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Interpreter gaining notice with expressive style

Certified deaf interpreter Nixo Lanning signs during a recent news conference with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, with Nixo Lanning, a certified deaf interpreter, and Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, at a news conference last month. Lanning has taken on a key role on the public information circuit as officials present updates on COVID-19. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Nixo Lanning had never worked at a news conference before March.

Now she’s done so many she’s lost count.

Lanning has fast become a fixture on the public information circuit as the busy deaf interpreter signing next to officials during coronavirus-related updates – events that are routinely livestreamed to large online audiences and broadcast on local TV stations.

On Tuesday, Lanning worked Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s morning briefing and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s afternoon news conference in Santa Fe.

Her sudden omnipresence has not gone unnoticed by New Mexicans tuning in for the latest news about how the global COVID-19 pandemic is playing out in their state.

“Can we pause for a minute and give it up for the hardest-working interpreter in America right now?” Rebecca Latham, former state tourism secretary, tweeted earlier this week with a picture of Lanning.

Lanning, 36, says she was initially nervous when first asked a few weeks ago to sign at a news conference. Her normal assignments are in more intimate settings, such as helping a deaf patient communicate with his or her doctor or providing interpretation during a parent-teacher conference.

Now, though, she says she is comfortable in the spotlight – and, frankly, proud to be there.

“The state of New Mexico is last for everything, but I just want to emphasize that we are way ahead of the game in accessibility,” Lanning told the Journal through an interpreter during a recent interview. “There are other states who are not providing access to deaf interpreters.”

Lanning, who hails from the Bay Area of California, was born deaf and has used American Sign Language her whole life, including through her studies at Gallaudet University, a school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington, D.C.

People had long urged her to become a deaf interpreter, but she was not initially interested in the field. She moved to New Mexico in 2008 to work for the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe. She was a student life educator at the school, mentoring students, helping with homework and providing supervision in the dormitories. Lanning later worked as a mental health therapist at a residential treatment facility for children with behavioral issues.

But about three years ago, she had a change of heart.

“I decided that with all of those varied life experiences and knowledge, I’d be able to make a big impact and help the deaf community as an interpreter,” she said.

Lanning is one of just a few deaf interpreters currently licensed to work in New Mexico, said Dana Murrah, the interpreter coordinator for Community Outreach Program for the Deaf, an Albuquerque nonprofit with a roster of staff and freelance interpreters available for hire.

To provide interpretation at news conferences, Lanning works with other interpreters who can hear. They sit in the audience and sign to her – sometimes using a mix of ASL and English-language components that she then breaks down another level.

“In our deaf community, there is a huge variation at the levels of comprehension and fluency of language, so I work to find the most clear, simple and visual concepts to relate to the audience so that everyone has access,” she said.

The sign she uses for coronavirus, for example, is a fist pushed into the palm of an open hand with fingers splayed. It is meant to mimic a virus that looks like a ball with spikes.

Her vivid translations have captured many viewers’ attention, with people often remarking on her style and expressiveness. Murrah, who is a hearing interpreter, said even her own relatives have noted that Lanning seems to have a different flair.

“I remind them that’s the difference between using a native signer and using a hearing interpreter who has acquired it as a second language,” Murrah said. “A lot of ASL isn’t just on the hands, but it’s on the face, too.

“Nixo is giving that content and that critical information to our residents in such an organic and natural way that a lot of us who are interpreters who learn it as a second language strive to match, but we’re never going to achieve it.”

Signing is physically demanding, and the industry standard is to switch interpreters every 20 minutes to prevent fatigue and loss of information, Lanning said, though she is able to stretch past a half-hour if necessary. That might have something to do with the physical stamina gained from a lifetime in sports. An accomplished athlete, Lanning starred in team sports at California School for the Deaf, has completed two half-Ironman triathlons and participated in the Deaflympics as a snowboarder, cyclist, handball player and more.

While she is now regularly in the presence of the state’s leaders, Lanning said she has had little direct interaction with the governor or mayor. In this time of social distancing, she usually shows up, does her job and then leaves.

But she said the response she’s received from the community in the last few weeks has reinforced what a vital service she is providing in the midst of this crisis.

“I’m realizing now how many people I’m impacting and what a huge audience there is; I know my job is important,” she said. “I’m very proud of what I do, and I strive to be the best I can be to get the message across as clearly as possible.”

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