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Allegheny County officials to include sign language more often in emergencies

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 12:15 a.m.

If she looked serious, it's because she was.

Sign language interpreter Danielle Filip appeared as an animated front for Allegheny County's weather warnings this week, standing with county officials at a Monday news conference before sub-zero temperatures dropped the region into a two-day arctic freeze.

Filip's pointed but silent expressions — an arched eyebrow here, a deep frown there — greeted Western Pennsylvanians with a lively take on the spoken word. TV viewers can expect more sign language interpretations as county emergency responders reach residents who are deaf or have other special needs, according to county officials.

“The body language should match the tone of the person speaking,” said Joanne Sharer, 51, of Allison Park, whose company, Sign Language Interpreting Professionals, provided interpretation services to the county at no charge. “If the person speaking is serious, we should appear serious. If they're animated, we should be animated.

“The hardest struggle for us is to get the camera people to get us in the shot,” she said.

Sharer appears to have been the first sign language interpreter at an Allegheny County news conference when she stood with county officials in October 2012, the month superstorm Sandy roared ashore and menaced the region. She asked county officials that fall to remember the deaf community — a point she has pressed for years.

The idea of news-conference interpreters gained widespread attention when then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared following the storm with an interpreter, Sharer said. “People started to take notice of what I had been saying all along.”

Interpreters fulfill a provision under the Allegheny County emergency operations plan, which calls for measures to reach special-needs populations, spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

County officials intend to use the service more often at other public events and are willing to pay, but they haven't made a formal agreement, Downs said. She said sign language can be an alternative to TV closed captioning, which can frustrate people with hearing impairments when text or translations in other languages are garbled or confusing.

“Obviously, for emergencies, we'll do it as much as possible,” Downs said of sign language interpretations. “It depends on availability and how quickly things (news conferences) are called sometimes.”

Sharer, a certified interpreter for 25 years, said “it's not about the money” when lives are at risk. Her company has more than 50 contracted interpreters.

To Filip, 29, of Shaler, the company vice president who worked at Monday's news conference, communication is a fundamental human right.

“I think it's necessary and vital,” said Filip, who described her interpretations as pure reflections of the people who are speaking. “My own opinion, my own thoughts can never become part of my interpretation.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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