Interpreting Coronavirus News for Onondaga County’s Deaf Community

Falk College graduate student Grace Cogan serves as a Deaf interpreter for Onondaga County’s daily COVID-19 briefings.

A Syracuse Story by Mary Beth Horsington originally published on April 16, 2020.

Grace Cogan interprets on a stage
Grace Cogan (right) provides Deaf interpretation in American Sign Language as County Executive Ryan McMahon delivers a daily briefing on COVID-19. At left is Monu Chhetri, who provides interpretation for the Nepalese Deaf community.
Grace Cogan G’22 is a graduate student pursuing a master of social work at Syracuse University’s David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics while also working toward certification as a Deaf interpreter. In early March, she received an unusual request from Maggie Russell, director of interpreting services for Aurora of Central New York. The organization offers services for people who are blind, visually impaired, Deaf or hearing impaired. Russell wanted Cogan to provide Deaf interpreting for daily news reports about the novel coronavirus from Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon and Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh G’05. The reports to the community are televised live each day from the OnCenter in downtown Syracuse.

Russell had convinced county representatives that closed captioning in English would not meet the needs of the vulnerable Deaf population because American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language with no written form. Cogan was initially hesitant. “I had never done platform interpreting and you have all kinds of cameras on you,” she says. But when all other interpreters were ruled out, she agreed.

Cogan herself is Deaf, so the process is quite complicated. She stands on the stage to the right of the podium and Monu Chhetri, a Nepalese Deaf interpreter, stands to the left. Chhetri’s role is critical in serving the needs of Syracuse’s growing population of Nepalese refugees with hearing loss, which uses Nepalese Sign Language as its primary language. “Certified hearing interpreters sit on the floor below us,” Cogan explains. “They do the listening and ‘feed’ us the information. We then interpret the information from spoken English to American Sign Language and Nepalese Sign Language. It was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but as I grew more confident in my skills I became more relaxed in the press conference environment.”

Cogan says she sometimes “goes overboard” with her physical expressiveness while interpreting. “It is critically important to me that I express to the Deaf community the seriousness of COVID-19, and I do that by visually matching the tone of the speaker,” she explains. “A Deaf person cannot hear tones or emotions, so facial expressions and body language are visual communication modes.”

The press briefings usually last an hour, and the process can be grueling. “It’s akin to running a marathon,” says Cogan. “But what has really impacted me about this whole experience is that if I’m this exhausted, how much more exhausting must it be for the frontline workers, the doctors, nurses and EMTs? It is a sobering reality to know that they are the ones keeping the patients alive and risking their own lives. At the same time, I watch Ryan McMahon and the county health commissioner, Dr. Indu Gupta, work tirelessly to curb the spread of COVID-19. They really do care about this community, and I could not be more proud to be a Syracusan.”

Discovering an Identity

Cogan’s parents discovered she was Deaf when she was 15 months old. “My parents made a decision to use cued speech rather than ASL,” she says. “Cued speech is a visual mode of communication that uses hand shapes and placements in combination with the mouth movements of speech. I learned how to read and write and speak to the best of my ability, which boosted my language skills and opened many opportunities for me.” But when she was 12 years old, she learned ASL from friends who attended the BOCES Deaf Program at Split Rock Elementary School. “That’s where I really discovered my Deaf identity,” she says. “Since then, ASL has become my primary language and English is second.

“My identity went from a person who was a little d deaf to a big D Deaf. I realized I had to advocate and fight for the rights of a population that was being failed by a system that is ‘hearing’ or ‘ableist’ driven. Little d means you try to identify with the hearing world and don’t really associate with the Deaf community. Big D means you identify culturally with the Deaf community and do not see yourself as having a disability. We also prefer to use the term ‘Deaf’ rather than ‘hearing impaired.’”

A Central New York resident since age 5, Cogan was a stay-at-home mother for 20 years before completing her bachelor’s degree in community and human service at Empire College in 2016. She then worked for Aurora as a care manager, advocate and interpreter for Deaf children and children of Deaf parents. “It was very rewarding, and I felt the call to go back for more schooling,” she says. “My grandfather was an alumnus of Syracuse University and I’ve always wanted to follow in his footsteps. I also know that Syracuse University’s School of Social Work at Falk College prepares students for licensure and is one of the best accredited programs in New York state.”

The Right Place

As a Syracuse University student, Cogan believes she is exactly where she needs to be. “Since I am a social worker at heart, I knew I had to finish my degree here. Syracuse provides the best learning experience and cultural humility in working with people of varying disabilities,” she says. “I absolutely love all the professors I’ve met and taken classes with, especially Jennifer Genovese and Keith Alford, who made it his mission to make sure my accommodations were being met in class.” Genovese says that Cogan embodies the social work profession’s core values of service, social justice, dignity and integrity. “Grace Cogan is an inspiration,” she says. “She does not see barriers for herself or others, she sees opportunities. I value her endless energy, intellect, positivity, insight and thoughtful contributions to the classroom. She has expanded my vision of what it means to be an educator, and she has inspired me to be a better professor.”

I knew I had to finish my degree here. Syracuse provides the best learning experience and cultural humility in working with people of varying disabilities.

Cogan’s professional goals have been shaped by her life experience. “Many people don’t realize the oppression that Deaf people face on a daily basis,” she asserts. “My dream career would be working as a Deaf therapist or as a school therapist in Syracuse, where we desperately need clinical therapists. I want to work directly with Deaf families, children and adults in their own language and culture to help foster healthy changes in their lives.” Cogan’s commitment to the Deaf community is truly remarkable, says Maggie Russell. “Grace embodies selflessness, and I am honored to team with her and be part of her professional journey.”

Becoming an alumna of her hometown University will be a dream come true for Cogan. “There’s no place like home, and where else can you get half moon cookies, little Italian restaurants, beautiful scenery, and the Regional Market?” she says. “Syracuse University has a place in my heart and my family—we bleed salt, Irish and Orange!”