Nic Zapko was stopped at a stoplight near Fort Snelling on Monday when the man in the car next to her realized who she was.
He smiled, rolled down his window and gave her a thumbs up.
“He just lit up. He said, ‘Hey! Good job! Good job!’ That human connection — that’s my favorite part of this,” said Zapko, who provides American Sign Language interpretation during Gov. Tim Walz’s daily briefings on George Floyd and the coronavirus.
Zapko, 49, of Bloomington, was introduced to television and online audiences in March as Walz began regular briefings dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The death of Floyd while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and the unrest that followed, has only increased her profile as Walz’s briefings have increased — sometimes to three times a day.
Her work has been featured in newscasts around the world, and she has been praised on social media for her expressive delivery.
Zapko knows what high-quality ASL interpretation means to members of the deaf community.
She is deaf herself.
'Expression is part of it'
The national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf has called for certified deaf interpreters at news conferences because they are the best at “conveying highly consequential information to large and diverse populations of deaf people.”
Hiring a deaf interpreter to interpret at Walz’s briefings is about providing access to information for a marginalized community in a format that is most readily understandable, according to Zapko.
“The deaf community has been asking for this for a long time,” Zapko said through an interpreter on Wednesday. “It’s about equal access, and communication access is equal access for the deaf community.”
Zapko, a trained actor who toured with the National Theatre of the Deaf, uses facial expressions and gestures to convey the tone of the message. It means deaf people can watch the briefing at the same time as hearing people and understand the subtleties of what is being said, she said.
“ASL is a language that has a very visual component to it — and expression is part of it,” she said. “Many people say, ‘Wow, you’re so expressive.’ But to be honest, it’s equivalent to your voice tone and inflection and style and speed and everything. I take that on.”
It’s a big deal. She explains: “We’re not having to ask people what is being said, or how.”
Take the words “stay home,” for example. Is it a statement? A question? a demand?
“Our thinking is, ‘Stay home? OK, what does that mean?’ ” Zapko said. “The tone is not there. It’s, like, ‘Are you staying home?’ ‘Do I need to stay home?’ It’s, like, ‘Oh! Stay home!’ ”
Dressed to communicate
Zapko wears a dark suit and black shirt to highlight her hands and facial expressions. The suit is to “dress as an equal” to those in the briefings and “to honor and respect the environment,” she said, while the black is for visual impact.
There are members of the state’s deaf-blind community who have low vision, and contrasting colors can be confusing, she said. “I wear all one color, monochromatic, so I keep creating that backdrop.”
Zapko is one of the first deaf interpreters to work for the state. Because she is deaf, Zapko relies on a second interpreter sitting under the camera — a “feed interpreter” named Patty McCutcheon — to convey what Walz and other officials are saying.
Zapko delivers information in a way that is “relevant and important and causes people to pay attention,” said McCutcheon, CEO of Keystone Interpreting Service, the St. Paul-based company that has the state contract to provide deaf interpreters for briefings.
At the briefing on Sunday after the driver of a tanker truck drove into a crowd of protesters on the Interstate 35W bridge, Zapko “made extraordinary sign decisions to re-create the way that truck entered the bridge and the way it stopped just short of a bicycle that tipped over and how people stormed,” McCutcheon said.
“She just has such a command of the language that she pulls that information together with lots and lots of training and honing, but she pulls it together and makes it look like it’s so easy,” McCutcheon said.
Zapko, for her part, does her homework. She keeps up on local news, especially when she knows there is going to be a news conference later in the day. “It helps me get that visual image of what is going on,” she said.
When she watched the truck plow into protesters, she knew to “show the bridge and people making their way across the bridge and the truck coming and almost hitting someone,” she said. “That whole visual I had seen because I had the TV on all day.”
'So easy to understand'
Approximately one in five Minnesotans is deaf or hard of hearing, said Darlene Zangara, executive director of the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, Deaf Blind and Hard of Hearing.
Zapko is “one of the top-notch interpreters in Minnesota,” said Zangara, who is deaf. “Her ASL language skills are incredible. She is so clear that many non-signers have said that they understand her.”
Among Zapko’s fans is Zangara’s 78-year-old mother, Carol Stremmel, who also is deaf.
“She is awesome — so easy to understand,” Stremmel said. “It’s less stressful than trying to read captions. Captions don’t always help me because the English words are not in my vocabulary.”
Because of Zapko, Stremmel is now “able to follow the news,” Zangara said. “She has more confidence, and she has more interest in knowing what is going on than she ever had in the past. It amazes me because she typically had relied on me for information, but now she watches all of the updates and the press conferences. It’s great to see that.”
Finding time to regenerate
Zapko, who grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio, is a program manager for Sorenson Communications. She and her wife live in Bloomington and have two children. Her hobbies include swimming and camping.
“I love to be outside — that’s my thing,” she said. “We have a beautiful back yard, and it’s become our escape, our oasis. I love to camp, I grew up camping, but with COVID-19, it’s not available, so the back yard has become my little campground. I have a small pool. I have a fire pit.”
Between briefings, Zapko said she often runs home and jumps into the pool to relax and “regenerate,” she said. “Then I put my work suit back on and go back.”
The work is both exhausting and energizing, she said.
“It’s challenging — that processing time, the mental work, getting it all right, the tone, the environment, the monitoring, the situation and, obviously, it’s a stressful thing to take in, so I do get exhausted,” she said. “At the same time, I enjoy the work. It gives me energy. It’s overwhelming. It’s inspiring. I’m thrilled to have this kind of thing happen. Because in our community, it’s a huge deal. I mean, really, a huge deal.”
Mary Divine can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @MaryEDivine.