. Based on his experiences, Wolfe said, public agencies and medical offices often contract with services that offer “the cheapest rate,” but that are not Deaf-owned and require the bare minimum in terms of interpreter qualifications. He said that may be because Oregon’s certification rules for interpreters are less rigorous than in many other states.

One of the reasons Wolfe is running for office is so that he can be a powerful advocate for Deaf Oregonians. He said he has hope that the challenges for DHH people brought to light by the coronavirus will be an “impetus for change.”

The new social customs Oregonians are adopting during the health crisis also present new challenges for DHH people. Korian Thomas, a Deaf-Blind Oregonian, uses protactile sign language to communicate. That means he is often touching objects and other people’s hands—causing people who aren’t Deaf-Blind to be wary of interacting with him during the public health crisis.

“To be quite frank … that a Deaf-Blind person is more infectious is a myth,” Thomas said in an email to the Mercury. “We know what are risks, [and about] prevention and protocols such as washing hands with soaps,” or applying hand sanitizers.

The CDC is now recommending that people wear face masks whenever they leave their homes. David Baldridge, an Oregon State University professor and research assistant with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, said that the increasing prevalence of face masks will present “a new barrier for many DHH persons who rely on speechreading and facial cues.”

“It is very stressful to encounter people in face masks and not know if those people are speaking to you and perhaps providing urgent safety information,” Baldridge added. “Missed information can be deadly during the current pandemic.”

As Deaf Oregonians face compounded anxieties during this time, they’re also being creative about finding new outlets for that stress. Barrios, who enjoys performing in drag, recently posted an hourlong drag video on Facebook under the drag queen name Sin Nombre, Deaf Drag Queen of Portland. Sin Nombre signed in the video, and had an interpreter translate the words to English in voiceover audio.

“After livestreaming news, I was fed up and decided to livestream my drag queen self to vent my feelings,” Barrios said. “I hired somebody to translate what I was signing into speaking English so it could be accessible to non-deaf people, which we call hearing people, as well.”