One conversation can change everything.

Now, thanks to the services of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter Amanda Smith, the gulf of silence between members of the deaf community and the hearing community is being spanned, one interaction at a time.

Smith has been working as the Yukon government’s first full time, registered sign language interpreter since September. Previously, interpretation was provided on an ad hoc basis to the estimated 18 members of the deaf community. Yukon is a pioneer in providing interpretation free for nearly any purpose.

Smith first began learning ASL as a girl in Vineland, Ontario and became proficient in her teenage years. She later went on to do several years of interpretation training.

“After finishing school, my goal was always to work in a community,” Smith says. “Before coming here, I spent a few years working in communities across northern BC.”

And every place is different

“With different ages come different dialects, so the dialect depends on where they were raised, if they were raised orally,” says Smith. “ASL is not universal and the dialects in Canada vary between the east and west.”

As an interpreter, she is constantly adapting not only to a community, but to each individual. “With every client your signing changes to meet their needs,” she says. “Some people might want you to mouth a little bit, other people might not want it at all.”

Smith’s position in the government is being funded as a two-year trial and her services are being closely tracked and categorized.

One such category is medical needs, which consists of interpretation services during health related appointments and procedures. Then there’s interpretation for employment, which helps people gain and maintain a job.

The third category is quality of life assignments. This refers to any of the interactions people face throughout their day — doing banking, buying a television, seeing a lawyer.

“It’s the small interactions that really make a difference,” says Smith. “Like if you need to have someone come over and look at your furnace, with just a bit of communication you can develop a rapport. We take those things for granted.”

Smith has even provided interpretation services at a concert. She and a few other interpreters signed the entire performance of the Grand Ole Northern Opry in December after obtaining the lyrics in advance.

“It was a bit of a challenge to get it all organized,” Jon Breen, manager of Disability Employment, recounts. “But the response from the deaf community was great. Some of them said they’d never been to a concert before.”

Neal Bird was at that concert. For Bird, who has been deaf since birth, it was a stunning experience.

“(The lyrics and signs) matched so well,” says Bird. “It was awesome the way the interpreters were signing the music.”

Though Bird hasn’t found being deaf in the Yukon particularly difficult, he acknowledges that a full-time interpreter is a huge benefit to the deaf community.

“I’ve used (the service) a lot,” he says. “It’s really inspiring to have the option of an interpreter. It’s very important.”

Smith made a particularly favourable impression when she accompanied Bird to a doctor’s appointment for the first time.

“She did a really impressive job,” he says.

Interpreters can generally do up to fours hours of interpretation per day. In a typical day, Smith can take a wide variety of assignments, but she has to be aware of her limits.

“There is mental and physical fatigue,” Smith says. “Interpreters are prone to carpal tunnel and tendonitis. For one interpreter working alone in a community, you have to make sure you’re monitoring your body and mind.”

Interpreters must also be prepared to deal with issues of ethics. For example, an interpreter may be aware when one person is withholding information. Her task, however, is not to become a third party in the conversation, but to interpret what is said as accurately as possible.

Another important role is to bridge the cultural differences between the deaf community and the hearing.

“You’re interpreting language and facilitating communication, but under that umbrella you’re interpreting culture as well,” says Smith. “Sometimes you might see misunderstandings that don’t result from the interpretation of language, but through the difference in culture. You’re always interpreting meaning and the cultural meaning of things.”

As Breen says, “Having interpretation has probably been even more meaningful to the hearing community as it has been to the deaf community in terms of opening their minds up to what their experience has been.”

Smith is also offering sign language classes. A different member of the deaf community attends each class.

“By the end of the course, the people attending will have met a large number of the deaf community and will be comfortable interacting with each other and hopefully this will build understanding between the two communities,” Smith says.

Information on the Yukon government’s sign language interpretation services can be found at www.psc.gov.yk.ca/asl.html