Friday, April 24, 2020

Windham ASL Interpreter for Maine CDC briefings shares personal life visions

By Elizabeth Richards

Dr. Regan Thibodeau, ASL Instructor at the University of Southern Maine’s ASL Lab and a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) and Translator, is committed to helping the Deaf community get all the resources and support they need. This is apparent in her interpreting for the Maine CDC briefings on COVID-19 as well as in the work she has done throughout her life.

Thibodeau has garnered a lot of attention recently for the expressive way she interprets at the Maine CDC briefings. In a conversation with Jeff Parsons published on, she explained the importance of using such animated expression in her interpretation.  “…most of our ASL grammar such as punctuation, intonation, tensing, transitions, even run-ons, occur within the face and head tilting. Shoulder shifting shows dialogue, for example. If you covered a signer’s face and only had their hands shown, it would not mean anything.”  Interpreters who sign smaller and use less expression typically are those for whom ASL is a second language, and didn’t grow up using sign language, she added.  “This means we will miss getting this critical information to a huge group of people that need ASL access.”
Thibodeau is also involved in a project with on Facebook, to be sure that CDIs are provided for white house briefings. This project has very limited funding, she said, and they don’t know what will happen when that runs out. “Really, the White House should be paying for it,” she said. “We are so lucky that MEMA and the State of Maine recognizes the use of CDIs!”

In an email exchange, Thibodeau shared snippets from her life, her views on her work, and her personal vision.

Thibodeau is bilingual, fluent in both spoken English and ASL. Typically, she works with a Hearing Interpreter who interprets the spoken English to her. She then interprets that expressed signing to her team.

Thibodeau, who was born deaf, has been a member of the Deaf community since childhood. Throughout her life, she has encountered many different signing styles and skills. “This is an asset to my job as it gives me language flexibility to meet my clients at their place of understanding and their world view to better connect the two people using me to communicate with each other,” she said.“I am working very hard to include and meet all the needs that I can,” Thibodeau said. “For example, those who can read the captions or learn about what is going on via Google do not depend on me, so I try to focus more on the visual components of ASL,” she said.  Thibodeau received interpreting training from the University of Southern Maine, and teaching of ASL training from Teachers College at Columbia University.

Thibodeau said a difficult childhood made her an overachiever. “I had to make a choice to unlearn misconstrued beliefs because they made me respond out of fear,” she said. “To unlearn, I had to read and talk. A lot. My dad made sure of one thing, though – that my being Deaf had nothing to do with anything, much like my having brown hair has nothing to do with anything.”

She harnessed that fear and other difficult emotions, she said, and turned them into a form of logical, productive energy. “I still get anxious about the power of misconceptions amongst people who don’t really  know what they don’t know,” she said. This led her to get a Ph.D, and she was the first Deaf person in Maine to do so.  

As a Deaf expert, Hearing experts cannot tell me they know more about Deaf people than I do,” she said.
Watching parents be educated by hearing people on how to deal with their deaf babies is difficult, Thibodeau said.  “If I, as a bilingual Deaf person, can model that giving your deaf baby everything gives them more opportunities in life, then just maybe they will be inspired to give their baby everything,” she said.

Though there is a common myth amongst hearing experts that learning ASL prohibits learning English, Thibodeau says that simply isn’t true. “I had it all: total communication, speech training, sign language, lipreading, ASL literacy, English literacy. It’s as if I learned Spanish, English, and French. No confusion at all. Ask any other Bilingual D/HH/DB person!” Thibodeau said. She added that the fear that Deaf/Hard of Hearing/DeafBlind (D/HH/DB) children will continue experiencing language deprivation is something she is still working on overcoming. 

Thibodeau co-wrote a bill with Karen Hopkins of Scarborough to help the State of Maine pass legislation on Kindergarten Readiness for D/HH/DB Children last year. 

She said she is excited to have recently submitted a final version of the world’s first textbook chapter on CDIs in the K-12 settings.
In addition to having a standard for ASL in all kindergarten classrooms, Thibodeau
wants to launch a pilot program to get more CDIs into K-12 settings across the United States, with the hope that as schools experience the benefits of having Deaf and Hearing Interpreting teams, the bilingual-bicultural interpreting model (having Deaf and Hearing interpreting teams), they would hire the CDIs  permanently.

She also has a goal for all senior citizens to consider having sign language as a tool in case they experience aging effects, such as losing their hearing, that make communication in spoken English harder to use and access. “My grandmother went deaf and blind in her last years and experienced isolation that she would have been able to avoid had she known sign language,” she said. Thibodeau wants to develop free classes for the aging population, their families, and their medical providers to ensure that their golden years really are golden, she said. has traveled to 16 countries, including backpacking across 6 European countries when she was 18. She studied abroad in Costa Rica for five months. While there, she did a community service to inspire artistic confidence in the local Deaf community by teaching a group of Deaf women a choreographed dance so they could put on a show. “At the time, nothing like that had been done before. It was so much fun,” she said.

She also took college classes in Spanish literacy taught by Deaf teachers using their native sign language, Lenguaje de Senas de Costa Ricannese (LESCO). On weekends, she explored Costa Rica and conducted field research to find natives not yet exposed to LESCO and trying to document their language on camera.

When she returned from Costa Rica, Thibodeau took a 3-week trip to Taiwan to document Taiwanese sign language variations by those who were not exposed to Mainland Chinese signing influence. “I feel really blessed to have been able to find these hidden gems,” she said.

cstlouis@spurwink.orgThibodeau also spent nine-days in Peru with Polly Lawson of Windham and Dr. Judy Shepard-Kegl of Yarmouth.  “We worked together to present before the Congress of Peru the importance of officially recognizing the sign language of its people and how it supports their economy to do so. Two years later, the Deaf Peruvian community could celebrate an official recognition, and of course, more schools and occupations opened as a result,” she said.

Recently, Thibodeau has been showing up regularly in the Facebook group “Quarantine Karaoke.”  She first participated in live Karaoke with friends at the Midnight Blues in Auburn, when she was in her early twenties, signing alongside whoever was doing vocals. When she discovered Quarantine Karaoke, she decided to participate there as well.      
On the dance floor at Midnight Blues is also where she met her husband, Thibodeau said.  “Typically, when I went out dancing, I preferred my own space so I could dance the way I wanted to. But I had so much fun dancing with him that we ended up dancing all night long. The rest led to an adventurous 16 years together.”

In addition to traveling, dancing, karaoke, and researching languages, Thibodeau said she enjoys soccer, mountain biking with her son, and painting.

zachary.conley@mwarep.orgThibodeau and her family have lived in the Forest Lake community since 2007. There are many things she likes about living there, she said, including the privacy of the roads which makes it safer for her to run, having the lake right there, and the summer people who make the place come alive with a different energy.

“One other thing I really like about this community is that there are many types of leaderships focused on parts of what makes the lake living so special,” she added. “We have the Road Association, Lake Association, and most recently we formed the Friends of Forest Lake which was set up by a few of us who really rallied against a proposal for a quarry.” said that many in the community may have seen her speaking up rather passionately at town hall meetings on this topic. A number of people met and developed valid, factual concerns and ideas for her and Cathy Worf to propose in the quarry policy committee they were appointed to.  “Without them, we wouldn't have been as successful in stopping that proposal. Most people are not aware that Forest Lake is a back-up drinking water source for Portland/Windham residents. Why would anyone allow any margin of risk for contamination?” she added.  

Of her many accomplishments in life, Thibodeau said some proud moments for her include getting her BA while working 60 hours a week, going to school full time, and dealing with the effects and aftermath of a toxic relationship; giving her commencement speech at the Multi-cultural graduation ceremony; and running the Beach to Beacon for the first time despite having suffered back injuries. Now, she added, it makes her happy to be able to do home projects such as replacing her own kitchen sink. “And when my family says I pulled off a good dinner,” she added.   

Thibodeau said she feels blessed with the gift of life.  “It sounds corny but all the bad things that happen to us are the thorns that make the rose that we are,” she said.

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