NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) — You may not recognize Amy Lankheit's name, but you're probably familiar with her work.
Each morning when Nashville Mayor John Cooper gives his COVID-19 press briefings, Lankheit interprets the announcements in real-time for the deaf and hard of hearing community. She was just a kid when she realized she wanted to do this for a living.
"I was fortunate to grow up with two brothers that are deaf," Lankheit said. "Unfortunately, I watched them go through life struggling, having their civil rights kind of oppressed and pushed aside, and learned that communication was super important and knew that I wanted to be a part of that as I grew up."
Lankheit now works as a staff interpreter for Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. When she's not interpreting for Mayor Cooper, she helps train up-and-coming interpreters. But even though she's on television almost every morning, interpreting key information for Nashvillians, Lankheit says she's not busier than usual.
"Obviously with the community kind of shut down right now, our interpreting community is taking quite some time off as well, other than the freelance interpreters who are with our patients out and about," she said. "There's just not a lot going on in Nashville unfortunately."
Mike Helms, who is in charge of adult education and outreach at Bridges, said American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation is vital during a pandemic like this.
"Relating to the deaf and hard of hearing community, though, I have noticed demands for more information are needed than just what's explained in newspaper articles or in captioning on news," Helms said via his interpreter Forest Sponseller. "So we have to explain things more in depth to them. It's not just relaying words to them, it's relaying information and how it impacts them in a more meaningful and in-depth way to make it understandable and meaningful to them."
After the March 3 tornado, Bridges began sending news to the deaf and hard of hearing community with greater frequency. Helms said Bridges takes the news from local media and translates it with "richer interpretations" so it's easier to understand for the deaf and hard of hearing who struggle with English.
People also have the option to get updates on the COVID-19 directly from Bridges. The organization posts videos to their YouTube page that explains things like social distancing and provides health guidelines suggested by the federal government.
The uptick in televised ASL interpreters is not only beneficial to the deaf and heard of hearing, but also for the interpreters themselves. Lankheit says interpreters learn from one another.
"We can kind of pick from what they're doing and what works best, and use that," she explained. "We may not have the same sign for every single sign, but we can pick and choose what is more understandable from deaf eyes and use that."
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it so a lot of previously unfamiliar words and phrases have become central to our everyday conversations, like "coronavirus," "contact tracing" and "social distancing." ASL interpreters are having to adapt to this too.
"I think it's important to know that we do a lot of studying and research before we go into all of this," Lankheit explained, "so when we don't have specific signs for specific medical words, we can learn how to make them look very visual."
"It's a bigger bonus to the deaf community to have that added ability to understand the message," Helms added.
Lankheit said both Mayor Cooper and Gov. Bill Lee's offices have been working closely with Bridges.
"We just appreciate that it's being recognized to have equal communication, equal access, everything that hearing people are being exposed to now our deaf, hard of hearing, and our deaf/blind communities are being exposed to that as well," Lankheit said.