Sign-language interpreter takes it to next level, gains following during crisis

Until a couple of weeks ago, Nigel Howard was just your normal everyday American Sign Language interpreter who teaches at several universities and travels the world educating people and working as a Deaf interpreter for the UN.

Then he turned up on B.C. TV screens as the Deaf interpreter for Dr. Bonnie Henry’s COVID-19 briefings. And suddenly he turned into a folk hero.

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Henry has been widely acclaimed for her cool, calm demeanour as the provincial health officer, which has helped soothe the public angst in the continuing health crisis. She may be the most-beloved and respected person in B.C. at the moment.

Howard’s demeanour, on the other hand, is something else. Where she’s cool, he’s hot, interpreting with enthusiasm and expression. His eyes bulge, his brow furrows and his body twists as his hands flash signs at lightning speed to get out the message. It’s like modern dance.

“It’s part of the Signed Language to be expressive, as it shows the facial grammar, non-manual signals,” he explained in a text message. “In a way it is always part of me, as it is critical information that I intend to convey.”

Howard now has so many fans somebody has set up a “Nigel Howard ASL Interpreter Fan Club” on Facebook, where you’re encouraged to send in comments and screenshots of your favourite Nigel moments.

“Nigel’s interpreting is an absolute ray of sunshine during this difficult time,” wrote Becky Grimsrud. “Keep up the great work, Nigel!”

“I no longer notice Dr. Henry or (Health) Minister Dix on screen,” said Katrina Sunshine. “All I see is Nigel!”

What makes this even more remarkable is that Howard is Deaf himself.

“I have a co-interpreter who is hearing,” said Howard. “She listens to the speaker and interprets into ASL, and then I do culturally appropriate ASL (native language user). Most hearing interpreters are L2 (language two), which may miss out certain nuances, facial grammar, non-manual signals and such to convey the language in native (natural) ASL.”

There are several co-interpreters — Sara McFayden, Jessica Siegers and Tyler Churchman in Vancouver, and Jenn Ferris and Nicole Pedneault in Victoria. They are placed directly in front of the podium, and Howard interprets their signs for people watching on TV. (A second Deaf interpreter, Scott Jeffrey, sometimes works instead of Howard.)

Howard says its “quite an honour” that some consider him a folk hero, but it’s “unintentional.”

“Really is all (due) to Dr. Bonnie Henry and Adrian Dix,” said Howard, who also does interpreting for Premier John Horgan. “I just convey their message from English to ASL.”

The 56-year-old Vancouver native attended “regular” elementary and high schools, then obtained degrees from the University of B.C. and the University of Bristol in England.

He now works as an instructor at Douglas College, the University of Victoria and UBC. Besides being a Deaf interpreter for the UN, he is also the treasurer for the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters.

His sister Ruth Mills isn’t at all surprised at the notoriety he’s receiving.

“Our family has always been aware of his accomplishments, so it’s not a surprise,” she said from her home in Cumberland. “The first text I got from my friend saying, ‘Your brother is doing great!’ I was like, ‘Well yeah, of course, that’s what he does.’ He’s always been very accomplished, so I’m not surprised.

“But I’m happy that he’s able to be a bright light in people’s lives right now, because it’s kind of a dark time.”

Mills said her brother “is proud to be Deaf.”

“He is very dedicated to the Deaf culture and the Deaf community,” she said. “And society in general, but he’s made a life out of the Deaf culture, promoting it and helping Deaf people navigate their own culture.”

She describes Howard as “very motivated.”

“He grew up at a time when Deaf culture wasn’t recognized, and Deaf people were taught to assimilate, basically, and to become a part of the hearing world as best they can,” said Mills. “Which is why he’s so articulate. He went to the Deaf school, but he also was very much a part of the hearing world, because our whole family is hearing … he’s very able to navigate both worlds.”

He may not be a household name to the public, but his work ethic and skill have made him very well-known in the Deaf community.

“If I meet people that are interpreters or deaf, they’re like, ‘Oh, Nigel Howard’s your brother? Oh my God, he’s so amazing!’ ” said Mills. “So this is nothing new. It’s just front and centre, and people are really seeing how good he is at what he does. But that’s why he’s travelling the world and works for all these places, the universities and the UN and things, is because he’s so good at what he does.

“It’s not like he just got good at what he does, he’s always been recognized for being good at it. People are seeing it now, so it’s kind of cool.”

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