Viewers have been listening to Gov. Brian Kemp during COVID-19 press conferences, but sign language interpreter David Cowan is the man many are watching.
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Cowan, who has worked as an interpreter for 36 years, has gained a robust following and become a sensation over the past few months, due to his charismatic expression of American Sign Language (ASL). While he is surprised by the newfound popularity, he is grateful and hopes to use the platform to shine a light on an issue he champions: language deprivation.
Cowan, 55, loved growing up in the suburbs of Indiana with his parents and his sister, Kim. His close-knit family, he said, is a loving, supportive one. He was born deaf and was never treated differently by his family. His deafness was a part of him, not what defined him and not something that would deter Cowan from enjoying a typical childhood.
“I went to a hearing school from elementary to high school and learned to read lips by interacting with others,” said Cowan. “My family and I didn’t know sign language, but, because we’re family, we could always understand each other. My parents pushed me to live in a hearing world as a deaf person and find my way. Everyone knows the deaf kid, so I was pretty popular, but my personality has never really allowed me to hold back. I’m very extroverted and that has always helped me get through any awkwardness that might be present.”
A turning point in Cowan’s life came during his nine years at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., the only liberal arts college in the world for the deaf.
“Yes, I was there for nine years. Everyone has a different route, especially the blonds and I’m a natural blond,” joked Cowan, who is now known for his snow-white beard and shaved head.
“College is where I began to understand my identity as a deaf person,” said Cowan. “I learned ASL for the first time and expunged myself of the negative stigma about being deaf. I embraced my identity and that’s where I still am today.”
While in college, Cowan was a member of the Gallaudet Dance Company. He traveled all over the world with the troupe and still loves to dance — the cha-cha, merengue, jazz, salsa. Now, he and his friends often go to The Heretic in Atlanta to country line dance, and he travels a lot with his best friend.
Cowan’s career as an interpreter began immediately after college graduation. Among his jobs, he worked as a supervisor for deaf services for the National AIDS Hotline under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and as a program director for the HIV/AIDS Foundation.
Cowan, as an ASL advocate, speaks out about a misconception in the field of audiology that says if you teach a deaf child sign language, they will never learn to make speech or acquire the skills to survive in the world.
“It’s malarkey,” said Cowan. “By holding back ASL, you’re delaying kids’ learning process. That treatment is language deprivation and can have very serious side effects on deaf individuals.”
Cowan moved to Georgia in 1998, along with his parents, to be close to and help Cowan’s sister, who had five young children at the time. Cowan lives in Snellville with his deaf cat, Blanco, and loves being a Georgia resident.
“I especially love Atlanta, Georgia,” said Cowan. “The weather is phenomenal, and I live near the lake, so it’s perfect for me to spend my time on the water. I barely need to winterize my boat. In Indiana, we had freezing waters, and lots of snow. Georgia has three-and-a-half seasons and no harsh winters — it’s fantastic.”
One of Cowan’s favorite ways to spend his free time is on Norris Lake, driving his white-and-red MasterCraft water ski boat.
“We lived near the water when I was a kid. That’s where my love of boats comes from,” said Cowan, who enjoyed boating and water skiing throughout his childhood. “I still own an old wooden motorboat, built in 1960, that my dad gave me years ago. I have a pic of myself, standing on the seat, holding the steering wheel, wearing nothing but a diaper. I grew up on the water and that’s where I love to be with friends and family.”
Cowan has had many opportunities as an interpreter in Georgia. He served as the executive director for the Georgia Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, and as a coordinator at the Georgia Interpreting Services Network. He also taught the Interpreting Training program at Georgia Perimeter College in Clarkston. Since 2016, he has worked as a freelance interpreter for All Hands On, a nonprofit that fosters relationships between the deaf and emergency managers in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies and disasters.
Cowan met Aaron Shoemaker, executive director of All Hands On, in 2016 at a training session.
“My first impression of David was that he was outgoing, bright, funny and a natural leader,” said Shoemaker, 45. “We were looking for people who had the gift for teaching to join our Deaf Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) instructor cadre, and David was a natural choice. He became one of our first group of instructors.”
Cowan and Shoemaker worked together for the first time at Dragon Con in 2016. Shoemaker, who is not deaf, signs to Cowan, and Cowan signs to the deaf audience.
A question the duo often receives is why it’s necessary for Cowan to sign if Shoemaker can do it.
“It is the very same concept of a hearing person cranking up the volume to the right level so they don’t have to strain to understand what’s being spoken,” said Cowan. “When I interpret through ASL, I use my entire body to make it ‘louder’ for the deaf audience, which enables them to relax and not have to strain to process what’s being said.
“Being a linguist requires a great deal of study and self-critique. When I’d watch an interpretation on camera, as opposed to interpreting one-on-one, I saw that it was flat, like a monotone voice, no cadence change whatsoever. So, I figured out how to use my body and move in an exaggerated way so it appears more three-dimensional on camera. The way I’m expressing my body gives the message more meaning or removes meaning. It’s not just how my hands are moving in space, it’s what’s happening on my face, too. It’s a fully kinetic expression of language and it changed everything.”
The feedback from the deaf community has affirmed Cowan’s choices, as has the gratitude from Kemp and the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA).
“His enthusiasm for delivering lifesaving information to Georgia’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community is unparalleled,” said Kemp. “He is an invaluable member of our team. He is admired and respected by countless people, and rightfully so. He effectively messages critical information to Georgians in every region of our state and brings a level of dedication to his work that no one can match.”
Cowan says he is honored that Kemp, as well as former Gov. Nathan Deal, with whom he worked during Hurricane Irma, have kept their word to the deaf community to provide them access to critical information. Georgia has approximately 300,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and they are often underserved. He knows this well, as he spends much of his free time volunteering with a variety of groups who need interpreters.
Cowan, who is gay, has volunteered as an interpreter at Atlanta Pride since 2000.
“To be able to provide access to ASL to others who are gay in the community is pretty amazing,” said Cowan. “My experience to gain accessibility to Pride led me to see there’s lots of difficulty of access for deaf people who are homeless. I volunteer with a variety of small groups to inform them about community information, HIV testing, health risks and safe sex.”
Atlanta Pride honored Cowan in 2017 by asking him to serve as the grand marshal.
“They said I’d be queen for the day, and I told them I’m not old enough for that,” said Cowan. “I’ll be a princess.”
Cowan’s spirited interpretation of Beyoncé’s song “Get Me Bodied” at Atlanta Pride in October 2019 went viral. That widespread attention surprised him, but he hopes, more than anything, that it helped bring attention to implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is the law that requires public events to be accessible.
Cowan wants to continue advocating and interpreting indefinitely. It’s a calling that he says he’s proud to answer, and he hopes he can continue making a living through his freelance work.
“I’ve been interpreting all my life, but the vast majority has been for a volunteer purpose. It’s nice to see that changing,” said Cowan. “The work of a professional interpreter is seasonal. It ebbs and flows, but it is a very necessary profession and I’m proud to live in Georgia, where we are leading the way in embedding interpreters in all operations.”
When asked if he has any big dreams for the future, Cowan laughs.
“Doesn’t everyone want to eventually move to Hawaii?”
With his dance experience and expressive ASL, there is no doubt he will become an expert at the hula.
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