I had a fascinating experience last week as a relay Spanish interpreter for a young Nicaraguan deaf woman and her Spanish speaking grandmother. Francisca (not her real name), who was born deaf, is a recent immigrant who grew up without benefit of schooling or instruction in sign language, and communicates only through gestures, a few basic signs, and some vocalizations. Her grandmother, who does not speak sign language and is only able to communicate with her at the most basic level, is trying to help her access much needed services and build a life here. Hence this meeting – facilitated by our local English speaking American sign language interpreter in the room along with her assistant interpreter, a skilled white board artist, a deaf sign language interpreter appearing remotely via video screen, and a deaf Deaf services advocate also appearing in a corner of the same video screen.
Together we embarked on a complex and nuanced dance of spoken, signed, sketched, and vocalized language to attempt to bridge the multiple communication barriers, with the aim of trying to understand how to communicate with Francisca, and what her needs and desires are. I was humbled by the skill and versatility of my sign language interpreting colleagues, as we pieced together clues as to how to communicate with Francisca and attempt to give this young woman a “voice”, perhaps for the first time in her life.
Slowly, we were able to learn of her loneliness and desire to be among people, of the challenge she is having adapting to a cooler climate, of her desire to stay in this country, and most touchingly, to see that spark of light in her eyes when she realized she was being understood and making herself understood, at least in some measure. Priceless- her huge smile when she and her grandmother learned the signs for ‘granddaughter’ and ‘grandmother’.
Soon, thanks to the generosity of the language agency that hosted and facilitated this meeting and to agencies providing free services to the deaf, Francisca will have a video phone, a mentor to help her navigate her new country and make new friends, sign language classes for herself and her grandmother – and most importantly of all – the opportunity of understanding and being understood – that most basic of human needs. What a blessing to be given the opportunity to play a small part in this young woman’s journey to her brighter future.