Like all Americans, Kendra Schmidt looks forward to the end of the pandemic, and a return to normal life. But she’s not going to lie about it. There are certain advantages.
“I have gotten a lot of recognition,” Schmidt said by phone on Wednesday. “It’s pretty cool.”
Schmidt is the staff interpreter for Deaf Access Services, now affiliated with People Inc., which has been serving the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing Western New Yorkers for the last 37 years.
You’ve probably seen her, unless you’ve been asleep since early March. During the pandemic, Schmidt has worked most of the daily press briefings for Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Kendra has been a daytime TV staple, like Ellen DeGeneres or Wendy Williams.
“I’ll get texts from my mom, saying ‘I saw you on TV, I’m so proud of you!,” Schmidt said. “Friends stop by and say, ‘Oh my God, Kendra, is that you?’ Random people in stores say ‘I’ve seen you on TV!’ ‘Yeah, that’s me, I’ll sign autographs later’.”
Schmidt ought to enjoy the attention. Interpreting for the deaf has been her life’s work. She signed for the first time when she was 2, back when her mother, Sandy, was working with the deaf folks in her church in her native Indiana. One of the other little girls was deaf, so she learned to sign to communicate.
“I started to finger-spell my name,” she said. “My first sign, of course, was ‘cookie’.”
The family moved to Buffalo when Kendra was 4. Her mother worked for Deaf Access Services (DAS) when it was part of the Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center. By the time she was 8 or 9, Schmidt was doing volunteer work at the agency — signing, stuffing envelopes and helping out with hearing tests.
Schmidt later worked at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo for eight years. Looking to put her skills to more profitable use, she started a mentoring program in Rochester, a hub for deaf services because of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at RIT.
In 2009, she was officially certified through the Sorensen Video Interpreter Provost program in Rochester. Schmidt began interpreting for DAS as an independent contractor 13 years ago, while also working for Sorensen. She recently became the full-time staff interpreter at Deaf Access Services.
Awareness of the deaf/hard of hearing community has increased greatly in that time, as more people grew familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which banned discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life when it was passed in 1990.
But the COVID-19 crisis has brought a heightened level of exposure for deaf issues.
“I think it’s been really good,” said Jodie Chibi, director of interpreting services at DAS. “I hate to say it took a pandemic. But it took a long time for the deaf community to fight and get recognition that they are a cultural minority and a linguistic minority, and get the recognition that they do need interpreters.”
Chibi, who grew up in the small town of Cottam in western Ontario, came to sign language a little later in life. She was an engineer for seven years, but she didn’t love it. She wanted something different in life and had always been intrigued by sign language.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “I didn’t have deaf friends growing up or anything. I was intrigued. I am fascinated by language. On a whim, I thought I’d give it a try. Worse case, I go back to engineering.”
She never went back. Chibi took courses in Canada, then eventually moved to the U.S. with her husband and finished her bachelor’s degree in sign language/interpreting at RIT in 2011. For awhile, she was still working in Canada, but after having her daughter she wanted a job that would be closer to home and wouldn’t involve commuting over the border.
That led her to Deaf Access Services, which had an open staff interpreting job. Three years later, she’s the director.
“I really love it,” Chibi said. “I like that every day is different. If you’re out interpreting, you could be doing a different thing every day. You could be going to a doctor’s appointment, to court, to someone’s training for their job. There’s just so much variety. It’s hard to get bored.”
There’s variety in the signing. People need to understand that sign language is a separate language of its own; it’s more than the simple translation of words.
“The grammatical features of the language are not on the hands per se, they’re on your face,” Chibi explained.” They’re on how someone moves their mouth or eyebrows or where their eyes look. So there’s not a word-for word translation between the two. It’s very fascinating, honestly.”
Frank Cammarata has been advocating for the disabled for 27 years. Cammarata, the executive director of Erie County’s Office for People with Disabilities, says heightened public awareness of deaf issues has increased the need for interpreters — and what he calls “effective communication.”
“In my last eight and a half years, Deaf Access Services has been so busy that they’ve actually had to bring in interpreters from the Rochester area to interpret in my meetings,” said Cammarata.
“By ADA law, if a deaf/hard-of-hearing person comes into a doctor’s office, a hospital, any certain level of public accommodation, they need to provide an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter.”
Cammarata, who was with People Inc. for 19 years, said there’s still work to be done. He said there’s not enough understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chibi agrees.
“It took a long time for the (deaf) community to get recognized and get access to what they needed,” Chibi said. “The unfortunate truth is that the battle isn’t over.”
In fact, the deaf community recently went to battle with the most popular and visible politician in this crisis: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
For the first two months of COVID-19, Cuomo’s daily press briefings did not include an interpreter. A group of deaf New Yorkers sued the governor in federal court, claiming that he was violating the ADA by not providing critical information on the pandemic.
The governor’s office argued that closed-captioning was available for the press conferences, and sign language was on their website as of early April. A federal judge didn’t buy it, ruling against Cuomo two weeks ago. You’ll notice he now has an interpreter on his TV pressers.
Schmidt, 39, said she can see both sides of the issue, though the public needs to understand that an interpreter is vital. She said Poloncarz and Cammarata are especially sensitive to the issue.
One of Schmidt’s regular gigs is interpreting at Cammarata’s monthly meetings for the Disability Advisory Council. As Chibi said, the job isn’t boring. The average citizen doesn’t realize how often interpreters are called into action nowadays.
“I’ve interpreted a C-section,” said Schmidt, who has two young children of her own. “It was crazy. That was one of the things I’ve always said will be in my book. I’ve done small surgical procedures, like pic lines, or a barium swallow thing.
“I’ve interpreted for the mayor,” she said. “I had to interpret a big benefit event for a bunch of the Buffalo Bills and Joe Montana. I’ve done a Kane Brown Concert, Gabriel Iglesias the Fluffy comedian. I interpret for the fair as well.”
Schmidt said she doesn’t get nervous very often. Remember, she was signing at 2. The press conferences are a breeze.Big stage events can be a bit unnerving. But nothing compared with signing for Darci Lynne, the 12-year-old ventriloquist from America’s Got Talent.
“Oh, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said. “You have to not stare at her the whole time, and figure out if she’s talking or if the puppet’s talking, and how do you show what is what. I had to try to interpret her puppet signing.”
There was no preparation. No dry run with Darci and the puppet. She just showed up and signed. And what did young Darci say after the show?
“Nothing,” Schmidt said. “Absolutely nothing. She didn’t even acknowledge our existence.”
Well, not everyone takes the signers for granted. Poloncarz knows enough to thank his interpreters.
“Yes. Every single time,” Schmidt said. “He says, ‘We’re joined today by Kendra from Deaf Access Services’, and at the end he thanks me for my hard work.”
No doubt, people in the deaf community would agree you can’t say it enough.