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Bush's Interpreter Signs On For Storm

Tampa Tribune, FL - Aug 23, 2004

By JEROME R. STOCKFISCH
jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

TALLAHASSEE - Hurricane Charley brought a parade of familiar faces before television cameras: Gov. Jeb Bush, emergency chief Craig Fugate, law enforcement officials and state department heads.

In the first days after the storm tore across Florida, however, an unassuming Tallahassee state employee topped them all in face time after being summoned to interpret briefings from the Emergency Operations Center for the deaf and hearing-impaired.

''In one sense, I'm just a face in a little box,'' said Dana Lachter.

There's no denying, though, that Lachter's expressive sign- language style has brought her plenty of attention.

''When I started getting calls after the first press conference from all over the country, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm on national news.' ''

Lachter, 29, is a staff interpreter in the headquarters of the Department of Education's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. From her tiny office in one of Tallahassee's nondescript state facilities, she interprets for a deaf administrator, provides division resources to counselors, and advises people dealing with deaf or hearing- impaired clients.

The division was contacted by the emergency center shortly after the center was activated when Charley took aim at Florida's west coast.

Lachter originally was reluctant to take on the job, thinking it might detract from her day-to-day responsibilities. However, she received the full support of her agency, given the critical need to get storm information to deaf and hearing-impaired Floridians.

She acknowledged being a little nervous the night before she was to stand by Bush's side for the first time.

''I don't necessarily like being in front of a lot of people, or being in the spotlight. And that happens when you interpret,'' she said. Now, the briefings with a multitude of state officials are ''old hat.''

Unlike most interpreters, Lachter never had a deaf or hearing-impaired family member to interest her in learning sign language. Her motivation was simple curiosity.

The Florida native attended community college in Gainesville and St. Augustine. At Flagler College, which has a strong deaf education program, she took classes in that field. ''It just fit,'' she said. ''It was the first time I found something that I really enjoyed and felt like I was good at, at the same time.''

She taught at the New Mexico School for the Deaf and the Texas School for the Deaf. In Austin, Texas, there was a mentoring program for would- be interpreters.

''I just loved it,'' she said. ''It was a good fit for my skills. I've been interpreting ever since.''

A Test Of Skills

Lachter moved back to Florida to be closer to her family. Other high-profile interpreting jobs for her have included public events for then-gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno and an appearance by Washington pundits James Carville and Mary Matalin.

She had met Bush just once before when she was summoned for hurricane duty. ''He's been very personable,'' Lachter said. ''He's always greeted me and acknowledged me before and after his media briefings.''

It didn't take long for the governor to test his new aide. Before her first appearance Aug. 13, he told her he would be doing a portion of the briefing in Spanish.

Lachter can speak the language but does not consider herself a qualified interpreter of Spanish. She did ''as much as she could,'' frequently signing, ''He's speaking Spanish,'' for her audience ''in case they were wondering why it wasn't a fluent message.''

Later, she was told that directors had dropped the interpreter's box from the feed during the Spanish portion, ''So in the end, nobody saw me stumbling through that.''

National Fame

Casual observers quickly notice Lachter's expressiveness as she interprets the comments from the dais. Facial expressions are part of the language, she said. ''It's part of conveying the meaning. Expression and intonation is shown in the face and body language.''

That said, ''I've been told by people that I'm a little more expressive than most interpreters,'' she said.

Statements from the emergency operations center - and her translations - have been on cable and network news broadcasts. Lachter said friends from across the country ''have kind of messed with me a little bit.''

''The best feedback,'' she said, ''is when I hear from members of the deaf community who were in the affected areas and say that they saw it and were comforted to know what was going on.''

Christopher Wagner, president of the Florida Association of the Deaf, said it is crucial that sign-language interpreters be employed in emergencies.

''There is a large population of deaf individuals whose primary language is American Sign Language,'' he said. ''English as a second language may be difficult for a deaf person reading any literature or captioning regarding emergency preparedness.''

He called Lachter ''very professional and skilled,'' adding, ''She is very clear and made sure that she rendered the message fully.''

Reporter Jerome R. Stockfisch can be reached at (850) 222-8382.

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