by Emma Esteves

I have always been fascinated by the unspoken deaf dialect of American Sign Language. When in action, fluent hands fly from one sign to another, orchestrating a beautiful rhythm of words and sentences. For so many years, I had wanted to be a part of this community, not only to understand others, but to also engage in meaningful conversations and establish heartfelt connections. So when I came across an ASL 1 course this summer, I immediately signed up. Although virtual, each two hour zoom session left me with a basic understanding of vocabulary and generated conversation pieces to practice. However, I must be honest: it was a lot harder than I had originally thought. There were so many things to consider. From grammar to counting, I quickly discovered that ASL was going to take a few years to perfect. Even the simple notion of raising your eyebrows or lowering them could change the entire meaning of a question. When I found myself struggling (which I often did), I tuned into one of Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily press briefings. As strange as this seems, I wasn’t there to listen to what he had to say. Rather, my eyes often searched for the person who I knew could keep me motivated each time I wanted to quit. There, in the top right corner of my screen, dressed in her traditional blue blouse and black blazer, was ASL interpreter Marla Berkowitz. 

As the only certified interpreter in Ohio, Berkowitz takes her role seriously to provide the best and most accurate feedback for her community. You might have noticed her before—signing vigorously along with the words of DeWine, but what you might not have realized is that Marla is deaf herself. She actually reads the signs from a hearing interpreter (someone who can both sign and hear) off screen and then translates them into comprehensible sentences for the ASL community. Her facial expressions, which have been noticed by many, add nuance and emotion to the words she is signing. As I learned for myself this summer, this is such an important part of the language, as her face, not voice, is used to capture those distinct intonations (sarcasm, anger, frustration, happiness). Her hard work has not gone unnoticed though. Marla Berkowitz now has an official bobblehead and fans have even created a facebook appreciation page dedicated to her efforts! Evidently, Marla’s role has received gratitude and praise from all communities alike. 

I am a firm believer that something good lies hidden in everything, and I truly think that our current situation has granted Ohio with a wonderful gift: for those with hearing impairments—a connection; for the rest of us—an exposure to the unique language and a newfound appreciation for the work of others. As an ASL connoisseur, I strive to reach the level of expertise that Marla Berkowitz continually shows on a daily basis. She has become my hero, and I hope that she is now yours too.