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Meet Marla Berkowitz, deaf interpreter in the spotlight during Ohio's COVID-19 briefings

A Q&A with Marla Berkowitz, ASL interpreter for Ohio's coronavirus briefings

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a time where information is power, Marla Berkowitz does a job that's more important than ever. She is front and center during Ohio Governor Mike DeWine's daily coronavirus briefings interpreting essential information for the deaf community using ASL.

Berkowitz has become an internet sensation during these last few weeks - there's even a facebook fan page dedicated to her and the team of interpreters working the daily briefings. 3News reached out to learn more about her life, her job, and the importance of communication access for all - read more in the Q & A below:

3News: Where are you from originally? Can you share more about your childhood and growing up in the deaf community?

Berkowitz: I'm from Long Island, NY. I am the only deaf person in my family. I attended a deaf school briefly in Queens which was my first entry to the deaf community. 

3News: When did you learn ASL?

Berkowitz: I first learned ASL from my deaf classmates who have Deaf family members and used ASL at the school for the deaf up to second grade. Then, at age 15, by immersion in Deaf community, I gained more insight of how ASL is used and continued to utilize it from there as my daily mode for communication (except with my family members and hearing people in general). 

3News: What brought you to Ohio? 

Berkowitz: I fell in love and got married. 

3News: Tell us more about your role at Ohio State? 

Berkowitz: I am a senior lecturer faculty with the American Sign Language (ASL) program which is housed in Center for Language, Literature and Cultures at Ohio State. I teach different levels of ASL, Deaf Art and Literature, and the Intersections of ASL, Deaf Culture and Deaf community Service Learning courses. 

3News: How did you get tapped to interpret for Governor DeWine’s briefings?

Berkowitz: I am a freelance ASL Certified Deaf Interpreter and am the only one certified in the state of Ohio. There are other deaf interpreters (Jay Gates and Sara Bianco, for Hamilton county and Cincinnati areas, respectfully) but am the only one in Columbus who have the skill and experience with this high profile job assignment. OOD (Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities) contacted Deaf Services Center (DSC) and they specifically requested me. The Deaf-Hearing Interpreting communities are a tight-knit community. 

3News: Tell us about the team of interpreters you’re working with for these briefings.

Berkowitz: They are wonderful ASL interpreters. As a Deaf-Hearing Team, we meet one hour before the assignment to discuss the assignment at hand, communication strategies used (sign concepts, where we sit/stand, feedback gathered from Deaf community, etc.), and our preferences for teaming all of this we call pre-conferencing. Then during the interpreting process, we are dealt with different demands of the work (environment, interpersonal, and intrapersonal, etc.). Then there's post-conferencing which focus on what we experienced, reflect observation, and how it can be improved such as making it an active experimentation for the next time. All the while we laugh at ourselves, discuss the ASL interpreting profession as an entirety, and our training/experiences as ASL interpreters. 

3News: How does the interpretation work? I understand someone signs to you from the audience so you can sign back out for the cameras?

Berkowitz: Hearing ASL interpreter A - 2nd language user of ASL would sign to me using English word-order. 

Hearing ASL Interpreter B - 2nd language user of ASL would monitor my work to ensure I am interpreting impartiality and accurately according to the standards of ASL interpreting profession. 

For question and answer session, Hearing ASL interpreter B would sign the reporters' questions, I would sign the responses from Governor DeWine, Dr. Amy Acton, and Lt. Governor, John Husted and others if they appear on TV. 

3News: What is the importance of your facial expressions when using ASL?

Berkowitz: Some Deaf people are native ASL users - language is clear and accessible to those who use the language too. For other deaf people, who rely on English (spoken and/or print) use close captioning on TV or internet to stay informed whereas other deaf people who are ASL users do not have an equivalence with access to information to make informed decisions in their lives. 

Facial expressions, where most people are drawn to, is one part of the ASL language - in addition to the emotions/affect, we also have grammar markers which indicate whether the speaker is authoritative, calming, sarcastic, etc. all of these are heard as vocal intonations which deaf people do not hear. In other words, it adds nuance. To convey a message such as STAY HOME requires a stern face to emphasize it or a plea voice for urgency in taking action. It also determines whether the speaker is asking a question, stating a rhetorical question, or a statement. 

3News: How do you feel about your new notoriety?

Berkowitz: I feel amused. Yet, the responsibility is enormous when it comes to interpreting for the public especially during crisis times. Deaf people who use ASL deserve to have first hand information at the same time as their hearing counterparts about their health safety. For me, the ASL interpreting profession is sacred. 

3News: What do you hope the attention on your role will do for the deaf/ASL community?

Berkowitz: For people in leadership positions to understand their responsibility is to take action by ensuring minorities of different languages and cultures have access. That is to know their leaders' decision-making policies, public information sharing, etc. And for the general public to realize for the very first time in our deaf history, deaf people are seeing their language in the spotlight that is 100% accessible to them signed by their own people, not 2nd language users. 

Click here for our special coronavirus section

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