Sharing the secrets of deafblind interpreting

Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard brings new perspective to interpreters-in-training at Framingham State University

A woman who is deafblind sits next to a tactile sign language interpreter in training

Framingham State University student Elizabeth LaBorne (right) practices tactile sign language with help from Perkins Spokesperson Jaimi Lard, who is deafblind.

April 11, 2017

Framingham State University student Leslie Young sits in a chair next to Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard and grasps her hands firmly but gently.

In front of them, assistant professor Luce Aubry queues up a PowerPoint presentation and begins to speak, but instead of taking notes on the lecture, Young interprets it.

Lard is deafblind, so Young uses tactile sign language to communicate with her. She translates Aubry’s main points, while also describing the contents of each PowerPoint slide. Midway through, she pauses at a particularly complicated graph.

“Am I being clear?” she signs to Lard. Lard nods enthusiastically.

Young and her classmates are American Sign Language majors at Framingham State University (FSU), where they are training to become professional interpreters. They’ll graduate in May with bachelor’s degrees in ASL and English interpreting.

For the past three and a half years, most of their lessons have focused on interpreting for individuals with hearing loss, but for the month of March, Aubry has invited Lard to co-teach the weekly classes, so students can practice a different kind of interpreting – for people who are deafblind.

Because people with deafblindness can’t see traditional sign language, interpreters must learn “hand-over-hand” signing, where the listener can understand the signs through touch. They also get to experience what it’s like to lack vision and hearing.

During one class, students take turns working one-on-one with Lard while the others head to an adjacent room with Perkins deafblind interpreter Christine Dwyer. There, one student dons a pair of goggles that simulate low vision while her partner practices using tactile sign language to interpret a silent video.

“Now they can have that experience of what it feels like (to be deafblind),” Aubry said. “It’s so different from just watching videos, reading or talking about it. There’s just no comparison.”

It’s a difficult exercise for both parties, and Dwyer frequently steps in to offer suggestions.

“Don’t copy everything (in the video),” she advises. “If you’re going at the speed of light then our deafblind friend won’t get it. Less is more.”

Later, Lard emphasizes this point during a presentation on interpreter etiquette.

“It’s important to slow down,” she said. “Hearing people don’t get tired but for me it’s a lot of information. It can get tiring.”

In her role as Perkins spokesperson, Lard has worked for more than a decade educating the public about what it’s like to be deafblind. Together with Dwyer, she’s visited schools, businesses and community groups offering classes, workshops and sensory immersion experiences.

At FSU, Lard saw an opportunity to help prepare the next generation of interpreters to work with the deafblind community, a population that’s often overlooked and misunderstood, she said. Over the course of the month, she gave students candid feedback on everything from pacing to how they were seated next to her.

“The deeper I can go with trainings and workshops the better,” Lard said. “At FSU I feel like I have planted some seeds that will help them gain perspective.” 

A woman wearing goggles receives tactile interpreting from a teacher while another student looks on

Perkins deafblind interpreter Christine Dwyer (right) demonstrates tactile sign language interpreting with Framingham State University students Samantha Bravoco (left) and Elizabeth LaBorne.

What You Can Do

Book Jaimi for your organization's next event. You'll learn what it's like to live with deafblindness and how to make your community more inclusive.

Read more about: Jaimi Lard, Deafblind