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'We're using Debbie's ears, and then my hands': Meet the COVID-briefing deaf interpreter team

Through his role as the deaf interpreter at the COVID-19 briefings, Richard Martell has become a public figure, but he couldn't do it without his partner, Debbie Johnson-Powell
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Richard Martell, left, and Debbie Johnson-Powell -- the two-person team of deaf interpreters

Without ever trying to, Richard Martell has become a bit of a Nova Scotia celebrity — someone who gets stopped on the street now and then. Someone who has almost accidentally became one of the faces of the COVID-19 response in Nova Scotia. 

Maybe you don’t recognize the name; maybe this is a mystery to you. But if you’ve tuned into any of the 150 or so provincial COVID-19 briefings (or this week’s leaders’ debate) you might be more likely to recognize the face, and the hands, of (probably) Nova Scotia’s most recognizable deaf interpreter in the bottom of your screen, providing simultaneous interpretation in Maritime Sign Language. 

“They see me, they say — ‘I see you on TV, I see you on TV! Good job!’,” Martell says. “I say thank you."

"It’s kind of embarrassing, I kind of try to keep a low profile. But at the same time, I feel good about it, that people recognize me, recognize that deaf interpreters can do anything.”

His celebrity is fairly widespread even among the hearing population, but particularly strong in the deaf community. 

“Parents will contact me and say, ‘can you sing a birthday song for my child?’ And I’ll videotape myself singing Happy Birthday, and then send it to them,” he says. “The children are excited — ‘hey, Richard Martell signed a song to me to wish me a happy birthday!’ — they really feel good about it.” 

What fewer people may know though, is that while Martell’s face and his sign language are on camera, he is only one half of the duo, and none of his interpretation would be possible without the off-camera ears of Debbie Johnson-Powell. 

The system works like this: as the premier and chief medical officer of health talk, Johnson-Powell (who can hear) relays the message in American Sign Language over to Martell (who is deaf), who translates that into the more regionally specific Maritime Sign Language. This may sound challenging and cumbersome, or slow. In person, it is anything but.

“It’s a team, there’s two of us here,” Martell says. “If there was no hearing interpreter, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this. We’re using Debbie’s ears, and then I’m using my hands.” 

In much the same way that the camera conceals the multi-step translation process, it can also conceal just how much of a team effort this really is.

“It’s kind of a joke with the two of us,” Johnson-Powell says. “People will say, ‘oh, Richard, you’re great, and blah blah blah!’ And I’m like — he can’t do it without me! What about me! That’s a big thing that I’ve been trying to get people to understand that. There’s not just him there, there’s a team.” 

And the advantage is obvious — it is a person who is deaf talking to other people who are deaf and hearing-impaired in their language. “There’s a fluency there,” he says. 

It is a lot to ask of anyone to be the face of the pandemic for so many people, but in effect, that is what Martell has become.

For all the days where the team is the messenger of good news — zero-case days, days when restrictions lift — there are plenty of times where they have to deliver awful news: Northwood; the third wave; the Portapique shooting. 

“It may be friends or anybody that we know that may have died from COVID, or died in the mass shootings,” Martell says. “You have to set that aside, and just interpret.” 

With COVID briefings now winding down — a potential fourth wave notwithstanding — it is possible that Martell’s life and work go back to an old normal.

It’s likely, he says, that he’ll continue doing interpretation for the government — his tenure has proved that there is a need for it. He’s also still teaching sign language, often over Zoom (which he likes, and finds useful as a teaching tool). There, he is very much in-demand.

“Many people have been requesting me because of the briefings,” he says. “I’ve been very busy because of that, almost every night.”

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