The Sign Language Interpreter for De Blasio’s Press Conference Was Deaf. How Does That Work?

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At Mayor Bill de Blasio's press conference on the Ebola situation in NYC on Friday, the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter attracted a lot of attention. Viewers commented on his animated facial expressions, posted screenshots, and joked about what he might really be saying. The same thing happened when the interpreter for a press conference about Hurricane Sandy was televised. As we explained then, facial expressions are an important part of ASL grammar. Eyebrow movements convey syntactic information, mouth movements mark adverbial content, and other body and face movements organize the discourse as a whole. Interpreters are not animated because they are dramatic or energetic, but because sign language is visual.

There was something different about the interpreting situation at this press conference that people also noticed: the interpreter seemed to be conversing with another signer in the audience. Was he just chatting along, ignoring the speech? Was he a fake?

No, his name is Jonathan Lamberton and he’s a Certified Deaf Interpreter. The other signer was a hearing person interpreting the speech, and Lamberton was interpreting that initial interpretation. Why would such a thing be necessary? Lamberton explains in this video from DHN, the Deaf and Hearing Network.

The jokes and accusations of fakery couldn’t have been further off the mark. The use of a Certified Deaf Interpreter in this situation showed a commitment to making sure the Deaf community of New York had access to the highest quality translation possible.