Meet the sign language interpreter for Linn County's coronavirus briefings

Jennifer Keaton hopes to inspire others to learn sign language

Jennifer Keaton, director of services for Hands Up Communications, is seen May 18 at the Hands Up office in northeast Ce
Jennifer Keaton, director of services for Hands Up Communications, is seen May 18 at the Hands Up office in northeast Cedar Rapids. Keaton interprets the Linn County Public Health coronavirus news conferences into American Sign Language. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — For the past 10 weeks, Jennifer Keaton has translated the Linn County Public Health coronavirus news briefings into American Sign Language.

The briefings, streamed on Facebook, are viewed by thousands of Eastern Iowans seeking local information about the pandemic. Keaton hopes with American Sign Language in the public eye, more people will recognize its importance for people who are deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing.

“One day, I could inspire someone to become an interpreter or a deaf interpreter,” Keaton said, who herself is deaf-blind. “It’s one of the rare opportunities for the public to actually have exposure to American Sign Language, and for the media to become more familiar with the need to have simultaneous sign language interpretation.”

Keaton, of Cedar Rapids, works at Hands Up Communications, which offers individuals, businesses and the education sector on-site interpreting, video remote interpreting, translation services, over the phone interpreting and transcription services.

Keaton has been with Hands Up Communications for about a decade, and while she has seen progress in Iowa on the availability of resources for people who are deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing, there’s still work to be done, she said.

“There are a lot of people left with little or no resources, which is really concerning to me,” Keaton said. “That motivates me to ensure their quality of life is able to be improved by having access to services. I’ve always been a big advocate growing up my entire life. I feel like someone who could advocate on their behalf.”

The Iowa Legislature passed a bill in 2018 allowing sign language to count as a foreign language credit for high school students. Keaton hopes momentum like that can lead to more American Sign Language classes in high schools across the state and screening children’s hearing at a young age with Early Detection Hearing Intervention.


While speech therapy, hearing aids and cochlear implants are great tools for people who are hard of hearing, there’s a cultural significance to “visual language,” Keaton said.

“I’m trying to show people there are options alongside the tools you have to hear,” she said.

Translating the Linn County Public Health news briefings every week can take an emotional toll, she said. She is leaning on her support group in the deaf community.

Keaton also takes time for self-care, even if it’s just 15 minutes to breathe, “smell the roses,” go for a walk or play a game to take her mind off the news.

“One thing I learned from this is people really need to reach out more often for support. Wow, you don’t realize what kind of support is available to you until you reach out and can be surprised that a lot of times people are willing to be there for you,” Keaton said.

In her spare time, Keaton has been learning Braille and gardening. This spring, she planted cucumbers, snow peas and cherry tomatoes in a garden she shares with her neighbor.

“I would hope this coronavirus pandemic teaches the community how to work together more and really respect each other, no matter your background, primary language or culture,” Keaton said. “This country would be in a much better position if we were to do that.”

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