Interpreter Who Was ASL 'Royalty' Dies of COVID

Patty Sakal interpreted for Hawaii's deaf community for nearly four decades
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 21, 2021 9:15 AM CST

In Hawaii, she was known among her colleagues as "interpreter royalty." To the Aloha State's deaf community, Patty Sakal was simply the one who kept them in the know on all the news of the day. Now, sad news from our westernmost state: Sakal has died of COVID. Her sister, Lorna Mouton Riff, tells the New York Times the 62-year-old died on Jan. 15 in San Diego, where she'd gone in December to see one of her daughters. Sakal was a Honolulu native who was born to deaf parents—her mom was a well-known activist for the deaf community, and her dad was the first deaf instructor at the Hawaii School of the Deaf and Blind—and so gained firsthand experience in American Sign Language. "Sometimes in life, your career finds you ... and that was so much so for Patty," Riff tells Hawaii News Now. "She was trusted by the deaf community because she grew up in it."

During the pandemic, the mother of three and grandmother of two became a familiar face at press conferences, for both Kirk Caldwell (Honolulu's former mayor) and Gov. David Ige. What made Sakal even more in demand than other interpreters: She not only knew ASL, but also HSL—Hawaiian Sign Language, an Indigenous variant that takes local vernacular into account, with a dwindling number of people who use and understand it. Riff tells the Star-Advertiser that her sister had been "extremely nervous" to travel to San Diego, but that she really wanted to see her daughter, a US Navy service member, before she deployed. Riff adds that one of Sakal's other daughters is a respiratory nurse in Texas, and that Sakal took every safety precaution possible while traveling. "She did not have a nonchalant attitude about this virus," Riff says. "This should have never happened. This is heartbreaking." (Read more coronavirus stories.)

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