Most people who snagged a ticket for President Obama’s recent speech at Reynolds Coliseum heard a brassy fanfare from NC State’s marching band, followed by the clicks and whirs of thousands of digital cameras. And when the president walked on stage and began to speak to the crowd, they listened carefully to his every word.
However, those in the audience who were deaf or hard of hearing had to get the message through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, a man in black who stood behind President Obama. If you looked closely enough, you probably recognized Jeff Braden, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Braden, a former certified ASL interpreter, was pressed into service when the short lead time made it difficult to find two licensed professionals who could meet the White House’s stringent security clearance for the president’s visit. He was joined by ASL interpreter Grace Bullen Sved.
Learning the Language
Braden’s history with sign language goes back to high school, when his mother, a social worker, asked him to help care for a deaf child in a neighbor’s home. He enjoyed signing with the child and decided to continue studying the language in college.
He spent a year working in the deaf-blind unit at the Perkins School for the Blind as an undergraduate at Beloit College, which requires a field term of hands-on work. There, he met an intern from Gallaudet University, the world’s only university designed for the deaf and hearing impaired. Braden’s new friend suggested that he get involved at Gallaudet.
After spending his junior year immersed in the deaf community at Gallaudet, Braden had confidence in his signing skills.
“When I got back to Beloit, I walked straight to the foreign languages department and said ‘Hey, if you need an ASL instructor, here I am,’” he says.
While doing his student teaching, Braden got an unexpected long-distance call from Trixie and Allen Gardner, renowned psychologists and chimpanzee researchers.
“I go to the office, pick up the phone, and hear, ‘Hello, this is Allen Gardner. I’m wondering if you might be interested in working with me to teach sign language to chimpanzees at the University of Nevada, Reno,’” Braden recalls. “I’m thinking it’s one of my friends pulling a prank on me or something, so I say, ‘No, really, who is this?’ But it was him, and I ended up teaching sign language to chimps for a year.”
Braden’s gig with President Obama wasn’t his first experience signing for high-profile events. He interpreted for a crowd of 65,000 at a No Nukes Rally in Washington, D.C., following the Three Mile Island incident. Featured acts included John Sebastian, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.
Although he’s interpreted for tens of thousands of people—a figure that might intimidate the best of public speakers—Braden remains unfazed.
“Sign language requires the use of so many different faculties, you just get focused and forget about the crowd.”
He’s grateful for the understanding he’s gained through his experiences.
“Deafness is another culture, sign language is another language. And at Gallaudet, I had the experience of being a minority, which definitely will change your outlook on life.”