Signer of the times: Hinsdale South grad helps interpret governor's briefings for deaf community

June Prusak has known exactly when Saturday and Sunday have fallen during the daze of a pandemic week.

Those are the days when Prusak, using American Sign Language, has served as a Certified Deaf Interpreter for Gov. J.B. Pritzker's televised press briefings on COVID-19.

As the virus has thrust additional stress into people's lives, the Willowbrook resident keenly feels the significance of her task.

“Every time I go into the press room, I feel so nervous, so anxious,” said Prusak, a 1989 graduate of Hinsdale South High School in Darien, which has an acclaimed deaf and hard of hearing program.

The daughter of deaf parents — her mother, Carol, was a teacher's aide in the Hinsdale South program — Prusak was born deaf like her sister, Cathy. Her brother, Bernie, has hearing.

“There are a lot of statistics involved and I want to make sure I have those exactly correct,” June Prusak said on the phone using a video relay service, which connects her to a listener through an interpreter.

A chuckle, laughter, even a sigh gets translated.

“There's some days where I go home and I feel good about my work. Other times, I'll admit, I go home and I think, 'I should have done better, I could have done this differently, how could I have signed this using different sign choices?'” Prusak said.

Rare is the person without similar feelings. Prusak's extensive background has earned this position of trust.

Hired for the briefings by the Chicago Hearing Society, where Prusak worked for a dozen years as a youth program coordinator, she is a Court Coordinator/Certified Deaf Interpreter, or CDI, for the Circuit Court of Cook County.

In addition to signing in high-profile cases she can't detail due to the Interpreter's Code of Professional Conduct, Prusak recently worked one of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's conferences.

She was to have signed for the National Association of the Deaf's 55th Biennial Conference in Chicago in July, but that was canceled due to the pandemic.

The weekend briefings for the governor were among her many freelance jobs. They may become less frequent now that Pritzker has announced he will discontinue some of those weekend briefings.

“It just happened. It's just inside of me,” said Prusak, whose ingrained knowledge of American Sign Language led to her career. She holds a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the “one and only” liberal arts college in the world for the deaf, she said.

For the COVID-19 briefings, Prusak has partnered with a hearing sign language interpreter in what's called a Deaf-Hearing Interpreter Team. Partners may change at her other assignments, but to enhance consistency, she has worked with the same certified sign language interpreter, Amanda Grazian of Villa Park.

Friends outside work, they've collaborated in Circuit Court and elsewhere.

“We work together so well that we can kind of predict what the other person means, and we're able to pick up on subtle cues such as facial expressions and body language that help us know whether we're on the same page or if I need to provide an alternate expression or supplement what I just interpreted to her,” Grazian said.

Directly in front of Prusak but off camera, Grazian sees and hears the speaker and through sign language relays the message to Prusak, who applies her specific skills to the audience. Lag time is minimal.

“This is where I come in,” Prusak said, “as I share the same common language, ASL. I have a greater understanding of the deaf community, cultures and values.”

She says it's “crucial” this community hears these messages. It's also crucial that in public places where masks eliminate lip reading, deaf people are able to communicate by written word or otherwise.

“I am currently waiting to receive in the mail a new face mask that says, 'I'm Deaf. Use gestures to communicate with me,'” Prusak said.

June Prusak is a Certified Deaf Interpreter who interprets the governor's coronavirus briefing a few times a week. COURTESY OF June Prusak
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