COVID Stories: Life as an ASL Interpreter in the time of COVID

By: Cheryl

I had an experience recently that I’ve been thinking about and wanted to share some thoughts.

I was fortunate enough to receive my second dose of the COVID vaccine, having qualified for the early second dose. When I called to book my appointment, the lady on the phone asked me what qualified me for the early dose, and I explained that I am a Sign Language Interpreter who works in many high-risk settings every day such as hospitals, mental health clinics, prisons, people’s homes, etc. She was (as most people are) unsure of what my job entails or why an interpreter would be in high-risk settings. She spoke with her manager and they approved me to book the appointment, but advised me to bring a letter from my employer on the day of, given that most people are not familiar with all that ASL interpreting entails.

So on the day of my appointment, I went, stood in line, and when I got to the screeners, they too asked me what qualified me to be there early, and I explained again.  When he wasn’t convinced, I showed him the letter from my employer, confirming all of the various settings that I work in, etc. Still not convinced, he directed me over to the manager of the clinic. We began the discussion all over again, with me explaining what my job is, the often vulnerable population I work with, as well as the high-risk settings I work in. She then had to call her supervisor. After MUCH discussion, I was “approved” and was allowed to get the shot.

This experience of having to explain over and over what my job is and who I work with has really stuck with me. I completely understand that it’s not a very common job and therefore people wouldn’t really think about all of the implications and different aspects of my work, so I wanted to share a few things.

I am privileged to be invited into people’s lives. I interpret for people during their highest highs and their lowest lows, and every possible mundane thing in between. I have been there during births, and I have been there during someone’s final hours. I have interpreted devastating diagnoses to people, and after the doctor leaves the room, I am often the only person in the entire building who can communicate with this person about the news they have just received. I interpret for people who are having marriage trouble, and for people who have just tried to kill themselves. I interpret for people when their children are being removed from their homes, or at the funeral of a loved one. I interpret for a person, as well as their four other personalities whenever they come forward. I interpret the graphic details of an inmate’s offences against children. I interpret for people undergoing treatment and sit with them for hours, getting them water and blankets and chatting to keep their mind off of how sick they feel.

I also get to interpret for people receiving good news! Interpreting for parents when their child has made great strides in school this term. Interpreting for a patient when their test results came back and everything is okay. Maybe they are just getting their teeth cleaned at the dentist or doing their taxes! I am there for it all. I interpret sometimes for years for the same person—seeing them month after month, meeting their spouses, their children, seeing their progress, or unfortunately, seeing their decline. I consider it a very great honour and privilege to be allowed into people’s lives, and I don’t take the responsibility lightly.

When an interpreter is interpreting, we are to remain neutral at all times, meaning that we do not interject or offer any opinions, comments, or thoughts of our own. My job is to relay the message from signer to speaker and from speaker to signer as accurately as possible, regardless of what is being said. If I disagree with what is being said? If it’s offensive? Vulgar? Upsetting? Doesn’t matter—it’s not my place to judge, change, alter, or respond to the content, only to relay it faithfully. But don’t misunderstand—I’m still there, taking it all in, remaining neutral, and then getting my car and bawling my eyes out, or bursting with happiness when something goes right for someone.

They say it’s not a job if you love doing it, and I absolutely love it!  I am so lucky that I get to do this job every day…and lucky I got my second shot! 🙂


Anna Grunfeld is an American Sign Language-English interpreter based in Toronto. She graduated the George Brown College Interpreter Training Program in 2010 and has since worked as a community-based interpreter in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, schools (K-12 and post secondary), mental health facilities, corrections, and many more. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two children.