Karen Nurkowksi — if you don’t recognize the name, you may recognize her face.
Nurkowski has become a regular presence on Saskatchewan TV screens over the past few weeks, interpreting the province’s COVID-19 updates into American Sign Language (ASL).
She’s been interpreting for 33 years, but making critical health information immediately available to the deaf community is brand new.
“I’d never done anything like that,” Nurkowski told Global News.
“I really realized the deaf community needed the updates just as much as everybody else did. And I felt it was a very important job for me to do to make sure our deaf community was in the loop.”
Initially, the province didn’t hire an interpreter for its weekday pandemic updates, leaving some to get their information from non-Canadian sources that use interpreters for live updates.
That changed after Saskatchewan’s deaf community pushed back, concerned about the inaccessibility of potentially life-saving recommendations, Nurkowski said.
“The timing of the pandemic is so different in every province and every country, essentially, that it’s important to know what’s going on here and now,” she said.
“All of the deaf community is watching from all over the province because they are in need of this service.”
For many, the newfound ubiquity of interpreters in Canadian media is a long time coming.
Patricia Spicer, a vocational counsellor with Saskatchewan Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services, said it was frustrating when new information wasn’t available in a timely manner.
“There was a big communication barrier there,” Spicer said through an interpreter.
“I was like, ‘What’s going on? What’s happening?’”
She said governments need to uphold the Accessible Canada Act, which recognizes ASL, Quebec Sign Language, and Indigenous sign languages “as the primary languages for communication by deaf persons in Canada.”
“Finally, I feel that we are included and have access to information on what’s going on with COVID,” Spicer said.
It took a public health crisis to pull interpretation into the mainstream — and Spicer and Nurkowski hope it stays there.
“It’s important to continue to hire interpreters for any important event to give deaf and hard-of-hearing people access to information,” Spicer said.
“I feel that deaf people are happy across Canada and hearing people can see the importance of interpreters, too.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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