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‘This information is crucial’: Alberta’s ASL coronavirus interpreter refining the health message for deaf community

Note: This piece was done through an interview with Randy Dziwenka using a video relay service. We asked the question via telephone to a hearing translator. That person used American Sign Language to communicate with Mr. Dziwenka. He responded in ASL and the translator provided Mr. Dziwenka’s responses by their voice.

We are using the translation as direct quotes in this piece, as we felt it was a very accurate and nuanced translation of Mr. Dziwenka’s responses.


When Randy Dziwenka was first contacted to be the American Sign Language interpreter for the Government of Alberta’s coronavirus briefings, he didn’t realize at the time it would be every day.

But, he said it’s “awesome” to be the interpreter.

“They contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in standing up and interpreting it, so people get the information – because this is an emergency,” Dziwenka told LiveWire Calgary.

“This information is crucial. Our primary language is ASL and we need to have that visual representation.”

The province didn’t start with an ASL interpreter

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health at one of the daily media briefings. Premier Jason Kenney is in the background. ALBERTA GOVERNMENT FLICKR

In the first days, Dr. Deena Hinshaw was in the daily media briefings generally alone at the podium. There was no ASL interpretation of the media briefings.

This drew the ire of many in the public, feeling that the important coronavirus health messaging wasn’t accessible for the province’s deaf community.

The province responded in short fashion, bringing on Dziwenka for the March 16 briefing.

“We recognize the unique needs of Alberta’s deaf community and are locating a sign language interpreter for the media availabilities,” said Alberta Health’s Tom McMillan in Global News story that appeared Monday.

Dziwenka, three siblings all grew up deaf

Dziwenka, 59, has two brothers and one sister. He’s the youngest of the four children, and they grew up outside of Canada. He’s thankful he had their guidance growing up.

While he and his three siblings were all deaf, his parents were not. He said it’s difficult to say why that’s the case.

“I am the last child of the family, which means I learned (ASL) from my siblings, and I’m thrilled I had that exposure to them,” he said.

“They were older, and my older siblings didn’t have as much information until they went to school to learn. I was fortunate to learn from my family and my siblings before I went to school, rather than they who learned at school.”

Dziwenka graduated from the Alberta School for the Deaf and then went to college. From there, Dziwenka spent the next four decades teaching. He recently finished up teaching at the University of Alberta.

While he said he’s retired, he still helps in the interpreting program, providing new interpreters with guidance on picking signs and the linguistics and facial grammar.

“A few of my friends who I was talking with didn’t understand the interpreter, the hearing interpreter, so then I would go next to my friends and I would interpret it for them,” Dziwenka said.

“They noticed I kept having to interpret what the hearing interpreter was saying, and I had to keep translating it to clarifying what they were doing. So, I became this deaf interpreter to my friends.”

Dziwenka also works as the call centre manager for the Canada Video Relay Service (who facilitated our call).  

Dziwenka at the daily coronavirus briefings

The movements and facial expressions are a part of the refined translation Dziwenka (right) is giving to Alberta’s deaf community.

When you see the animation in Dziwenka when he’s on the stage next to Dr. Deena Hinshaw, you might think that he’s just really into his job – and that’s what makes him special.

It’s actually another layer of translation. He calls it his native language. That’s where the additional culture and facial grammar come in. The sways and bobs and facial expressions that Dziwenka uses are all about refining that translation for many in Alberta’s deaf population.

“It’s my first language. Yes, the interpreters do a wonderful job that they go to school for, and a lot of times they hear what they’re saying and they’re processing, but it’s not their first language,” he said.

“They have good information, but I take it then and really translate it into sign language, my native language.”

What we don’t see in the daily briefings are the hearing translators. Remember, Dziwenka is deaf – he can’t hear and translate what Dr. Hinshaw and others are saying.

There is someone, a hearing translator, who translates into ASL from the front of the room. Dziwenka takes his cues from that person interpreting the ASL and refines it even further.

That clarification is especially important during these briefings.

With the medical information and the emergency information being put out there, it’s important that those in Alberta’s deaf community have precise information.

“The hearing interpreters interpret what (the speaker) is saying. They sign to me and then I do a clarification” he said.

“Some I expand upon, I explain more, I make it more clear.”

Especially with the facial grammar.

“Everything has to do with your face. It’s like grammar on the forehead, the eyes, the cheeks, the lips, it’s movement,” Dziwenka explained.

Critical to have these options in times of crisis, Dziwenka said

Dziwenka hesitated when asked if he viewed what he was doing as a public service.

With such a serious health emergency as the spread of the coronavirus, Dziwenka said getting the information out there to Alberta’s deaf community is a must.  

The options for an interpreter are important as another avenue for the deaf and hard of hearing to gather information.

“Some individuals are having a tough time reading; sometimes the closed captions go so fast, so it’s hard to read,” he said.

“If they have that native language getting that information out – it’s an emergency issue. Everybody needs this information.”