Interpreter finds joy in a job ‘well said’

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Janelle Hankinson has an effervescent personality and gesturing with her hands comes naturally as she talks. But more importantly, she puts her hands in service for the deaf in American Sign Language as the only certified interpreter on the Olympic Peninsula. ASL is the third most used language after English and Spanish in the U.S. She knew it would become her passion and profession early on.


“I grew up in Tulsa, Okla., next to deaf neighbors with hearing kids,” Hankinson recalled.


“Back then they didn’t have TTY (Text Telephone) or video relay, so I grew up signing for things they needed. When I was 16, their 18-year-old daughter, my first best friend, was killed in a house fire. Everybody knew before her parents did because they had to find an interpreter. That was pivotal for me — at 16 I decided to be an interpreter.”


In 1978, Hankinson attended the first program dedicated to signing ASL, graduating with two others. She worked at Tulsa Speech and Hearing as a coordinator for interpreters and came to Seattle in 1989 as a freelance interpreter. In 1993, she married her husband, David, who had become profoundly deaf after spiking a high fever with the mumps as a child. They and their children Logan and Hailey, lived in Sequim from 2001-2007 for David’s job in vocational rehabilitation, left again and returned in 2012. Since then, Hankinson has worked for Sorenson Video Relay Services, a national company that empowers a deaf person to communicate in real time with hearing people and an interpreter via a three-way video conversation.


“I talk directly to the person (receiving the call) and it’s like I’m not even there. The neat thing is finally deaf people have access. They can call and order pizza or call 9-1-1 — everything anybody else can do. It’s a huge thing for the Deaf Community regarding accessibility,” Hankinson said.


She recently was selected as one of only 20 Sorenson interpreters nationwide to attend advanced interpreter training in Salt Lake City, Utah, and said she feels honored to work for Sorenson. Hankinson also has interpreted for Bill Gates, Ronald Reagan and Tom Brokaw.


She recalled two incidences where pairing her skills and video relay made a huge difference to two families. In one, the deaf father was able to communicate with his hearing daughters on more than a superficial level; in the other, several hearing sisters really got to know their deaf sister after many years of silence among them before she died.


Hankinson is certified through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.


“I can interpret in any situation in any state in the U.S — medical, births, deaths, doctor appointments, a lot of state work, legal and mental health work,” Hankinson said. “I learn new things every day. I love what I do. I think the best part is interpreting gives deaf people the same access and rights that we as hearing people take for granted.”


The most poignant case Hankinson recalled involved a 5-year-old hearing girl, with a deaf mother, who’d been sexually abused by her uncle. He challenged that the girl couldn’t communicate with her mother about what had happened to her. Hankinson advocated for the girl and her mother for two years until the uncle was convicted.


“I was afraid the little girl had gone through this trauma and that justice would not be served,” Hankinson said. “I was thrilled that even though she couldn’t communicate with her mom because she lacked high ASL skills, she still could tell us what happened to her. That was a big deal to me.”


Especially in legal situations, Hankinson has to translate simultaneously rather than consecutively, a skill that requires a high level of mental and physical dexterity.


“Most of the time it’s simultaneous. It’s very hard to listen, translate it in your head, interpret in ASL and listen for the next thing being said,” Hankinson said. “ASL does have its own sentence structure and grammar.”


Hankinson also gives freely of her considerable skills through her church and through volunteer classes.

As a freelancer who sets her own hours with Sorenson, she charges by the hour with a two-hour minimum.


“There’s a lot of really good stuff, a lot of really bad stuff and a lot of everything in between,” Hankinson said. “There’s a huge need for interpreters up here on the peninsula and the deaf population in Sequim is growing.”


She’s thrilled that last year


Sequim High School offered its first sign language classes.


“If everybody could sign, the Deaf Community wouldn’t be handicapped. If we can sign, we can take away the barriers to the Deaf Community.”


Reach Hankinson at 360-791-4119;;; or 360-339-7784 by video phone.
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