Sign of the times: Delaware woman helps convey key information to hard of hearing

Pamela D’Occhio, of Newark, owner and founder of Deafinitions & Interpreting LLC, signs the word “coronavirus” for the deaf and hard of hearing. Ms. D’Occhio has stood alongside health officials and the governor over the past few weeks, rapidly signing as they detail new developments in the coronavirus outbreak. (Submitted photo/ Mike Pfeifer)

DOVER — Imagine the governor is going to make a very important announcement about breaking news. You have tuned in and are watching closely, but when the governor starts speaking, you haven’t a clue what he’s saying. His mouth is moving, but words are not making their way from his lips to your ears.

What do you do?

For many deaf and hard-of-hearing people, situations like this sometimes are their reality.

Hearing is something we generally take for granted — the very concept of being unable to receive auditory information can be strange to ponder and would represent a tremendous change in our lives. Without it, even things as simple as watching TV or having a conversation can become difficult.

Thanks to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals with hearing issues are entitled to a sign language interpreter, and major events like Delaware’s briefings on the coronavirus crisis feature a specialist making hand movements that seem nonsensical to the uninformed but are just as much of a legitimate way of communicating as speaking.

Pamela D’Occhio signs during a Division of Public Health livestream. (Screenshot)

Pamela D’Occhio, one of a small number of nationally certified interpreters in the state, is one of the individuals tasked with communicating key information to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Ms. D’Occhio has stood alongside health officials and the governor over the past few weeks, rapidly signing as they detail new developments in the coronavirus outbreak.

The owner and founder of Deafinitions & Interpreting LLC, she estimates she is one of about 35 nationally certified interpreters in Delaware. The Bear-area agency, which was started in 2003, works with around 50 contracted interpreters.

Learning American Sign Language as an adult is probably just as hard as learning a spoken language, Ms. D’Occhio said. But for her, it’s as much a native language as English. Growing up with two deaf parents in the pre-ADA era (the bill was passed in 1990), Ms. D’Occhio had to interpret for her parents even as a small child.

Today, she’s motivated in large part by a desire to help empower those who struggle or are unable to understand speech.

“I wanted to be a part of improving access for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” the Newark resident said.

In 2020, deaf Americans have more resources and rights, and some children learn the basics of ASL in school. But there’s still a disparity, Ms. D’Occhio said, even though omissions are seldom deliberate.

It’s unclear exactly how many people in Delaware are fluent in sign language or even are deaf, but the hard-of-hearing community at least numbers in the tens of thousands. A 2017 report from the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes says 1.8 percent of Delawareans aged 25 to 64 are deaf, which produces a rough estimate of around 10,000 people in that population.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people may be a small minority, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

Pamela D’Occhio, of Newark, owner and founder of Deafinitions & Interpreting LLC, signs the words “disease/illness” for the deaf and hard of hearing. (Submitted photo/ Mike Pfeifer)

“If they’re relying on word of mouth, if they’re relying on secondhand information and they’re not able to get the information from the state directly, then they’re left with what?” Ms. D’Occhio asked in reference to how Delaware transmits important details, such as about the coronavirus, to the deaf.

Her agency also handles captioning and interpretation of foreign languages. Ms. D’Occhio founded Deafinitions & Interpreting in 2003, a few years after she began interpreting professionally, something she started doing following some work at the Delaware School for the Deaf.

Ms. D’Occhio has contracted with the state since she founded her company and said she now has contracts for most of the state’s interpreting services, although not the governor’s annual State of the State speech.

The list of events she’s been called upon to interpret in her career is long and varied and includes a birth, a funeral, a school trip, a wedding and a trip to the bank.

“Really anything that anyone has to go to and take care of as part of their personal business could require the need for a sign language interpreter to be there,” she said.

“Believe me, the days are not boring.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 1 guidance

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