Friends have been reaching out to Jenny Buechner recently, getting back in touch and telling her they’ve been seeing her on TV since the beginning of the pandemic.
That’s because she is the deaf interpreter who translates Gov. Tony Evers into sign language with enthusiasm and flourish at his frequent media briefings on COVID-19.
“It’s really nice to see these people reach out again, and tell me that they had seen me on TV,” says Buechner. “It’s just really great to reconnect with those people … rekindle that type of relationship, they may be from my childhood that I haven’t seen in 20 years.”
It’s also been an opportunity for Buechner to see herself at work signing and even to critique her work as news stations air clips from the briefings, and videos of the briefings are available on the Department of Health Services YouTube channel. She cites the work with the governor’s media briefings as among the most rewarding jobs she has ever done.
Buechner has interpreted everything from private doctor appointments and job interviews to government and legal proceedings all across the state. She puts a lot of energy and emotion into her translation, not simply using her hands but her facial expressions, eyes, movements. It often makes her more interesting to watch than the governor and his health and legal team members who are generally rather … let’s say staid, which sounds better than boring.
Asked if she has any theatrical background, Buechner — responding via a DHS sign language interpreter — says no, the animated communication comes naturally as she was born deaf and learned American Sign Language (ASL) as her first language.
“Because this is my native language, I’m able to convey a little bit more through those nuances,” says Buechner, a Madison native. “And as a deaf person, I communicate in a visual way. So when the interpreters are signing something to me, I actually picture what this may look like in my mind, and then I sign it to convey it in what I’m seeing. And this is all happening right while I’m still interpreting all this is going on in my mind very quickly, as I’m still conveying the information. So, you know, there’s no time to plan for that facial expression…it’s just natural. It comes out because that’s a part of the language.”
During the media briefing she is in the room with the governor, Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm and other administrators so she can watch their faces and expressions, while watching the hearing interpreters as well.
“There’s a separate camera set up for me and I’m standing where I can see all of the participants sitting at the table,” she relates. “I’m able to see the two hearing interpreters right next to the camera. That’s really nice, because if the interpreters forget to mention who’s speaking, I’m able to just kind of look over to my right and see ‘Oh, Gov. Evers is speaking right now.’ And I can add that to my interpretation before I begin it.
“Also we rely on visual things. You know, so being able to be in the room and see people who are speaking their emotions — that really helps.”
Having friends get in touch who see you interpreting the governor isn’t the biggest change caused by the pandemic, says Buechner, although she says press conferences represent a “rising need that we hadn’t seen many requests for in the past.”
A bigger change is that in other areas — from court cancellations to medical appointments going online using video remote interpreting (something she says many deaf people do not find as effective) — there is a lot less work to be found because so many things have been cancelled.
When there is work, most of it is done remotely. For example, she has worked interpreting job interviews or preparing deaf individuals for job interviews and some of that is still happening, just via video.
“So I would say the biggest change is just a lot less work than I’ve had before, but I do have some work, but some interpreters have none right now,” she attests.
Another big change that has affected Buechner, and also the two sign language interpreters who work alongside her for the press conferences, has been constantly staying abreast of the events and the lingo of the outbreak, including whatever new drugs or practices might pop up or change from day to day. It can move very fast.
“I watch the deaf community to pay attention to their conversations so I can learn the signs that they’re using for these new concepts,” says Buechner. “Because if I decide to use a different sign for this concept, they’re maybe not going to understand it. So I want to make sure that I’m fitting the language that they’re using. You know, so we have to develop new signs or new concepts — so that’s something I do in advance. Just watch the news. Keep up with what’s going on.”
Buechner is the face viewers see in the corner of the screen translating the governor and others, but it’s a group effort that includes two DHS staff sign language interpreters who listen and pass along the questions and answers from off screen. Buechner is employed by a private agency — Professional Interpreting Enterprise (PIE) — that has a state contract for these briefings.
Carly Bieri and Chanel Wiedmeyer, are sign-language interpreters, who are not deaf.
For briefings with dozens of outlets from smaller radio stations up to national news organizations conveying vital health information, it takes teamwork. In addition to working at the press conferences with Buechner, Bieri and Wiedmeyer wear a variety of hats for the agency.
Bieri explains that all around the country, it is considered ‘best practice’ to have deaf interpreters doing the signing for the audience, particularly during press conferences and during “emergency or natural disaster” settings.
“We are using best practice and also leading by example,” says Bieri. “Having deaf interpreters directly in and from the communities we serve helps us reach as many ASL users as possible.”
DHS sign interpreters
Bieri and Wiedmeyer work for the DHS Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which also employs deaf individuals. They go out into the community for presentations and meetings to interpret. They also schedule interpreters, advise on best practices, administer tests for sign language interpreters and participate in various roles as needed throughout state government.
Bieri, who had always been attracted to theater and drama, first became interested in sign language when she worked with the Civilian Community Corps under a team leader who was losing her hearing and learning American Sign Language.
“I thought, this is a really good thing,” she recalls. “I can interpret, but I don’t have to be the one on stage — I get to be the voice for somebody else. So that’s how I fell in love with it.”
Wiedmeyer was working as a grocery store cashier while studying architecture at UW-Milwaukee. A man came through her line and she greeted him and also said goodbye and both times he did not respond. Her initial thought was that it seemed rude.
“Then a month later, he came in with his wife, and they were signing,” Wiedmeyer remembers. “And I was like, how stupid of me to assume that he was being rude. I didn’t even think of hearing loss.” Her next question was who in the store might be able to chat with the couple. She wished that she could. “So I found out that UW Milwaukee, where they have a big deaf population, also has this interpreter training program. So I really just started learning sign language and then realized that I could do it as a profession.” (She remains in touch with the couple that inspired her today.)
Working with the governor’s office is relatively new, but the heightened public exposure has allowed all three of the women to reach another goal. It’s not just a job goal, but also a personal goal, which is advocacy for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and bringing understanding of their needs to the broader public.
And the pandemic has certainly raised the profile of their office and highlighted the need to have government provide accommodation for the deaf community. Bieri has been at DHS for six years and Wiedmeyer has been there nine years, and there has never been such a bright spotlight on their work as the COVID-19 crisis, which has also highlighted the need for deaf accommodations.
“Now we’re interpreting for the governor, and the process seems very seamless — and I’m just so thankful because we’ve been working here for [a long time] and every year we’re kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re here, waiting,’ says Bieri. “And now we’re actually moving a step in the right direction of providing accommodations on a bigger level. I think it is awesome.”
Wiedmeyer calls that aspect of growing recognition “subtle” but vital. “It helps spread the word about why interpreters are important… You know, maybe some of these reports will help convince other providers to include us, to request us. So I think that’s been the best part of this collaborative relationship with the governor’s office and our department.”
Spreading the word
And for Buechner, who serves on the board of the National Association of the Deaf — an advocacy organization promoting equal rights for deaf individuals — it’s great progress, but equality and access are still a long way off.
Asked what is most lacking, Buechner responds, “Oh, there are too many things to list. I mean prisons, deaf individuals in prison have no access. Deaf children in our education system — they don’t have equal access to education. You know, the White House now with their media briefings, there is no interpreter there, so no access. Universities, colleges doing online courses, what kind of access are they providing? Are their videos captioned now that they’re remote learning? Are they accessible for deaf or even deaf/blind individuals or hard of hearing individuals? There’s not one size that fits all for accessibility. We all have different needs. But, you know, we’re behind in many areas in terms of accessibility.”