EXPERIENCING THE INAUGURATION IN SIGNS
Sign language interpreters like Jeff Williamson spend weeks perfecting how they will interpret and communicate what is said and sung during the Inauguration Day ceremonies. (WaveCult/Flickr)
WASHINGTON — Jeff Williamson has spent weeks preparing for the Inauguration. He’s studied the works of inauguration poet Richard Blanco and the lyrics to songs that will be played at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. As a sign language interpreter, Williamson must have a clear idea of how he will communicate what is said and sung to the immense crowd on Inauguration Day on Monday.
Williamson is one of several interpreters who will be stationed around the Mall to translate the ceremony’s speeches and musical acts into American Sign Language, or ASL. His service is just one part of the assistance available to make the inauguration accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired.
It’s a tough job. Despite being an old hand at ASL, Williamson is constantly improving his interpretations. Even “The Star Spangled Banner,” which he has interpreted dozens of times and is preparing to repeat at this year’s event, is open to revision.
“It’s an interpretation, not a transliteration. We are not taking one word and replacing it with one sign,” said Williamson. “If someone asks for an egg, there is a specific sign for that. But if you talk about abstract concepts, like freedom, it can be expressed in many ways. The sign for that would be affected by the context.”
In addition to the several sign language interpreters, open captioning will be visible on several huge screens. David Hauck, director of accessibility for the Office of Congressional Accessibility Services, said there will also be an app available through the Senate’s inauguration website that will provide captioning on smart phones.
“The hardest thing about accessibility is getting the information out there,” Hauck said.
Providing interpretive services for the deaf is particularly important in Washington, D.C., which has the highest population of deaf people in the U.S. The city is also home to Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts college for the deaf.
As a freelance interpreter, Williamson has provided interpretive services for Gallaudet University and the congressional accessibility office, among other places.
Williamson began learning ASL in high school when he befriended a group of deaf students who taught him sign language. He began assisting his deaf friends in casual ways; he occasionally accompanied friends to their doctor’s appointments and provided interpretation. It was around that time that Williamson realized he was passionate about interpreting. In 1994, he received his certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, which allows him to work for the government.
Williamson and most other sign language interpreters often fly under the media radar. Recently, however, the profession experienced a jolt of publicity when Lydia Callis, interpreter for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, wowed viewers with her emphatic interpretations during the Superstorm Sandy disaster. Callis’ interpretation was parodied on Saturday Night Live.
On Inauguration Day, Williamson will stand on a platform in front of thousands of people in one of the ticketed areas. He will trade off interpretation duties with a partner every 15 minutes or so to rest and allow his hands to warm.
Without these services, deaf inauguration-goers like Melba, who withheld her last name for personal reasons, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee volunteer, would not be able to enjoy the historic moment.
Melba, who is deaf and has a visual impairment, missed Obama’s first Inauguration. She will watch this one from a ticketed area.
“Hopefully, I will be close enough to see the jumbotron,” Melba said through Williamson’s interpretation. “I’m very happy to say that the Obama Inauguration will have accommodations for people with disabilities.”