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Sign of the pandemic times ... the women bringing the news to deaf people from Stormont during coronavirus crisis

Two interpreters playing a crucial role in the daily coronavirus briefings, by translating the updates into sign language for the deaf community, tell Stephanie Bell about their careers and the responsibility they feel

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The interpreters on screen as Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill speak at Stormont

The interpreters on screen as Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill speak at Stormont

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Amanda Coogan and Kristina Sinclair

Amanda Coogan and Kristina Sinclair

Amanda Coogan (left) and Kristina Sinclair signing at the Executive’s daily press update on the Covid-19 crisis

Amanda Coogan (left) and Kristina Sinclair signing at the Executive’s daily press update on the Covid-19 crisis

Kristina Sinclair and husband Anthony with children Charlie, Kate and Patrick

Kristina Sinclair and husband Anthony with children Charlie, Kate and Patrick

Amanda Coogan with husband Jimmy Fay and son Daniel

Amanda Coogan with husband Jimmy Fay and son Daniel

The interpreters on screen as Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill speak at Stormont

It is not easy getting used to the new language around coronavirus but communicating concepts such as social distancing and 'the R rate' (the average number of people who will contract a contagious disease from another) to the deaf community has proven particularly challenging.

And it has fallen to two local women - Amanda Coogan and Kristina Sinclair - to ensure that what can often be life and death messages from government are related clearly to those who cannot hear.

In what is a first for Northern Ireland, the two women have been making history in their own right by becoming the first sign language interpreters at Stormont.

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Amanda Coogan and Kristina Sinclair

Amanda Coogan and Kristina Sinclair

Amanda Coogan and Kristina Sinclair

Taking their places alongside First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the daily Covid-19 news briefings, Kristina has been interpreting in British Sign Language, while Amanda relays the announcements in Irish Sign Language.

Feedback from live streams on multiple online platforms show that Northern Ireland's 4,500 British Sign Language users and 1,500 Irish Sign Language speakers are watching the news conferences over and over.

‘We had to find a way to deliver messages about the pandemic... so we created a new language'

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Kristina Sinclair and husband Anthony with children Charlie, Kate and Patrick

Kristina Sinclair and husband Anthony with children Charlie, Kate and Patrick

Kristina Sinclair and husband Anthony with children Charlie, Kate and Patrick

Kristina Sinclair (37) from Belfast is a full-time interpreter whose husband Anthony (35) is deaf. Anthony is well known for coaching tennis and teaching British Sign Language.

He and Kristina, who have three children, Patrick (5), Charlie (4) and Kate (1), met while playing tennis as children.

Kristina recalls: "Anthony and I played tennis for the Ulster squad when we were kids.

"We met when we were 10 and then he left Northern Ireland to go to boarding school in England when he was 11 and didn't come back until he was 25.

"While I was studying undergraduate English Literature, and had lots of free time, I decided to learn sign language.

"I then went on to do postgraduate interpreting in England.

"Anthony had gone travelling after university and came home when he was 25 to catch up with family and we met again - and he never went back to England.

"I became an interpreter full-time and have been doing it now for about 13 years."

Kristina is part of a small team of just 40 full-time British Sign Language interpreters and four full-time Irish Sign Language interpreters in Northern Ireland.

Her job is varied and takes her into all walks of life from hospitals, offices, prisons and court rooms.

Until now, though, she had never been involved in working alongside government or put in the glare of such a huge media spotlight.

"A PR company working for Stormont put out a call for interpreters on Facebook and someone who knew Anthony passed the message on to me," she says.

"I then asked Amanda and we started on March 23. To be honest I am used to interpreting for crowds of up to 3,000 people so being in front of the cameras didn't really worry me.

"The most daunting part for me was getting the information spot on.

"I didn't want there to be even the slightest error because we are dealing with a global pandemic."

For Kristina, it meant working closely with the deaf community to create ways of signing to accurately deliver the messages which have become a part of this strange new world.

Trying to communicate what exactly social distancing means and many other critical messages to keep people safe have all been part of a massive learning curve.

"Sign language is quite literal so to translate the message on social distancing using the signs we know would have meant absolutely nothing to people, so we had to work out a new way to do it," Kristina explains.

"The deaf community really rallied round us and together we have created a new language around the pandemic.

"The community has been helpful in giving us feedback in the choice of language and we have really nailed it so that it makes sense to the deaf community.

"Before the conference Amanda and I would sit for an hour and go through the news stories of the day to try and get a feel for what might come up at the briefings.

"Everyone at Stormont, from the security guards to the ministers, have been so welcoming and really embraced us. They have been very gracious, thanking us for what we are doing.

"Even though the ministers are under extreme pressure they have taken time out to brief us and really embrace the deaf community and reach out to us in a meaningful way, not just a token way.

"Stormont really is working closely with the deaf community and it has been nothing but a positive experience for us despite the content being so bleak."

The live daily news briefings are streamed direct to a Facebook video blog for the deaf community and are being viewed as many as 22,000 times.

"People are obviously watching them over and over again to get the information which is great," Kristina says. "You can see all their comments which show how much they really do appreciate it.

"It is the only time that people can get information in their language.

"I think it is an eye-opener for everyone. Deaf people really needed this service to feel included and some of the messages are life or death."

'I feel very honoured to be walking through Stormont's corridors and supporting the deaf community'

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Amanda Coogan with husband Jimmy Fay and son Daniel

Amanda Coogan with husband Jimmy Fay and son Daniel

Amanda Coogan with husband Jimmy Fay and son Daniel

Amanda Coogan (48) is originally from Dublin and is known across the world as a performance artist. She moved to Belfast five years ago with her husband Jimmy Fay (50), who is executive producer at the Lyric Theatre, and their 13-year-old son Daniel.

Amanda uses Irish Sign Language at the briefings which has no connection to the Irish language but is the form of signing used by the deaf community in the Republic of Ireland. There are around 1,500 users in Northern Ireland, living mostly in rural areas.

It was while at art college when friends in the deaf community were constantly asking her to explain what someone was saying to them that she decided to learn sign language.

"Deaf people are as varied and as wonderful as hearing people and you have doctors, professors, road sweepers and bin collectors, the whole gambit," she says.

"I learnt to sign after I left art college and it has been a brilliant parallel career for me. When the pandemic struck I was very aware that the deaf community needed to have the full information that the rest of us were getting.

"It was changing daily - and sometimes hourly - and it was really critical information. I think it is just brilliant that the Northern Ireland Executive embraced the idea that they had to communicate with the deaf community.

"The beauty of our circumstances here in Northern Ireland means that we have two languages living side by side together and it is really amazing that the Executive wants to reach everyone, as a lot of Irish Sign Language speakers live in remote parts of Tyrone and Fermanagh."

Amanda says that sign language is not related to the spoken word and its grammar is based more on visuals from the world around us, making literal translations of some of the new terms around the virus difficult.

"We are all talking about the 'R' number and social distancing and we have all had to learn these new terms and the deaf community is the same," she explains.

Being able to keep the Irish Sign Language community up to date on developments with Covid-19 at the daily news briefings has meant the world to Amanda.

"Stormont is very quiet at the moment and I feel very honoured to be walking through those marbled corridors to be supporting the deaf community," she remarks.

"I am just a cog. I translate information and try and take the words of the ministers and put it out to the deaf community in their language. I can't do that without support and the Executive and the deaf community have been amazing."

Plans to introduce sign language legislation in the Assembly soon should see the proceedings signed for deaf people on a regular basis.

And it is not just the deaf community who is appreciating Kristina and Amanda's efforts, but the politicians as well.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the executive is trying to "communicate with the widest possible number of people in Northern Ireland and, of course, the deaf community".

"We want to be able to reach out to them and that's why the signers are here," she said.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill revealed that she was contacted by a woman from Cookstown who said how much "she looked forward" to the conference, because it was her "one source of information".

"The interpreters, unlike coronavirus, are probably here to stay," Ms O'Neill said.

Belfast Telegraph