Danielle Filip ’07 grew up learning American Sign Language to communicate with her Deaf grandparents. Still, as a business administration major at Washington & Jefferson College, she never envisioned making a career of sign-language interpretation, even as her mother founded a local company that provided sign-language interpretation services to businesses and the government.
“Who wants to go into what your parents do for a living?” she says, looking back at her resistance at that time.
But eventually she did, and through much of 2020, she found herself personally leading Allegheny County’s efforts to educate, inform, and guide the region’s Deaf community about COVID-19, Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home orders, virus prevention, and how to get help.
“Communication about the pandemic wasn’t made accessible to the Deaf community early on,” Filip says of national media and other efforts to alert the public in general about the early perils of the pandemic. “Deaf people deserve to have the same access to information. I’m glad Allegheny County recognized the importance of communications access, of being inclusive.”
Filip is vice president of operations for her family’s firm, North Hills-based Sign Language Interpreting Professionals. While she runs the day-to-day business operations of the firm and coordinates the schedules of contract interpreters, she stays active with her own sign-language skills for both the county and as a state court-certified interpreter.
Filip says her family’s company has been the contracted provider of interpreter services for Allegheny County for much of the past decade. So when County Executive Rich Fitzgerald began his regular local pandemic press briefings in the spring of 2020, Filip was called into action.
Providing such interpretation, though, proved a challenge, given the subject matter. As Filip tells it, American Sign Language (ASL) is not simply an extension of English but rather its own language. So she had to “research and learn about” COVID-19, epidemic versus pandemic, uncomfortable testing procedures, and other pandemic-specific concepts.
“I had to figure out what it all meant in English first, and then I had to prepare to produce the equivalent message in ASL,” she says of the challenge, which also included capturing the appropriate emotions. “A lot of the work went on behind the scenes. I had to make sure I understood the speakers’ intent.”
For press conferences, Filip says, “speakers chose their words very carefully. I had to choose my signs just as carefully.”
Filip also received regular written updates from the county regarding the pandemic, for which she video-recorded ASL-interpreted updates that were posted online for the Deaf community.
She says her grandfather would be proud. Just before he passed away in May 2019, Filip had an opportunity to visit him briefly. That’s when, knowing the career path she ultimately had taken, he told her, “Go to work.”
“For every job I do now,” she says, her voice cracking, “he’s my ‘Why.’ I’m honored to do it.”