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'We're trying to get the message out to everyone': ASL interpreter keeps Kentucky's deaf, hard of hearing informed on COVID-19

Virginia Moore is a nationally certified interpreter, who's dedicated her 25-year career with the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing (KCDHH).

FRANKFORT, Ky. — She’s the Kentucky governor’s silent wingwoman. Every day at 5 p.m., Virginia Moore gives the day’s updates on COVID-19 through sign language to our deaf and hard of hearing audience.

The Louisville native has become a household name in recent weeks, much like Gov. Andy Beshear and his behind-the-scenes sidekick Kenneth, who controls the slides.

Moore is a nationally certified interpreter, who's dedicated her 25-year career with the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing (KCDHH). It's her goal to get people better access to communication.

What was your childhood like?

"My parents are both deaf. I have a deaf brother and a deaf sister. I have two hearing sisters. I guess you could say, yes, my first language was ASL. Of course, speaking came natural due to my exposure with my other siblings, friends and school," Moore said.

Is ASL easy to learn? 

"Thats a loaded question. If you are a person who has an infinity to other languages, maybe you can pick it up. But it has its own culture, its own grammar and its own language, and its not universal. Theres Spanish sign language. Theres French sign language. It takes time. It's easier of course when you're younger. But its the third most learned language in the U.S."

How did you get into this field?

"It was not my career choice, but as I progressed along with my life, it seemed to have picked me. The KCDHH provides different services. I am a nationally certified interpreter. I have a Kentucky license. I've taken on this role for 25 years as executive director, I can see we can do so much to help the deaf and hard of hearing community and the hearing community."

Is the population you represent overlooked?

"No, but theyre not always included. I think its difficult. Communication is always difficult, but when youre born deaf, you learn sign language or have a cochlear implant, or hearing aids. You work to adapt. If you lose your hearing later in life, its so much harder to adjust. Do you still go to church if you cant hear the minister? Do you still play bridge with your family and friends when you cant hear them? We've had several people tell us when I say, 'huh,' people think 'Ill tell you later.' Its so isolating and to think sometimes hearing loss is equated to cognitive ability. Because you say 'huh' or dont understand doesnt mean your cognitive ability has any issues. So, are we overlooked? We just have to figure out how to work with the community to provide good information and access. Caption TV stations. Caption live emergency broadcasts. Caption all TV shows. Provide interpreters when its absolutely necessary, and we can." 

Am I really a household name? (More than 150,000 fans of the andy beshear memes for social distancing teens Facebook page would say so.)

"Thats hard for me to figure out. Just weeks ago we all just heard of the coronavirus. Its a nice distraction to have people recognize theres an interpreter and have memes of me and the governor, who is just wonderful for Kentuckians. Thats okay, but were here for a serious reason. A household name? Five minutes of fame. But if I can bring awareness to the need of communication, then this is wonderful." 

There’s no script to these news conferences, so Moore has to be on top of her game, even signing her way through her own honor of becoming a Kentucky Colonel this last Friday, the highest title honor bestowed by the governor.

What's it like when you have to interpret some pretty rough news, especially dealing with victims of the coronavirus?

"Its very hard. Yes, Im hearing it for the first time. Sometimes the governor gets the information while hes standing there. He gets paper handed to him, so sometimes hes having to say it for the first time. When he told Kentuckians he was going to light up his mansion in green to show compassion for those whove passed from the coronavirus on the day theyd passed, I had a hard time getting through that. Its emotional. You look at other countries. You look at Italy and you just feel, 'that cant happen to us.' But it can. As a team, were trying to get the message out to everyone and I want to thank the governor for this type of access. He has been phenomenal to giving us access to interpreting and captioning."

Moore says the biggest dilemmas in communication relates to people who don’t have internet access, who are already isolated. She said her office will be working with leaders over Zoom throughout the next few days and weeks to see how they can reach out to every person who needs help.

"Its telling the appropriate information, telling that little girl whos deaf in Western Kentucky, yes, you will grow up to be an adult. To give role models, to heighten deaf and hard of hearing individuals whove succeeded. To try to explain to parents, who for their child is born blind, how do I talk to my child? How do I communicate with my child? They do grieve to help them through it. To work with organizations like Hands and Voices to try to encourage the parents. Your child just cant hear but can do anything. To try to work as a partner with everyone, it brings me joy to think we can succeed. We have a lot of challenges but we are breaking down the barriers. And with this governor, we are breaking down huge barriers."

One more thing, she adds.

"Helen Keller said if you had a choice to be deaf or blind, which would it be? She chose to be blind. The reason? Blindness separates you from things. Deafness separates you from people and we need people now more than ever." 

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