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American Sign Language interpreters relay crucial information during local disasters

Deaf residents helped during mudslides and fire

American Sign Language interpreters relay crucial information during local disasters

MONTECITO, Calif. - Thousands of people are using shovels to help Montecito mudslide survivors and Thomas Fire victims. However, two women, Jo Black and Katie Voice, have helped by using their hands to sign crucial information to deaf residents and those hard of hearing during the recent disasters. 

Ken McLellan is one of those residents. 

"I know there are a lot of deaf people around here and we feel invisible often because of our deafness," McLelland told reporter Tracy Lehr. "We can't hear but it doesn't show. We live with it."

For this story, Black, a certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, helped Tracy interview McLellan.

When the mudslide closed U.S. Highway 101, Black couldn't make it to Santa Barbara to help interpret the community meetings. So, Voice -- yes, Voice is her last name -- another certified ASL interpreter, drove more than an hour to do the job. 

"I know I am not the best on the face of the Earth but I knew this experience," Voice said. "Whatever I need, I'll just do it."

On the day of the Montecito mudslides and for many days after, Voice spoke volumes with her hands. 

"I really appreciate it," McClellan said. "If not for Katie's interpreting I would have no idea what was happening and which roads were closed. The 101 was closed and it makes a big difference."

"I am so overwhelmed and at the same time, feel like it is deeply real and personal," Voice said. "And we have all connected." 

Voice volunteered the night of the candlelight vigil in honor of the men, women and children killed or lost in the storm. 

"I just wanted to take off my shoes," Voice said. "I was just feeling like I was standing on holy ground."

She commuted each day from Nipomo. But for years, Voice called Montecito home.

"I know the roads. I know the mountains. I know the canyons. I know the experience," she said. 

"At that time I was a singer at Music Academy of the West," Voice said. "I moved into an estate -- a little cottage on Glen Oaks Dr. -- and that was a place severely hit. I didn't have a lot of money. A lot of people in Montecito are not rich. I was one of those."

Her Glen Oaks cottage was near Rebecca Riskin's home. The realtor was one of the first victims found.

"I know for sure now it is gone," Voice said. "And prior to that I had lived on Conejo Road and my home burned down in the Tea Fire."

Katie's younger sister inspired her to learn American Sign Language.

"I did grow up with a deaf sister and I did take sign language at Santa Barbara City College," Voice said. "There is an amazing program there." 

Her mentor, Larry Littleton, became the first person ever to be seen signing for deaf viewers on Channel 3 during live coverage of the storm of '95. 

Tracy Lehr did a Skype interview with Littleton for this story. 

"I said, 'Put me on the screen. Let me get the information out, this is important! This is an emergency,'" LIttleton explained. 

The teleprompter wasn't working.

"The reporters gave me notes," Littleton said. "I laid them on the floor and said, 'Ok, I am ready,' I memorized as much as I could." 

"It was an amazing thing. To not have captions and all the sudden here is Larry signing," Black said. "It was great!" 

Littleton lives in Hawaii now.

"Even though I am here in Hawaii my heart is still in Santa Barbara," LIttleton said. "And I care for everybody, not just the deaf community and the interpreters working their tails off. It was just unbelievable!" 

Signing is becoming more mainstream. It is even spoken by the main character in the Oscar-nominated film "The Shape of Water." 

McLellan says it's a step toward equality in communication.

Proper names are relayed through the ASL alphabet while words are expressed through movements.

"The best person to teach you is a deaf person," Voice said.

Tracy Lehr, who put this story together, said McLellan offered to teach her to how to sign. Instead, Tracy asked him to pitch in -- and he did -- by signing off this report.

"That's Tracy Lehr from KEYT," McLellan signed. "There she is, I love you!"

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