Mark Blakeney started learning American Sign Language as a child at summer camp.
Mark Blakeney didn’t want to be the person translating Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper’s daily COVID-19 news conferences into American Sign Lanuguage.
The Texas native turned down the job when county officials first wanted to hire him. He was worried about the daily commitment.
“At first I told them no,” Blakeney said with a laugh. “They said I was the only one available. I asked others if they would, but they couldn’t commit to it on a daily basis.”
A month later, Blakeney is known as the man who stands at least 6 feet to Dahlkemper’s right, signing every word she says and the questions she is asked by reporters.
Blakeney, 50, hasn’t missed a news conference yet, though he was late for the first one held about five weeks ago at the Erie County Department of Health.
“I got the call just 15 minutes before the news conference was supposed to start,” Blakeney said. “I had to drive over there and put on my jacket as I was walking to the podium.”
Blakeney’s translation enables people who are deaf and otherwise hearing impaired to understand what Dahlkemper is saying about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that about 22,000 county residents have significant hearing loss, based on statewide data.
“What Mark’s work does is enable us to provide this service in another language, another modality,” said Melissa Lyon, director of the county health department. “We’re blessed to have Mark do this work for us.”
Blakeney started learning American Sign Language at summer camp when he was 11 or 12 years old.
There was a girl he liked who was deaf, so he started attending ASL classes that her interpreter taught at the camp so he could communicate with her.
“The funny thing was that the girl didn’t want anything to do with us,” Blakeney said. “She just ran around and didn’t communicate with anyone.”
But Blakeney discovered he loved sign language and continued learning it. He translated for churches and other organizations through high school and college before getting certified in Texas and doing it as a job.
He has worked as a full-time interpreter but has been doing it part time since moving to Erie in May 2018.
“I work in sales and service for a company that supports the infrastructure that supplies natural gas to people’s homes,” Blakeney said. “They have been great about letting me take my lunch hour to translate the news conferences.”
Translating the county executive is not difficult for Blakeney because he is able to watch her as she speaks. It’s a little tougher to translate the reporters’ questions from off site over their phones.
“You can’t see them, so you can only listen and surmise the intent of their questions,” Blakeney said. “Some reporters have northern accents, which is a challenge. You have to really listen.”
Besides translating Dahlkemper’s news conferences, Blakeney also translates his church’s worship services and those of some other churches when he has time.
He is surprised by the reaction he has received since starting his job with the county.
“Some people are watching from outside the county, even other states like Maryland, because they have relatives here,” Blakeney said. “They are watching and giving me feedback, which I say thank you so much.”
Contact David Bruce at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNBruce.
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