ASL interpreters trying their best to help deaf community

Karen Gambino (left) provides sign language interpreting during Mayor Byron Brown's March 17 press conference. In this moment, Mayor Brown encouraged Buffalonians to celebrate Tom Brady leaving New England. March 28, 2020 (Photo via Mayor Brown Facebook)
Photo credit Karen Gambino (left) provides sign language interpreting during Mayor Byron Brown's March 17 press conference. In this moment, Mayor Brown encouraged Buffalonians to celebrate Tom Brady leaving New England. March 28, 2020 (Photo via Mayor Brown Facebook)
To accommodate individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, we have transcribed each of the interviews conducted for this story. Scroll down below the Audio Extras to read the transcriptions

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) – There are thousands of people who are either deaf or hard-of-hearing in Western New York and getting information to them about coronavirus has played a part in curbing the pandemic that has spread to hundreds of people and impacted almost everybody in some way.

Several press conferences in the area, ranging from the Erie County and Niagara County, to municipalities like Buffalo and Amherst, have all utilized sign language interpreters to get the message out to the public about what is happening in the pandemic.

While most of the major developments include interpreters for the messaging, other areas are struggling.

“I’ve been really pleased to see our interpreters are still ready, willing, and able to go out into the community,” Pam Kefi, Executive Director at Deaf Access Services, said. “We’re definitely having conversations, especially with health care providers about what we will do if interpreters can’t go to the emergency department or to the bedside of somebody who may be contagious. In that event, we may use video interpreting as a last resort.”

The sign language interpreters for Deaf Access Services are independent contractors who also rely on individuals and organizations for their livelihood. Ironically, while they’re getting much attention in the press, they find themselves struggling to find work because many all schools and many businesses are shut down.

“We’re starting to panic,” Karen Gambino, an interpreter, said. “There’s not a lot of work out there. A lot of the interpreters work doing educational interpreting for colleges. Those students are not going to college and they don’t have work. A lot of people are canceling their doctor’s appointments. I’m not working.”

Gambino said that it’s important to get the messaging out to the deaf community because it provides equal access to them during the pandemic.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘Well, why not just have closed captioning? What do you need an interpreter for?’” she said. “I challenge anyone to, if there’s a live broadcast, turn the sound off, turn the closed captioning off, and tell me if it’s adequate.”

For additional information about Deaf Access Services, click here


While most local governments are utilizing sign language interpreters at their coronavirus updates, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump have not utilized that.

David Wantuck, the Community Engagement Manager at Deaf Access Services, said it’s disappointing that neither of the two are using sign language interpreters to help people who, like him, are deaf.

“With this kind of situation, there are a lot of countries in the world that are already providing that kind of accessibility that the deaf need,” Wantuck said. “47 out of 50 states are already providing interpreters at the governor level. New York State is one of the largest deaf communities per capita. For them not to provide any kind of accessibility for that community is really disappointing. Our goal is to provide advocacy where possible so that interpreters are available for presentation and information that is essential at a time like this.”


Western New York politicians have spawned two moments that went viral for different reasons.

One came on March 17 as Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown urged Buffalonians to celebrate (with less than 10 people) Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots. Brown’s comments later appeared on ESPN.

The second came a day later as Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz warned Western New Yorkers that there was a rise in overdose related deaths to cocaine laced with fentanyl.

“Don’t do cocaine,” Poloncarz said.

His comments led to the creation of t-shirts.

Both moments were interpreted by Gambino.

“That’s really pretty cool,” Gambino said about her being on ESPN. “It was funny because after that my son showed me that I’m a meme (for) signing ‘Don’t do the coke’.”

MB: Your organization and you have been getting a lot of attention lately just because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s obviously something people are taking very seriously. Let’s first talk about this pandemic and what you are going through with it. Deaf Access Services is being used very heavily…how important is it to get that information out to them in a way they can understand it live.

KG: Well, it’s crucial. If it’s important to you and I why wouldn’t it be important for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community? We’re all human beings and we need to understand how serious this is. It’s just equal access. It’s funny because I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘Well, why not just have the closed captioning? What do you need an interpreter for?’ I challenge anyone to, if there’s a live broadcast, turn the sound off and the closed captioning on, and you tell me if it’s adequate.

MB: I can tell you as a reporter that has to transcribe what people are saying live, it’s very difficult to do. God forbid you type a P when you meant to type an O then you go back and try to do it again, then somebody tries to read it, it’s difficult.

KG: You can’t. You really can’t. This is serious stuff. I say, I applaud the county for finally doing the right thing and providing equal access. This is so important. Even when I do encounter any of my deaf clients out, I reiterate how important this is to make sure they all understand.

MB: Beyond doing press conferences in Erie County and elsewhere, what are some of the things you, as an independent contractor, with Deaf Access Services, what do you work with people on?

KG: There’s a lot of employed deaf people. Professionals who have weekly meetings: I interpret those meetings. Job trainings. Doctors appointments. Board meetings. You name it, wherever people need communication access, there I am.

MB: Have these last two weeks been the most demanding for contractors like yourself or is it lighter now that some businesses are deemed non-essential?

KG: We’re starting to panic. There’s not a lot of work out there. You figure a lot of the interpreters were doing educational interpreting for colleges. Those students are not going to college and they don’t have work. A lot of people are canceling their doctors’ appointments. I’m not working. The businesses that I go to interpret, they’re not running. I’m not interpreting. There’s no board meetings being held. My work is extremely light at the moment which is why I’m doing the press conferences.

MB: It’s kind of ironic in a way because while you guys may be getting the most attention now, you’re getting the least work.

KG: Absolutely. Ironic isn’t it?

MB: I’ve got to ask. People have been seeing you a lot on TV in some of these marathon press conferences that last more than an hour, I’m sure you and I have probably been at some of the same ones and you’ve interpreted silly questions I’ve asked…how physically demanding is it to do these press conferences?

KG: People always ask ‘Don’t your hands get tired?’. No. It’s the brain. You can’t process that much information for that long of a time and do it justice to actually give a proper interpretation. It’s brain taxing.

MB: How did you get involved with learning ASL?

KG: It’s my first language. My parents were deaf.

MB: So it always came naturally, right?

KG: It is. However, I have to really clarify this. Growing up, I didn’t sign the way I do now. I did a lot of home sign language. It was just basic communication with my parents. Later on in life, I didn’t think I would be an interpreter because it wasn’t a profession that was paid, until the Americans with Disabilities Act. My dad became ill. He passed away. I didn’t feel like I could explain to him what was going on and I wanted to do that. So I got some training. That’s key, getting training. Knowing sign language isn’t enough. You have to know how to process this information and put it out in a language they will understand.

MB: Could you expound on it? I’m trying to understand what you mean by that?

KG: Knowing sign language isn’t going to get you anywhere as an interpreter. What I’m interpreting isn’t the words that are being said but the concepts of what they are saying. I’m giving them a picture of my hands that is not English at all. That’s where the misconception is.

MB: Just so I understand…You give the big picture of what they’re looking at?

KG: Exactly. That’s why the facial expression is so important. It’s all part of the language. It is its own language. It has its own grammar, it has its own syntax, it is a language. The facial expression is key. If I had no expression, you wouldn’t know the urgency and the feeling and the emotion behind what is being said.

MB: Now that people have some time that they’re at home, what are some of the basic resources that you think people can go and research on their own if they wanted to take up sign language?

KG: You know, you can always google American Sign. I haven’t been asked that but I don’t really practice my sign language because it is me. If you wanted to learn, there’s so many resources online. If Deaf Access Services was open, they have sign language classes as well. Try something online.

MB: As I was researching you when I was told I would be interviewing you, I noticed you got to be on ESPN recently.

KG: *Chuckles* Yes.

MB: How cool was that?

KG: That’s really pretty cool. It was funny. After that, my son showed me that I’m a meme on facebook as well. Signing ‘Don’t do the coke’.

MB: Really? I’m so confused. How did that come up with Tom Brady.

KG: This was a different press conference. It was the county executive. He was warning about cocaine is laced with fentanyl. They took a clip of me signing ‘Don’t do the coke’ and put it on Facebook.

MB: You’re a meme. You’ve made it onto SportsCenter…

KG: Yup. Pretty cool, huh?

MB: Personally, I’m a little jealous because I used to be a sports broadcaster. I never made it onto SportsCenter.

KG: There you go.

MB: Hey, for a lot of people in the deaf community who wanted to reach out to you, how can they do it?

KG: Deaf Access Services is the agency that really provides me most of my work. I have a few private contracts but that is just relationships that I’ve had. I mostly work through the agency and I am requested quite a bit at Deaf Access Services.



MB: You guys have been getting a lot of attention lately because of the amount of deaf access services personnel who are doing the sign language for everybody. How did you get involved with this entire process?

PK: Deaf Access Services has been providing this sign language interpreting service to the community since 1983. We were formed by a group of deaf leaders and community allies. We came out as a program of Buffalo Hearing and Speech initially. In 1992, the community decided for us to branch out on our own. In 1992, we became our own independent, non-profit. For many years, we were the only sign language interpreting service in the community. Now, of course, there are others but we are the only non-profit that provides this services and other human services. In addition to interpreting press conferences or concerts or college courses, there’s fourth grade curriculum, health care appointments, we help people find jobs, teach sign language classes, and provide a lot of other support services to the deaf community.

MB: When people think about a community of special needs, I feel a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily associate people who are deaf as the first thought that would come to their mind. How many people are hearing impaired in Erie County?

PK: It’s hard to answer that question. We don’t have a lot of good data. We struggle with finding that right number. Some of us have just been doing the census and you’ll find there is no option on the census indicating whether you’re deaf or hard-of-hearing. We don’t have any sort of process for determining that number. If you want to talk about deaf people who sign, that’s a much smaller number but as you and everyone else in the community knows, everyone is impacted at some point by hearing loss. Whether it’s something that happens to us as we get older, a lot of us experience certain needs as we get older.

MB: So, for a lot of people when they first think of Deaf Access Services, they think of American Sign Language which we’ve seen you a lot on television doing lately. What sort of things can you do to help people say as they get older and they naturally start to have some hearing problems. Where do you come in when people get older and how do you help individuals who are struggling with hearing.

PK: We do get visits from families when they realize somebody is losing their hearing. Each family will choose a different path. We have some families that decide they all want to learn sign language. We have individuals join our program and learn ASL. We have some people who want to learn more about assistive technology like the flashing doorbells or the vibrating bed alarm or some other system like that, like a flashing smoke alarm. There’s a lot of things people don’t realize that can help people maintain communication. A big thing is captioned phones. People don’t realize it if they’re hard of hearing that they can qualify for a free captioning phone service?

MB: Did I hear you say that having interpreters somewhere, I heard fourth grade classrooms, we’ve seen all these press conferences, Did I hear concerts too?

PK: Oh yes. What the general public is seeing is a very small portion of what we do to provide access to the deaf community. But yes, we could be at the arena…We do all kinds of concerts. Any kind of concert that one might see in Buffalo. We do ballet. We do opera. We do musicals. All kind of entertainment like that.

MB: Do the interpreters have a fun time with that? I saw a video recently of a rapper doing all the sign language with every single lyric the person was saying but rocking out at the same time. Do they have fun with that?

PK: I’m sure they do have fun with that. It takes a certain interpreter to have that skill. There’s a lot of preparation involved. They have to get the song list ahead of time and all the song lyrics. They will listen to all the music in advance so they can get the moves down because the body is helping to convey a large portion of the music to a deaf person in the audience. It’s not just the words. Their body will be reflecting the beats, rhythm, and it’s a visual experience. Not just what’s happening on their hands.

MB: I don’t want to stray too far away from the main topic at hand which is coronavirus but the fact that you were doing concerts was something I had to ask as a music fan. With this pandemic, I know it’s been taxing for a lot of interpreters. I’ve seen two at some press conferences. How tough of a time has it been right now for not just the interpreters but the deaf community?

PK: I’ve been very pleased to see our interpreters are still ready, willing, and able to head out into the community. We’re definitely having conversations, especially with health care providers, about what we will do if interpreters cannot go into the emergency departments or to the bedside of a person who may be contagious. In that event, we may use video interpreting as a last resort but for right now the interpreters are willing to go. We are having a lot of cancelations so the interpreters who are contractors are going to lose revenue. I know they’re anxious to have opportunities to work. We do use the two interpreters for anything that’s going over an hour or something with continuous dialogue like in a press conference where there’s a lecture-style for an extended period of time. Every 15 minutes or so we want them to swap out so they can remain fresh and the content can be accurate. You asked me about the impact on the deaf community. The biggest impact right now in the deaf community is a lack of access to critical information. We’re really excited our county executive has been using interpreters every step of the way but (last Tuesday) for example, it seems that the press conference has changed to a Facebook live model and interpreters are not being used. (Last Tuesday) all of the sudden, the deaf community does not have access to the same information that you and I have access to. The governor of New York has not used one interpreter the entire time and neither has our president. There is a lot of frustration and a lot of scrambling within the community to create access to the information. There’s a couple of folks in the United States who have started interpreting these things on their own Facebook live pages so the community always comes together and makes things happen for themselves but it’s real disappointing when the people we look to for information don’t hire interpreters.

MB: But largely on the local level, how pleased have you been to see that the interpreters have been used? I saw there was one at the Niagara County presser. They’ve been at every media press conference with the exception of (last Tuesday) which was a Q&A on the county executive Facebook.

PK: Yes. We’re very pleased with the way the county has handled things. If we have any questions we always know who to contact to discuss different strategies. They’re very open and we were really excited to see Niagara County reach out to us and the City of Buffalo reach out to us. It does require a certain amount of behind-the-scenes advocacy. We do have to remind people. As I said before we are a small community and people don’t always think about the deaf community. So that’s our job and that’s why we’re here: To advocate and remind. We’re always happy when people do the right thing and provide the interpretation.

MB: That being said, if people need to access to you guys, how do they go about doing that?

PK: Well, we’re all working remotely from this point forward. We are 100 percent accessible. We’ve forwarded all of our phones and e-mails. You can contact us by going to our website at and on there you can find all of our contact phone numbers. I don’t know if you know this but deaf individuals communicate through the use of a video phone. You can contact any of our deaf staff through our number as well.

MB: Is there anything else you’d like to our listeners to know about Deaf Access Services or anything else in the community at People, Inc.?

PK: We would really encourage any health providers or any emergency responders to consider getting up for video interpreting in the event we can’t get a live interpreter or in-person interpreter out. It’s a pretty easy process and you can reach us to set that up. We do provide that service as well.




MB: In your work with Deaf Access Services as the Community Engagement Manager, tell me a little bit about what you do and how you benefit those who are hearing impaired?

DW: What I do as a community engagement specialist is first, I work with deaf and hard-of-hearing folks. We promote the term “Deaf or Hard of Hearing” instead of “hearing impaired” because there are many things we do in terms of outreach and training. We have set up with New York State to change the term from hearing-impaired and transition to deaf and hard-of-hearing. That’s one success we did not too long ago. What I do is I try to collaborate with many parts of the community in New York City and Western New York State. With that, the training and the outreach and spreading awareness of Deaf Access Services as well as interpreter services to make sure there is access to the media.

MB: Obviously as we learn more about the deaf community we are seeing them a lot on television lately, especially here in Buffalo and Western New York. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has held multiple press conferences with officials and they have sign language interpreters for people who are deaf. That’s got to be a great thing to see in the community, especially in a time like this pandemic.

DW: Yes, absolutely. He has been outstanding with providing access via sign language interpreters. That’s something we advocate for and have been for a long time. He’s been working with us to provide that accessibility during this time for the deaf community so we have full access to know exactly what is going on in relation to COVID-19 and to protect themselves and protect the community from contracting this.

MB: Are you surprised to see that at the higher levels of government…the governor, he’s not using sign language interpreters and President Trump, in his various news conferences, has not been using sign language interpreters?

DW: It’s more of a yes and no. It’s more disappointing. With this kind of situation, there are a lot of countries in the world that are already providing that kind of accessibility that the deaf need. 47 out of 50 states are already providing interpreters at the governor level. New York State is one of the largest deaf communities per capita. For them not to provide any kind of accessibility for that community is really disappointing. Our goal is to provide advocacy where possible so that interpreters are available for presentation and information that is essential at a time like this.

MB: Do you know any statistics? Here on the local front, I know you mentioned New York State as a whole has more deaf people per capita, but do you know any numbers locally? How many people are deaf between Buffalo, Erie County, Western New York in general?

DW: Yes. With Western New York I would say we have approximately 7,000 to 10,000 people who are deaf or hard of hearing. In the United States I know we have about 70 million to 80 million deaf or hard of hearing individuals.

MB: And that’s where these local sign language interpreters (have importance). At Deaf Access Services, how many sign language interpreters are there to help people in the community?

DW: Here at Deaf Access Services, we have about 120 contracted interpreters. Those contracted interpreters are certified and qualified to go out in the field and to fit the specific needs of the deaf community.

MB: For us to get an idea of you personally and your desire to be an advocate for the deaf community, why is this something you’re so passionate about personally?

DW: Personally, I am deaf. So I was born and raised in a deaf family. I’ve already seen the issues with accessibility being denied many times in my life. Really early parts of my life is where I noticed that. I’ve even heard stories from my parents that they haven’t had access to essential services, even today in the 21st century. We are fortunate to have some of the access that we have but that doesn’t mean we’re done because, unfortunately, we’re not at 100 percent and that’s what we’re striving for. There’s a lot of improvements that need to be made for deaf access in terms of interpreters and Deaf Access Services is a great organization because they promote and advocate for accessibility for me, specifically here in Western New York, and New York City and whatnot. We are affiliated with people in New York City to strive to the 100 percent.

MB: I apologize I didn’t bring this up before and I’d like to ask this question. This coronavirus pandemic has affected everybody. Obviously the ability to understand what another person is saying is vital in a time like this. But what other challenges are unique to the deaf community?

DW: There are a lot of jobs that are not getting the opportunity to have equal access for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. That’s what Deaf Access does is try to promote and advocate for. There’s also the right to captions on TV and in specific places of entertainment such as the movie theatre. There’s also education access. There’s VR works that we do with VR access. Just to try and get interpreting services provided in many situations. It’s important to keep in mind that many things we do require increased costs. For example, a fire alarm normally costs $115 per fire alarm. But if it has just the sound and not the strobe light, that would be the cost versus the increased cost of adding the strobe light. You can buy a regular fire alarm at any store and it would cost maybe $15-$20 versus the strobe light that would cost $125 or $115.

MB: Anything else you’d like our listeners to know about the deaf community?

DW: Really, it’s more of giving deaf people and hard-of-hearing individuals the opportunity to have equal access in every situation. That’s really all we’re asking for is the chance and opportunity. If you provide that equal access and that chance and that opportunity via interpreters or job opportunities and that opportunity for an equal life, that’s all we ever asked is that for the majority of people.