Including Interpreter, Philadelphia Embracing The Deaf

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Josh Steckel served as an interpreter during several news conferences Tuesday.

    As Mayor Michael Nutter updated his constituents on the city's conditions following another snow storm Tuesday, a bearded man stood beside him communicating the same message with his hands.

    Josh Steckel, 37, served as an interpreter, translating the Mayor's speech to American Sign Language (ASL) for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities in the Delaware Valley.

    "I always thought it was a beautiful language," said Steckel, who has a national interpreter certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. "I grew up in deaf culture."

    Steckel is a CODA - short for child of a deaf adult.

    "Both of my parents were deaf and I also have two sets of aunts and uncles that are deaf," he said. "Just like kids who grow up with parents who speak a foreign language as their first language, by default you are an interpreter when you are out with them."

    Steckel, who has been told the first word he signed was apple, attended doctor appointments with his father to translate prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.  That law requires state and local governments to ensure complete access to services and programs to all individuals with disabilities, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

    Even though Steckel has native language skills, more education is needed to be an interpreter.

    Over the course of six  years, he took evening classes in topics like deaf culture and the technical aspects of interpreting at the Community College of Philadelphia while working full-time as a teacher. He eventually earned his certification and in 2007 he became a full-time interpreter.

    Steckel, who found out he would be interpreting for Nutter shortly before the conference, began preparing for the job right away.

    "When I met with the [Mayor's staff] before the assignment," he said, "they were able to give me almost line for line all the speaking points, which really made my job easier."

    "Just like the Mayor needs to practice his lines, it is important for us as interpreters to do the same thing," said Steckel, who added that interpreting is not a word for word translation since ASL's grammar and syntax differ from English.

    "How fast your signs are produced, how large your signing space and your facial expressions - all of that combines to give meaning and tone of voice to the content," he said. "You are really trying to translate the spirit of the message."

    The last-minute assignment alongside Nutter was a great professional opportunity, but it is even more meaningful for the deaf community, Steckel added.

    Neil McDevitt, executive director of the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre, estimates about 10,000 people use sign language as their main means of communication in the greater Philadelphia region.

    Not only does the presence of an interpreter during the city's press conferences provide access to those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing , it shows the entire Delaware Valley that it is essential to include those populations in any communication, he said.

    "A sign language interpreter on screen and right next to the mayor shows that the city and the mayor take that responsibility very seriously," he said.

    After the debacle in South Africa where a "fake" sign language interpreter used what deaf groups called nonsensical gestures during Nelson Mandela's memorial service, it is great to see interpretation is done right in Philadelphia, McDevitt said.

    Steckel says he views that incident, while disappointing, as a way to educate the general population about those who are deaf and the need for credentialed interpreters.

    "There needs to be deaf sensitivity that says, 'Look, we have our own language and our own culture,'" he said.

    Steckel says deaf culture emphasizes the value of community. "Everybody works together, it is a total group effort," he said.

    And on Tuesday Steckel's efforts made an impression on the entire Philadelphia community.


    Contact Alison Burdo at 610.668.5635, alison.burdo@nbcuni.com or follow @NewsBurd on Twitter.