Rorri Burton- ASL Interpreter: A Silent Hero of Equality

As a nation the outbreak of the Coronavirus, Covid-19, has taken the world aback with deaths now at 731,000 and every day the total rises. Day to day and hour after hour we turn to our local news station for updates on this deadly virus from the California Department of Public Health.

With this being said, sign language interpreters help bridge the gap between communities by providing pivotal information to the Deaf and hard of hearing community. With passion and dedication, Rorri Burton, an ASL Translator stands next to local and national political leaders as they break traumatic news to the City of Los Angeles. Through her powerful facial expressions and impeccable sign language capabilities, Rorri Burton ensures that she delivers important news to the Deaf community and hard of hearing as quickly and accurately as the rest of the public receives it.

1.) What has been your biggest accomplishment thus far in your career?

My biggest accomplishment is simply functioning well in a career that I never sought after, or formally trained for. I attended college to pursue teaching, a career that I enjoyed for about ten years before becoming a full time ASL Interpreter.

2.) What is your take on Covid-19?

I have been in the front of this pandemic and truly a part of history.

What does Corid-19 mean to you?

Covid-19 has devastated families in our Black, Brown and poor communities. In doing so, has exposed and exacerbated the long-present inequities in this country. It has been the perfect catalyst and has created an ideal environment for the revolution that is currently taking place. As a result, it has also provided me with more opportunities professionally than I ever considered possible.

3.) What made you enter into this field of communication?

The American Deaf community has such a rich language in ASL. It always bothered me to see culturally inadequate interpreters placed in such a position of power, as to interpret for Deaf individuals who possess a culturally specific ASL. As a black woman, who grew up in the black community, learning ASL from black Deaf people, I knew that the same community would benefit from the culturally nuanced skills they had given me.

4.) In one of your interviews, you said that “sign language interpretation is overwhelmingly a white person’s career”. Can you explain this powerful statement? Have you seen any changes? If not, how can you be a part of change?

Due to systemic racism which impacts education and employment, among other things, Black, Indigenous, Latin and Asian people in this country, have typically not professionally pursued this field or perhaps they tried to, but did not last for a myriad reasons. As far as black interpreters go, we are usually relegated to church platforms and discouraged from seeking anything further. I have known so many black interpreters who are an amazing fit for the communities they serve but would be deemed “unprofessional” or “lacking in skill” by the interpreter’s community-at-large, whose gatekeepers are by and large, white. Change seems to be happening, albeit not as swiftly as it should. I am doing my part by mentoring several black interpreters in various stages of their education and career. I am also introducing those younger interpreters in the profession to someone else, who can provide the guidance that they may need.

5.) How did you land such a high-profile position? Did you have to try out? What is the process?

I got that assignment in much the same manner as I get any other assignment. I work as an Independent Contractor with a multitude of agencies, and I received an email from one of those agencies, asking about my availability for a week’s worth of press briefings. I responded that I would accept three days of the five pressers offered that week, not knowing that the need would be ongoing, and that I would still, four months later, be interpreting those briefings. Interpreting is one thing; interpreting on camera is another; interpreting on camera for a high-profile press briefing is something else altogether. Most interpreters do not want that type of scrutiny and that is understandable.

6.) What made you want to learn sign language?

My mom was always fascinated with sign language, so as a 3 or 4 year old, I remember us watching TV shows that taught ASL. She ended up taking a class when I was 7 and coming home and teaching me what she had learned. Finally, around the age of 13, I met a Deaf girl at church, and my signing took off because of my interactions with her and her family.

7.) How do you prepare for breaking news from the governor and or mayor?

I watch the news daily and scan social media to know what’s going on in other states. More importantly, I watch Deaf-anchored, Deaf-run news shows on YouTube. My favorite is Sign 1 News, but I also watch The Daily Moth. Those news broadcasts showcase people in the Deaf community using their language to describe the mundane, the creative and the technical. They often use a sign, or combination of signs, to label a concept in a way that my non-native ASL mind would have never imagined. I also watch coronavirus briefings interpreted by Deaf interpreters (as opposed to hearing interpreters, like myself to see how they interpret the same concepts and issues that I am charged with interpreting. I can take what I see, either directly, or mix it in with something else, to make sure my interpretation is clear, accurate and complete.

8.) I admire how you deliver the news; I feel the passion every single time. When did you realize that you have that power to deliver such strong feelings without speaking?

People in the Deaf community deliver all types of messages and emotions on a daily basis with sign language, be it American Sign Language here, or Nicaraguan Sign Language or Jamaican Sign Language or any of the hundreds of sign languages around the world. As I learned ASL, I saw that it was just like other languages, allowing its users to create, explain, communicate, argue and love just like the users of any other language, if not even more so, due to its spatial-visual-gestural nature. English is a linear language and also quite indirect as compared to ASL. So when I saw Deaf people using their language, ASL, I aspired to develop skills as near native as possible, to be able to convey my messages in the same manner, with the same style. It’s a never ending journey.

9.) Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by people like Simone Biles, who never fails to be less than excellent. I am inspired by Michelle Obama, who, like me, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and is the picture of poise, grace and intelligence. I am inspired by Tamika D. Mallory, who is a force to be reckoned with, and finds herself involved in necessary trouble. I am inspired by so many of the Deaf people I encounter professionally, or personally, who continually share their language and culture and experiences with me.

10.) What has been the most challenging time or experience in your career?

To be frank, my most challenging experiences typically come at the hands of the hearing people that I work with. white interpreters sometimes have a lack of regard for BIPOC interpreters, and that causes issues. Micro-aggressions run rampant, and even macro-aggressions, that have left me struggling to continue in my role of providing access to the consumer of those services, versus standing up for myself and addressing the issue in the moment in which it occurs.

10.) What is next for you?

Currently, I am the co-founder of a group of protestors, using our ASL interpreting skills to provide pro-bono access to the Deaf community via virtual and in-person protests, town halls, and other actions in support of the Black Liberation Movement. We are getting more organized and are working on becoming a legitimate BIPOC focused agency and social enterprise, so that our work is not limited to only protesting, but to being accomplices to our BIPOC Deaf community, and centering their voices in every possible way.

11.) With so much stress and pressure during these times, what do you do to unwind?

Nothing helps me unwind like sleeping does. I love going for walks and watching social media comedians like TC I’ll Kill Ya and Not Karlton Banks, among others, listening to music and podcasts like The Read.

12.) What do you do for fun?

For fun, I love to read, and usually I like to travel and go to concerts and comedy shows. Since COVID-19, I’ve just watch music videos and comedy clips on YouTube, along with reruns of “Living Single”, “Golden Girls” and “Martin”.

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