Brian Chilson

Governor Hutchinson is broadcasting on YouTube his daily updates on the latest COVID-19 infections, but it’s safe to say his audience is looking less at his eternally grinning face than they are at the man next to him, Eddie Schmeckenbecher. 

Schmeckenbecher is stealing the show with his facial expressions, sweeping hand gestures and finger-spelling for the governor’s deaf audience. The deaf can understand him; those who don’t know American Sign Language can only look on with wonder, trying to match up the pointing fingers and fists with the words they’re hearing from the governor.  

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Schmeckenbecher, the communications specialist for the Arkansas School for the Deaf, has been interpreting for the governor for two years, but the daily press conferences have made him a celebrity; he’s a shoo-in for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s High Profile cover, and there’s sure to be a leap in the numbers of folks who sign up for his ASL classes at the School for the Deaf. 

How does he do it? ASL is not a word-for-word translation of what is spoken to what is signed. It is more like a romance language, with adjectives coming after nouns (mask blue instead of blue mask) and a sentence structure that (roughly) places time first, then object, then subject, then verb (today tests 1,000 come in). That means Schmeckenbecker must rearrange the words he’s hearing simultaneously with signing. There is a continuum of ASL, Schmeckenbecher said; what he’s doing is a blend of English and ASL syntax. 

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Schmeckenbecher, 62, started learning sign language at 15 or 16 at his childhood church, Heritage Baptist Temple on Stagecoach Road, which had a mission to the deaf. The girl who was interpreting caught his interest (“there’s always a girl involved,” he said), so he began taking classes at church, eventually interpreting sermons. (“I look back and think, those poor deaf people,” Schmeckenbecher said; he doubts he did a very good job after only a year’s experience.) He continued studying ASL at Liberty University for three years, and finished at UA Little Rock, in its interpreter training program, and eventually got a master’s degree. 

Being able to communicate with deaf kids at his church was what caught Schmeckenbecher in ASL’s thrall: “I became enwoven with them,” he said. “It always comes down to communication. For example, if you go to another country and you don’t speak Spanish and you find somebody who speaks English, you’re going to grab hold of them.” He began to bond with the deaf community, and so made interpreting his career. “It was also a calling,” he said. “A divine calling, which helps.” He’s taught at UALR, worked with what was Southwestern Bell interpreting for the head of its Arkansas Relay Service, and been a counselor at a mental health center for the deaf. He’s been at the School for the Deaf for 8 years. He is now nationally certified.

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Because their language is so little known and communication with the hearing so difficult, the deaf community is tight. The school becomes family, Schmeckenbecher said. Most are not sorry to be deaf, he said; when he did mental health counseling for the deaf, he heard about drugs, alcohol and other mental health issues, but “not one person came in and said ‘I’m deaf, I’m having trouble.’ ”

There is a bit of conflict between those who would provide all deaf people with cochlear implants and those who don’t feel they are incomplete without the ability to hear. “The people who are wanting to make deaf people hear are the hearing,” Schmeckenbecher said.

“I talked with one man who said, ‘I would not be in the position I’m in if I was hearing.’ He had a very high status at his work.” Another person objected to the term “hearing loss,” telling Schmeckenbecher, “I haven’t lost anything. This is the way I was born, and I’m fine.” 

Those students who do communicate in ASL are very like typical English-speaking students: They don’t really understand why they sign the way they do until they take a deep dive into syntax. So, just as English-speaking students take English, students at the School of the Deaf study ASL (along with English, reading and writing). 

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ASL is a rich and complex language, worthy of preservation — another reason there are objections to the elevation of cochlear implants. It is also a changing language: The sign for phone used to be one hand at the mouth and one at the ear, mimicking the use of the candlestick phone, and Schmeckenbecher said he’s seen people in their 80s and 90s use that sign. Today it’s the sign we all use for talking on the phone, thumb and little finger at the ear. Hands moving in a circle used to represent computer, suggesting the spinning of two long reels of tape that early computers used. That was followed by box motion; now there’s a series of taps up the arm, though Schmeckenbecher said he wasn’t sure why that changed. 

Devoted watchers of the governor’s press conferences have surely mastered the sign for “time” (pointing at the watch), “I” (pointing to the head) and “speak” (finger to the lips). Schmeckenbecher demonstrated the sign for COVID-19: a fist to the palm and then the splaying out of fingers, like the spikes on the virus. 

Schmeckenbecher eschews fame. “This is not about me. It’s having an interpreter present, and the deaf are so very thankful.”

Years ago, Schmeckenbecher and his wife taught their infant to sign for milk and food; adults might be able to learn from him as well. If the School for the Deaf is allowed to have classes this summer, Schmeckenbecher will teach a community class in beginning ASL from 6-8 p.m. Thursdays July 2-July 30. The fee is $50; to register, go to eddies@asd.k12.ar.us.