If you have been keeping up with Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s daily COVID-19 press conferences, then you are probably already familiar with his right-hand man Eddie Schmeckenbecher who is an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.
On most days since Hutchinson’s first COVID-19 press conference on Feb. 28, Schmeckenbecher has been to his right, interpreting every word spoken in those conferences for deaf and hard of hearing people.
“It’s not [about] me. I want to make that clear. Anybody can do this job,” he said and signed. “For me to be here is to get the information out and I am continually asking deaf people ‘Do you understand what I am signing and am I clear?’ and most of the time they always say ‘yes’.”
Schmeckenbecher also welcomes suggestions on what he can change to make it better for deaf people to understand. He usually spells out names of counties, cities or companies and recounts the most difficult words to sign so far being the names of the medications “chloroquine” and “hydroxychloroquine.”
“What’s interesting is when [state officials are] going through the list of counties and the numbers, typically as a right-handed interpreter, I will sign everything, finger spell and everything, with my right hand,” he said. “But when they start calling off the numbers and counties, I tend to switch and use my left hand for the numbers and my right hand for the counties.”
Although closed captioning is available for all broadcast briefings, the message can get skewed with accents or fast speakers. Furthermore, ASL is recognized as its own bona fide language.
Schmeckenbecher, 62, began learning sign language in high school through the deaf ministry at his church, Temple Heritage Baptist. He started taking a class in September and quickly caught on. Schmeckenbecher was interpreting songs by that December and services a year later.
Today, he is the communications specialist and teaches at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. This November will be his eighth year working at the school. Janet Dickinson, the school’s superintendent, recommended Schmeckenbecher to be the governor’s interpreter, and he has held the position for two-and-a-half years now.
Based on the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Schmeckenbecher is one of 59 certified interpreters in the state of Arkansas.
According to him, interpreting requires a lot of skill, and it is more than just signing a word. Sign language requires thirty percent fingers and seventy percent facial expression and body language. He used the example of the sign for the word “understand” staying the same, but his body language and facial expressions can change the meaning.
If Schmeckenbecher leans forward and furrows his eyebrows as he signs “understand,” he is asking, “Do you understand?” A nod with his head and same hand sign means “I understand” while a back-and-forth with his head means “I don’t understand.”
Sign language is “more of a conceptual thing” for him. He said, “When I hear anybody talk, I have to think about it, change it to more of the meaning and sign it. So, there is a lot involved with it and it’s a split second thing.”
Schmeckenbecher will begin teaching his ASL community classes at the Arkansas School for the Deaf again on July 2.
“It is just people who want to learn, but don’t have the time to go to UA Little Rock or can’t afford it. This is just a way to get them exposed to sign language. ” he said. UA Little Rock offers an Associate of Science in ASL studies and a Bachelor of Arts in interpreting.
“Some of the people that have come to the classes [at the Arkansas School for the Deaf] may have a deaf person working with them and they just want to learn enough to communicate with them, so they are community classes.”
He noted that classes will be limited and students will wear masks. There is also discussion on campus about taking temperatures prior to each class.
“I probably won’t [wear a mask] when I’m teaching because, again, [facial expressions are] really important,” said Schmeckenbecher. “So they will practice and typically they don’t have expression when they’re practicing and so they will just sign and I have them sign with each other but the tables will be more spread out.”
While Schmeckenbecher has been Hutchinson’s interpreter for the past two-and-a-half years, the local Arkansans have started recognizing him in public since the daily COVID-19 press conferences.
As of now he is not aware of any deaf people who have been infected with COVID-19 in Arkansas.
“I think that, again not me, the information is getting out to deaf people and they are being careful,” he said.
“So far I’ve had like 14 interviews, which blows my mind. I’m doing a job, and that was all my goal was to do the job and get the information out.”
Schmeckenbecher believes that the daily press conferences have raised awareness about the deaf community and sign language in general.
“I think it’s been a very important positive step in the middle of the pandemic and emergency,” he said. “I think it has raised awareness of the deaf community and the need to have interpreters in places like these.”
Image courtesy of Arkansas Governor’s Office