A Deaf Perspective on Hurricane Irma Interpreters

~ By Lee Jackson

Why is it necessary to have interpreters at press conferences?  From my Deaf perspective on Hurricane Irma interpreters, I have read some comments that Deaf people can just read the captions on a live press conference.  Most of the time on live TV, there is no captioning.  If there is captioning, it’s not full or clear.  There are always errors in spelling, or the captioner misunderstands what is spoken.  When they realize the misunderstanding, they then go back to correct it which disrupts the comprehension and flow.  When there is no power, sometimes they rely on “Facebook Live” streaming. Again, that is not captioned, and many times the interpreter is only partially shown or not shown at all!  Either way, the message is not clear, and I can only imagine the Florida Deaf Community’s frustration with getting accurate safety information.  Even through all this frustration with technology, if you look back over the last 100 years, how many Deaf people have died from a natural disaster?  Luckily, it’s usually very few.  Most Deaf people are either lucky or had the common sense to go for shelter or get help.

Marshall Greene: Lifeguard Poses as Sign Language Interpreter

Report on “Amateur Interpreter”


(Watch another report here. See what the Manatee lifeguard is really signing. Disclaimer: The term Hearing Impaired which is generally inappropriate and should be replaced with preferred terms such as Deaf or Hard of Hearing.)

My Perspective

My Deaf perspective on Hurricane Irma interpreters, I am still disgusted with both Marshall Greene and Manatee County.  I feel they thought they could get away with using Greene in that manner to get their “15 minutes of fame.”  That was a HORRIBLE way of handling the press conference and a complete disservice to the Deaf community.  Greene should have known better than to get on live TV, but unfortunately he didn’t.  Really, my sister probably would have done the same thing. She can sign the alphabet and a few home signs, so she thinks she knows ASL. I can understand Greene was trying to help, but he should have known better. He could have even contacted his Deaf sibling to ask if it was appropriate.  His Deaf sibling would have likely told him “NO!” and encouraged them to hire a certified professional interpreter.

I lay most of the blame on Manatee County because we now know that they have used a professional interpreting agency in the past. Evacuation of interpreters is not a valid excuse.

Sam Harris, Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI)

Governor Rick Smith had his emergency press conference the last weekend before Hurricane Irma hit the southern region of Florida. Standing beside him was Sam Harris, who is Deaf and a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) (view video here).  Over the weekend, this press conference went viral because of Harris’ interpreting skills.  There were all kinds of mixed feelings from all around the country.  Even rapper Missy Elliot’s tweet said, “Ok for the sign language guy,” and, “I can’t help but watch how he interprets this & with so much sauce.” The Deaf community feels having a CDI on the emergency news conference is important because native signers will get the correct message disseminated by using their animated facial expressions and body language in addition to American Sign Language.  Most certified hearing interpreters do get the correct message across; but as with any language, it is not as fluent as a native sign language user.

Gone ViralDeaf perspective on Hurricane Irma interpreters

Sam Harris is all over social media.  I can understand why some people think Harris went a little too far with his facial expressions (specifically the tongue), but as a Deaf person I am very much used to that. That’s how most Deaf people, particularly from Deaf families or a Deaf school, have expressed themselves their whole lives.  Especially at Gallaudet or RIT, universities with a high Deaf population, the younger generation tends to be more animated with their ASL than older generations.  Harris’ “outlandish” expressions actually show the language itself without even using his hands.

Jimmy Kimmel

From a hearing interpreter or Deaf person’s perspective, I can understand why they are saying that Sam Harris should have insisted it be done differently when he was asked to be on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Even I was impressed, that for the 2nd time, Jimmy had some Deaf awareness on his show. (First time was hearing interpreters in a Sign Language Rap Battle with Wiz Khalifa.)  For this 2nd time with Harris, he took advantage of mocking the Deaf language…but at the same time, it’s comedy.  We all make fun of another language at times.  Why should it be any different with the Deaf language?  Deaf people can be sensitive because most of us have been bullied our whole lives.  Some interpreters, especially Certified Deaf Interpreters, thought that Harris should be educating the hearing world about Deaf culture.  How?  By having another interpreter on the set with them to show how Deaf Interpreting actually works.  Some thought Harris should explain why facial expressions are so important as a crucial part of the language.


The goal of bringing all these events from a Deaf perspective on Hurricane Irma interpreters is to make is clear communication comes in different forms and should be accessible to all in whatever form they best understand.  Sign Language expression and effectiveness to keep people safe during a disaster like Hurricane Irma come before comedy or easy, cheap services.


Additional Resources:

Sign Language Interpreting Company Perspective

Jimmy Kimmel Show with Sam Harris

Sign Language Rap Battle with Wiz Khalifa


MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review