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Commentary COVID-19 in Maryland

Opinion: Can’t Stop Watching the Sign Language

Jimmy Beldon, interpreter for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), at a State House news conference in March. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

“Can’t stop watching the sign language!!!” wrote one commenter during a Facebook Live broadcast, viewing a sign language interpreter standing next to Gov. Larry Hogan during a recent press conference. After looking at this comment on Facebook, I clicked “Love.”

Stranded in Croatia while my nine-month Airbnb-hopping adventure is interrupted by dozens of government orders, I read a recent article about Hogan’s interpreter via The Baltimore Sun eNewspaper, a digital replica of the daily print edition. Then I was overwhelmed by the notifications from YouTube popping governors’ and mayors’ press conferences showing interpreters for the deaf. But I have no time to watch all of these.


During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Suzanne Garner, my friend and a tennis Deaflympian in Texas, texted me, “NYC interpreter is CHAMP!!!” I switched TV channels to find New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s press conferences. His sign language interpreter, Lydia Callis, wowed me!

Millions of TV viewers were focused on the sight of Callis translating Bloomberg’s speech into sign language. She became an Internet sensation overnight. As a proud CODA (Child of Deaf Adult), Callas is, in fact, the only hearing child in three generations of her family. The New York Times published an article about her. Even the weekly comedy sketch show “Saturday Night Live” spoofed her appearance in a parody.

Callis’ super-extra facial expressions and gestures have influenced most of the governors’ and mayors’ interpreters during the daily COVID-19 updates.

In contrast to the regular interpreters during the Sandy period, several of the present interpreters are certified deaf interpreters (CID), such as Jimmy Belton for Hogan; Jonathan Lamberton for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D); Dr. Regan Thibodeau for Maine’s Centers for Disease Control director; Steven Stubbs for Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R); Arkady Belozovsky for Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D); Trenton Marsh for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), and Nixo Lanning for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D). In the past few weeks, they became overnight celebrities.

After watching CDI Marla Berkowitz interpreting for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), my non-deaf cousin, Kristina McBride Purnhagen, told me, ”I’ve been very impressed with her expression and energy. She and the other interpreters we see during DeWine’s daily press conferences are obviously dedicated to informing the public who cannot follow along by simply listening. They are true heroes.”

Up to Canada

Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, publicly thanked his interpreter, Christopher Desloges, and told him, “You’re a rock star.” Across Canada in British Columbia, local viewers can’t stop sharing their love for the interpretations of Nigel Howard, the official B.C. sign language interpreter for the press conferences. So they created a fan club named “Nigel Howard ASL Interpreter Fan Club.”

Down to Maryland

To give deaf Marylanders televised updates about  Superstorm Sandy, Carrie Quigley of Carrie Quigley and Associates, Inc. of Laurel interpreted for then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). A few days ago, I reached her and asked her about her experiences dealing with an emergency crisis.

Carrie Quigley serves as deaf interpreter for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) outside the Supreme Court in 2019. Photo by Howard Lee Gorrell

Quigley recalled: “During the blizzard in Jan. 2016, I was asked by the Governor’s office and MEMA (MD Emergency Management Agency) to come to their facility in Reisterstown to interpret for Governor O’Malley’s press conferences. Because it continued to snow, and the Governor’s press conferences could occur at any time of the day or evening, I was told to plan to stay there for an unknown number of days. I was not told what to bring, nor what the sleeping situation was. Much to my surprise, upon arrival, I saw that it was a National Guard barracks with small rooms and beds without sheets. There were no towels, either.

“It was fairly deserted, as the National Guard members were working day and night at the MEMA building. The NG members each had a backpack they brought with their needed items. Not me. Not having been informed to bring sheets, towels, and blankets, I had to be creative. Luckily I am a soccer mom and had several jackets and towels in my trunk. I was able to manage for the two nights I ended up staying.” She added, “The MEMA facility took great care of those working around the clock there. Snacks, catered food, etc. were provided day and night, so no one went hungry.”

Asked about the facial expressions, Quigley explained, “As interpreters, it is our responsibility to convey the speaker’s message accurately. If the information is somber and serious, our faces will show that. We will not be smiling.

“If there is emotion, our faces will show it. If something is funny, we will be smiling. Our body language is also used to provide information. If the message is a strong one, we will be signing more powerfully and with emphasis, and our facial expression will also convey this. If we are not doing this, we are not providing equivalent information.”

She paused, “It is always an honor to serve our elected officials. Still, the most important part of my job is to convey the information to the Deaf/Hard of Hearing and Deafblind community accurately, so they are as informed as to the non-Deaf community.”

These days, Quigley is seen in the Facebook Live broadcasts for Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D).

From a CDI’s perspective, Utah’s Trenton Marsh explained, “An example of this is in times of pain or grief, where sometimes ASL [American Sign Language] interpreters struggle to catch a deaf person’s fingerspelling or sign speed. Even Deaf people who don’t usually utilize CDIs might benefit from them in situations they are not familiar with, such as in courtroom settings. It can be overwhelming to appear in court for the first time, regardless of one’s life experience or profession.” Marsh added, “Those are some of the reasons I wanted to become a CDI.”

An elementary school classmate of mine in Dayton, Ohio, Jeanne Biser Marsh and her husband, Emory, are truly proud of their son, Trenton, and his work for the Deaf Community.

Back to Hogan’s office

The name of Gov. Hogan’s COVID-19 interpreter is CDI Jimmy Beldon of the Mid-Atlantic Interpreting Group. His son, James Paul Beldon, is also a CDI for Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D).

“I am so thankful that Governor Larry Hogan has made his press conferences accessible to all by consistently providing a sign language interpreter. We are so proud to have a Governor that makes it a priority to include everyone.”, said Robin Kittleman, a teacher in the Montgomery County Public Schools Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program.

Here in Rijeka, I am raising a glass of Coke to CDI Kelby Brick, the director of Maryland Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, for directing an interpreter on a spot where the captioning does not block the full view of the interpreter.


The writer is a redistricting expert and advocate for the deaf.

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Opinion: Can’t Stop Watching the Sign Language