UCSD sign interpreter performs at Super Bowl

    Prior to the start of Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay receiver Keyshawn Johnson was not the only one worried about fumbling fingers.

    “”It’s just a matter of stretching and making sure my arms are loose and I’m not tight,”” said Janet Maxwell, the Super Bowl XXXVII pre-game show sign language interpreter, during a rehearsal at Qualcomm Stadium on Jan. 24. “”I have to remember to stay relaxed.””

    Maxwell, who professionally interprets for several UCSD professors, was chosen by the National Football League to perform a sign language interpretation of the national anthem while the Dixie Chicks perform their own vocal rendition.

    Similar to how vocalists are able to create their own rendition of a song, Maxwell said that sign language also allows for the same range of variation.

    “”I follow the artists,”” she said. “”If they take a note and extend it, I have to also take my sign and extend it for that particular word or have to make my movements more grandiose on stage.””

    Prior to the Jan. 24 rehearsal at Qualcomm, Maxwell said she practiced using a recording of the Dixie Chicks’ national anthem rendition.

    For Maxwell, the path that led her to the pre-game show began two years ago. She said when she attended the Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla., and saw the use of a sign language interpreter there, she decided that she wanted to have that job. After a slew of phone calls, she was finally offered the position.

    Although she has worked at other important events, including former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 inauguration, she says the Super Bowl, with an estimated U.S. TV audience of 130 million, is her biggest.

    “”This one [ranks] pretty far up there,”” she said. “”There are many more people watching from all over the country.””

    Maxwell, who is a professional sign language interpreter, graduated from Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore., where she majored in sign language interpreting. From there she moved to the East Coast and lived in Washington, D.C. Now in Southern California, Maxwell works for Deaf Community Services of San Diego, which does a range of sign language interpreting.

    When not being a sign language interpreter before millions of people, Maxwell interprets for two professors at UCSD, one in the communications department and another in the teacher education program.

    Although Maxwell was born with full hearing, she says English is not her primary language.

    “”Sign language is the first language I learned,”” she said.

    Maxwell was born to deaf parents. They will be watching the Jan. 26 pre-game show closely, she said.

    Maxwell said that she learned English by surrounding herself with hearing people and by attending school. She noted that infants are able to make signs two to three months before they are able to begin speaking.

    Despite the increasing use of alternative means of communication technology via computers, Maxwell says that sign language is still essential to the estimated one-tenth of Americans who are deaf.

    “”Sign language is the language of people that are deaf, so you couldn’t separate deaf people from their language — just like you wouldn’t be able to separate anyone else from language,”” Maxwell said, noting that sign language is the third most used language in the United States behind English and Spanish.

    For Maxwell, the opportunity to share her language and her parents’ language with such a broad audience is an honor.

    “”When people see me on stage, [my parents] are going to know that their language is being shared,”” she said. “”I would tell you that my mom would say that is a blessing.””

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