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Sign of the times 

Whatever fanfare social media might receive, it has real shortcomings. There's nothing like a wildfire to remind us that while some truths are, as they say, socially constructed, others come burning over a ridge at 50 miles an hour.

To wit: When the community looked for reliable sources of truly "breaking" news, sans gossip and panicked exaggeration, most of us turned on our TVs.

But what if you can't hear the news?

"The day the fire started, people started paging and texting me, saying there's news on TV about Waldo Canyon on fire," says Andrea Reeves. "But there's no captioning, there's no anything, [they] don't know what's being evacuated."

Reeves owns Sign Language Network, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting agency. Those friends texting her? They're deaf.

"What hit us hard was that there was no captioning," signs Barbara Kerek in an interview. She adds, "I kept watching, and after a while I didn't bother ... I just wanted to be sure that my house was OK."

At a gathering Saturday of Kerek and about 20 others in the local deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, emotions ran high in discussing communication during the Waldo Canyon Fire.

First, the issue of closed captioning: For their part, representatives of KKTV Channel 11, KRXM FOX 21 and KOAA Channel 5 all say they consistently provided closed captioning of their fire coverage, though viewers have challenged KOAA's claims.

Says KKTV news director Liz Haltiwanger, "It cost several thousand dollars." She explains that outside companies were hired to transcribe the live feed. "We were on the air [unscripted] for 130 hours, so that's a little unusual."

KRDO Channel 13, on the other hand, provided only the ubiquitous scrolling tickers with evacuation details. One employee reached via phone, who identified herself only as Ashley, told the Indy, "The information is still there, it's just not word-for-word ... if it's a breaking news, live situation."

Regardless, many present at Saturday's "Deaf Chat" argued that closed captioning doesn't cut it. "You see [via captions], oh yeah, there's 17,000 acres burning, whatever — but without an interpreter, you don't know about the electricity, and the gas, and all the other issues that come with that," says Kerek.

Captioning also is often rife with errors and omissions. Moreover, ASL is a standalone language with its own grammar and vocabulary, making signed interpretation all the more necessary for the deaf — some of whom struggle to read English that is for them, quite literally, a second language.

Upon receiving the flood of texts, Reeves contacted KRDO and KKTV. The latter, she says, accepted her June 27 offer for donated interpreting services at that day's noon briefing. Sign Language Network sent and paid interpreters for the twice-, sometimes thrice-daily press briefings thereafter.

"The people of Sign Language Network were so amazing," says Haltiwanger. "They came in here and they [asked], 'Hey, how long do you want us to keep doing this?' And we said, 'As long as you're willing.'" KKTV eventually moved interpreters to its studio, offering split-screen coverage of briefings to improve visibility of the ASL translation, which the deaf community applauded.

As for charges that the city refused to organize ASL interpretation, chief communications officer Cindy Aubrey denies she "ever had that conversation with anyone." She says the city arranged interpreters for several events, including a meeting for residents of fire-affected areas.

Regardless, deaf community members hope the last couple weeks serve as a broad wake-up call. As ASL interpreter Vicky Novoselski puts it, the goal is that "access to information becomes a non-issue — that it's just a given."

Hillary Spahnle provided interpreting services for this story.

  • In fire coverage, deaf people weren't always heard.

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