Gay Atlanta deaf interpreter ‘honored’ to serve during pandemic

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The bearded, black-clad constant at Gov. Brian Kemp’s (socially distant) side at press conferences throughout the coronavirus pandemic is LGBTQ Atlanta’s own David Cowan, who has served as a vital link for Georgia’s deaf population when he’s needed most.

Cowan (photo right) said he is “happy and honored” to interpret messages from Kemp (photo left) and other state officials for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“Without the service of interpreting COVID-19 information, many deaf people would be left to decipher complex English words and even new vocabulary associated with this pandemic on their own,” Cowan told Project Q Atlanta. “And they would be doing so in a heightened atmosphere of nerves and anxiety. I get to help make information accessible and in turn help to calm people.”

Cowan’s starring role has earned him profiles by local and national media outlets, a 1,200-comment Reddit thread and a random comparison to David Letterman.

Kemp even singled out Cowan and fellow interpreter Aaron Shoemaker during a press conference Tuesday at the State Capitol. Shoemaker is executive director of All Hands On, a non-profit that provides deaf interpreters during emergencies.

“I want to give a shout out to two hard working Georgians who have continued to work tirelessly to help us keep everyone informed through this pandemic,” Kemp said. “Their efforts are vital as we work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to put Georgians back on a path to prosperity. So Aaron and David, thank you so much for your tireless work during this pandemic.”

During the press conference,Kemp ordered bars, nightclubs and live performance venues to remain closed through May 31.

This isn’t Cowan’s first time in the spotlight. He’s enthusiastically interpreted drag numbers and more for deaf audience members at Atlanta Pride for years. He nabbed a grand marshal spot in the 2017 Atlanta Pride parade, and was by Kemp’s side to help Georgia prep for Hurricane Dorian in 2019. Cowan was also the deaf interpreter for Kemp’s predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal.

Cowan said All Hands On gives him between an hour and a day’s notice before he needs to report to Kemp’s coronavirus press conferences.

Cowan and Shoemaker work as a team, with Shoemaker signing the speaker’s words to Cowan, who then reinterprets them for a deaf audience.

“Deaf interpreters are linguistic and cultural experts who can take complex information and then interpret it into the most easily accessible form for a deaf audience,” Cowan said. “A deaf interpreter knows how a deaf person processes visual information and how the slightest nuance of facial expression, hand orientation and body movement effects the expression and also the reception of the information being shared.”

Cowan has also been giving daily updates from the Georgia Department of Public Health on All Hands On’s Facebook page.

The support from Georgia’s deaf population has been “crucial,” according to Cowan.

“The positive comments on social media and the expression of thanks for providing interpreters lets the people in the government know that deaf people are here and they notice and are grateful for access,” he said.

Read more coverage of how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting LGBTQ Atlanta.

This story is made possible through a grant from Facebook Journalism Project's COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund.

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