Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, left, and American Sign Language interpreter Regan Thibodeau during the daily COVID-19 news briefing in March 19, 2020 at the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters in Augusta. Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal file photo

WINDHAM — Regan Thibodeau found out she would be translating former Vice President Joe Biden’s words and expressions into American Sign Language for the Sign Language Channel only moments before the start of the presidential debate on Sept. 29.

Thibodeau subsequently has gained national attention with her lively interpretation after she was tapped at the last minute to fill-in for a colleague who had technical issues as a deaf interpreter.

The 41-year-old, who was born deaf, has long been an advocate for the deaf community, working in communities as far away as Costa Rica and as close as Windham, where she now resides with her husband and two children.

Thibodeau, a Falmouth native, has been a deaf interpreter and ASL instructor for more than 20  years, and also works on deaf and hard of hearing-focused policies.

In a written interview, Thibodeau said she is particularly passionate about education policy as it relates to children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“Most of these administrators and educators are people that have never been deaf, so they make so many assumptions about what I can and cannot do, which leads to my passion for policies to include the deaf perspective,” Thibodeau wrote.

Thibodeau, who earned her Ph.D. last May, is the first deaf Mainer to receive a doctorate from a Maine university. She was also the first deaf interpreting student at the University of Southern Maine.

For her doctoral project in public policy and educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine, Thibodeau wrote a bill on kindergarten readiness signed into law last year, which changed how early language and literacy development is evaluated in deaf and hard of hearing children.

She is also an advocate for deaf/hearing interpreting teams, where a deaf interpreter, with a hearing partner, interprets the words, expressions and body language of a speaker for a deaf audience. For the September debate, Thibodeau worked with hearing partner Miako Villanueva.

Thibodeau, right, and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention during a COVID-19 news briefing in March at the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters in Augusta.

She is also the ASL interpreter for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s daily COVID-19 news briefings, as well as an alternative interpreter for DPAN.TV, the Sign Language Channel, for White House coronavirus briefings.

“Deaf interpreters are the only interpreters that grew up accessing the world as a deaf person,” Thibodeau told a Portland Press Herald reporter earlier this month.

For example, she said, DPAN.TV only used hearing interpreters for the 2016 presidential debates.

“This means we are getting interpretation that is more hearing-oriented and we often have to screen for meaning. (It’s) like a movie with some static coming in and out of focus,” said Thibodeau.

“My favorite thing about interpreting is that I feel like my work helps bring a quality of life to people’s lives because they are, for example, getting the right treatment plan from the doctor because their symptoms were correctly interpreted; a student accessing academic content without linguistic barriers from the teacher, or a defendant being told their conditions of release by the lawyer and completely understanding those conditions before meeting with the judge.”

She said it was “really good to be able to use this model (at the debate) to show how important language plays in understanding our world.”

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