Helping hands interpret City Council

Tuesday, January 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:58 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

For Peggy Withrow and Kelley Clark, five-hour-long City Council meetings can be mentally — and physically — exhausting.

Withrow and Clark are employed to interpret everything said at Columbia’s City Council meetings into American Sign Language for an audience of TV viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing. “It can be tiring,” said Clark, 34, who has worked as an interpreter for about eight years. “There are times when we miss key words, dates or spellings.”

Clark said she has worked a couple of meetings that began at 7 p.m. and didn’t adjourn until after 1 a.m.

Employed by Columbia Interpreting Services based in Rocheport, Withrow and Clark try to catch every spoken word from City Council members and the public audience during the meetings held on the first and third Mondays of each month.

“Whether it’s a cough or a sneeze, if we have a chance, we’ll get it in there,” said Heidi Spencer, 24, who began interpreting the meetings in July.

Spencer said one of the biggest challenges is learning to translate complex jargon often used during the council meetings.

“It’s very difficult,” Spencer said. “It’s a lot of information you have to change in your mind in seconds. Sometimes it can drag you down because the vocabulary is very intense.”

The interpreters take turns in 20-minute shifts sitting in front of a blue wall inside council chambers, where a video camera records their interpretation for cable television. Wearing dark colors to ensure their hands stay visible, the interpreters appear inside a small blue “bubble” in the lower right-hand corner of the television screen, which is broadcast on Channel 13 for Mediacom subscribers and on Channel 2 for Charter Communications customers.

Working in pairs, the interpreters must switch off because the brain lags in its ability to process the information as quickly, said Withrow, 28, of Fulton. If an interpreter were to exceed 20 minutes, he or she would start making mistakes without realizing it, she said.

Withrow said it is often difficult to catch up to fast talkers and to translate highly technical language — words such as “easement” or “variance” — often used by city officials to describe new development projects.

“Every once in a while, something comes up in the meeting that I don’t know what they’re talking about,” she said. “We try to help each other out because sometimes it’s hard to hear.”

Another challenge, Withrow said, is not having a deaf audience that returns feedback.

“Without that feedback, we’re signing but we’re not sure how we’re doing,” she said. “But I do know there are deaf people out there that do watch.”

Dave and Julie Eaker, a deaf couple living in Columbia, said they appreciate the televised, interpreted meetings to stay on top of everything happening around town.

“(Interpreters) help us understand what’s going on with the meetings,” Julie Eaker wrote in an e-mail. “We consider it important to know what’s going on with our residence, with our school system. … We certainly hope they keep the interpreted services on television. It makes it so much easier to know what’s going on.”

Federal law requires sign language interpreters pass a certification test and obtain a license to work. Slightly less than 10 percent of the U.S. population is either deaf or suffers from hearing loss, according to the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

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