Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Richard Martell can scarcely go to the grocery store without being recognized.
The Falmouth, N.S., resident is a persistent presence on television, laptop and smartphone screens across the province, as the sign language interpreter for regular briefings held by Premier Stephen McNeil and chief medical officer, Dr. Robert Strang.
It’s fame he never asked for, but Martell admits he’s a bit tickled.
“I’m happy that people have not asked for my autograph,” he signs with a smile, sitting in the Halifax office of the Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians.
“It is a little embarrassing but I also feel good at the same time. I know that people appreciate the accessibility being offered … I don’t want to brag, again I want to be humble about it.”
Last month, Martell signed his 100th COVID briefing, but it’s a little-known fact that he doesn’t do it alone. Martell, who is deaf, works side-by-side with a hearing sign language interpreter, who listens and interprets behind the camera.
That rotation includes Tammy Smith, Corinna Burris and Jana Delaney, but most often, his teammate is Debbie Johnson-Powell.
“She receives the information and then shares that information with me, then I expand on that and put it at a level culturally and linguistically with the viewers,” Martell explains, with Johnson-Powell sitting at a COVID-safe distance, interpreting the Global News interview.
“We both work very well together, it’s been a pleasure working with her.”
The advantage of having a deaf interpreter on the screen, he explains, is their life experience and formative understanding of the language and its nuances, which often makes them the most effective communicators to those requiring visual interpretation.
But despite their experience and professionalism, even Martell and Johnson-Powell aren’t they aren’t immune from a good case of the giggles.
Every now and then, when one of someone signs a mistake or makes a funny facial expression, Martell says they can’t help but laugh, and sometimes those moments make their way onto the screen.
On Dec. 1, McNeil directed a shoutout their way: “They are ensuring that all Nova Scotians get the message, and I think we’re all grateful they continue to do that,” he said during a briefing.
The pandemic has brought many societal inequalities to the fore, one of which has been accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
Martell said it’s important that governments and news media work hard to make all of their platforms, including phone applications, accessible through subtitling at minimum and deaf interpreters if they can.
“Many deaf people are really fascinated by having this information shared to them by means of sign language rather than just captioning, because they may miss some of the terminology, they may not be able to catch onto it,” he explains.
“Sign language is their first language and they would rather see these briefings or what have you in their own language.”
Early in the pandemic, the global deaf and hard-of-hearing community came up with a sign for COVID-19: one hand making a fist, with the other hand rotating around it with an open palm, five fingers spread widely.
It’s a visual representation of the popular medical image of novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, spikes and all.
“I felt really good that I was able to provide the service, I felt that the information is going to be accurate and important to the deaf community,” Martell says of being an essential part of the provincial government’s pandemic communications.
“They need to know what’s going on out there in the community in regards to COVID-19 and as an interpreter, I’ve loved my job as a deaf interpreter and I hope to continue to interpret in the future.”
When he’s not signing briefings, Martell teaches sign language classes through his consulting firm, spends times with his partner and their small menagerie of pets, and enjoys photography, baking and cooking.
According to the Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians, there are roughly 58,000 deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind and late-deafened people in Nova Scotia.
While the provincial government does not provide sign language interpreters for all news events or streamed cabinet scrums, it does do so for critical health and safety matters, including the COVID briefings and major weather events.
“We will continue to work with all government departments to remind them to consider using ASL (American Sign Language) services more regularly as we continue this important work,” wrote Communications Nova Scotia spokesperson Chrissy Matheson in an email to Global News.