For the last 30 years, teacher and sign-language interpreter Carolyn Powell had been quietly working with those living with hearing impairments, but one phone call back in March shot her into the national spotlight.
“I really didn’t know what to expect… but challenges come, things happen, and you just have to go with the flow,” Powell told the Cayman Compass as she reflected on agreeing to join the daily COVID-19 press briefings when the pandemic touched local shores earlier this year.
She has served as the sign-language interpreter in at least 60 of the COVID-19 briefings since then, and can easily be described as the unsung hero, translating key information for a segment of the community that is often forgotten.
“I must say I’m honoured to serve in this way. For the hearing impaired, I think they really appreciated it… to know that they are included and that they were able to receive the information in real time.”
Powell has become a familiar face at the top right-hand corner of residents’ TV screens during the briefings, and she even wound up on some of the popular memes that emerged over the COVID-19 lockdown period. The publicity and celebrity-like status that Powell now enjoys came as a pleasant surprise.
“I’m not a person for the limelight, so I’m thrown into the limelight. But for me, it’s really good because, you know what, you give that smile, you give that warmth and say ‘I’m approachable’. You can talk to me and although I’m in the spotlight, I’m still me,” she said, smiling shyly.
Sign of passion
Powell has been a teacher for 30 years and she loves her job.
She currently teaches secondary-level studies to students from Years 7 to 12 with various disabilities, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism, at Lighthouse School in Red Bay.
Her passion for sign language, she said, started three decades ago in her native Jamaica.
Fresh out of high school, Powell said she had enrolled in what was then called the National Youth Service, which was similar to an on-the-job training programme.
For her year’s training, she was assigned to a pre-school for hearing-impaired students, and it was there she fell in love with sign language.
“There I saw these are tiny little tots and they were so fluent in sign language and they caught on so quickly, and I was really fascinated with that,” she said.
At the end of her one-year stint, the school’s principal encouraged her to pursue teaching and signing. She returned to the school at the end of her studies and worked there for 10 years before moving to Grand Cayman to teach.
“[Signing is] a skill that has been with me for a long time and even here in the Cayman Islands I’ve also had a history with working with hearing-impaired persons. From time to time, I assist some of the hearing-impaired adults who wanted to further their education.
“They would go, like, to UCCI [University College of the Cayman Islands] and I interpret for them there. I also interpret, if the need arises, for the RCIPS,” she said.
While she felt rewarded through those efforts, Powell said her involvement with the press briefings gave her the greatest satisfaction.
“Inclusion is it. I also see where, from this, there are persons in the community who said, ‘Oh, you know what? I want to learn sign language, too.’ So, it has really placed it in the spotlight and those who weren’t aware, now there is more awareness, and I think this is a good thing,” she said, adding, “It’s not easy when you are in the world of the hearing impaired where you need others to be able to communicate with you.”
She encouraged members of the local community to learn to sign if they get the opportunity.
“It will be a good thing when more of the public is more aware of the hearing impaired and sign language, and has an interest… to learn sign language,” she added.
Powell said that while the briefings could be a bit tedious at times, she enjoys being a part of them.
She noted that residents with hearing impairments also have asked that sign language be included in coverage of the Legislative Assembly and television shows.
“Although they have closed captions, the sign language sort of brings it more home to them… in real time, in their language. It’s better for them. They thanked me and they appreciated it very much,” she said.
Powell said that the length of the televised press briefings, some of which lasted more than two hours, was not difficult for her as she translated almost every word spoken by the panel members.
However, she did admit defeat when it came to translating Health Minister Dwayne Seymour’s efforts in the first several weeks of the daily briefing to say “stay home” in multiple languages.
“I just did the English,” she said, laughingly.