Interpreters make music for the deaf with their hands at Gospel Meets Symphony

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Dorothy Jackson, leads the members of the American Sign Language interpreters during a rehearsal with the Gospel Meets Symphony choir at Mount Calvary Baptist Church. This will be the 21st concert that Jackson will be conducting the interpreters. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)

American Sign Language interpreter Dorothy Jackson has known for nearly 60 years that God hears the voice of the deaf.

“God hears them. He hears their hands,” she said of the deaf community’s language.

“There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard,” she quoted from one of her favorite Bible verses, Psalm 19:3.

Jackson, 80, who has made sign language interpreting a ministry for nearly all of her adult life, was the sole ASL interpreter for the deaf at the first Gospel Meets Symphony concert 20 years ago.

Now, the Akron native is rehearsing 12 other volunteer interpreters to sign alongside the 200-voice Gospel Meets Symphony Choir and the Akron Symphony Orchestra for the 21st annual concert Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall.

Jackson has been with Akron Meets Symphony from its beginning, when choir master Cleo Myricks and the late Maestro Alan Balter asked her to lend her interpreting skills to the event. In recent years, she’s been able sit back a bit and enjoy the fruits of her labor after training two decades of ASL volunteers for this uniquely Akron, thoroughly joyous event. She’ll join the other interpreters for the concert’s opening and closing comments as well as the encore.

“I’ll do some [more songs] if they’re struggling with something,” said Jackson, who lets the interpreters decide which of the 13 songs they want to sign. The interpreters, who happen to be all women, most often work in pairs, especially when one interpreter needs to sign a choral part while the other signs a soloist’s vocals.

For these interpreters, it’s not about just the words. They work on facial expressions to go with the mood of each song.

“You have to put it in your face and your hands so they [the deaf] can feel what you’re saying,” Jackson explained.

The interpreters also sign purely instrumental songs for this concert, simulating the motions of playing a piano, violin, harp, drums or other instruments.

“You try to emulate what they’re playing,” said interpreter Linda Cottman, who explained capturing the flow of the instrumentalist’s arm movement also is important.

Each year, Jackson brings new interpreters who share her passion into the Gospel Meets Symphony fold. Brenda Wallace, who has signed for the concert for about 15 years, remembers being struck by the interpreters’ work at a Gospel Meets Symphony performance two decades ago.

“I noticed the interpreters and they were so dynamic, so beautiful and so inspiring,” she said. “We’re sharing with people who have unfortunately lost their hearing but they can still take part and enjoy the concert.”

Heather Perry, a professional interpreter with interpreting studies degrees from Tri-C and Sienna Heights in Michigan, began interpreting for her church but now works five days a week in the Medina school district. She and Natausha Kight, who also has an interpreting degree from Tri-C, talked about how different signs can have different shades of meaning with it comes to words in lyrics such as “honor” and “praise.”

“It gives you the ability to be creative because it’s not so structured, and there are many ways to express it,” Perry said.

“You try to draw it out just like it’s being sung,” Wallace said. “We do take dramatic liberty to make the signs pretty.”

ASL is more conceptual signing than the more literal English Sign Language, said Wallace. Several of the Gospel Meets Symphony interpreters are able to convert from one language to the other, depending on the song.

Signing etiquette is important too: Hands are at rest by putting the right fist in the open left palm. And those who are not signing must watch the person who is.

The group’s well-oiled interpreting machine all began with leader Jackson’s ASL ministry, which stems from her days working as a secretary at Goodwill Akron. Father John Wilson, chaplain for the Cleveland and Akron deaf community, visited Goodwill in the 1950s and signed to some of the 35 deaf people who worked there in the contract department.

“I wish I could do that,” Jackson, a single mother who made $25 a week, told the priest.

He took her up on that wish, teaching her and fellow employees sign language once a week during lunch hour.

“Every Monday I was the only one who knew what he had taught us the week before because I was the only one who had practiced,” Jackson recalled.

She next had the opportunity to audit a four-week master’s course at Gallaudet University for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington — on scholarship. She was determined to come back fluent, working day and night and practicing ASL until she was able to master 700 words.

“I started interpreting the day I came home,” Jackson said.

She was on fire: “I was on a mission. I was going to teach everyone I knew how to sign.”

She laughed while recalling a mistake she made while interpreting at a Goodwill Chapel service: “I have been to Gallaudet and I have learned to sin,” she said, mistaking the palms-facing-in word for “sin” with the palms-facing-out word for “sign.”

More ASL work followed at Kent State University, and then Jackson began teaching a noncredit course on beginning sign language at the University of Akron, where she had her own students from Arlington Church of God and the community. She wasn’t paid a dime for teaching but she also enjoyed signing for students of UA professor Karen Turner, whose parents were deaf, during their ASL test-taking.

“I stay current with the deaf and the deaf world, and I’ve always been a volunteer doing that,” Jackson said.

That volunteerism also spreads to Arlington Church of God, where she began signing in the 1960s. She continues to sign at services twice a month, filling the rest of the slots with people she has trained.

She tells all of her students to practice heavily in front of a mirror: “Perfect practice makes perfect,” she says.

Jackson remembers well the first Gospel Meets Symphony concert in 1994, which she called “marvelous.” Afterward, she received a note from a deaf person saying, “When you sign, I feel like I can hear.”

She said the deaf community has been excited about sharing in the concert from the beginning. Every year, Gospel Meets Symphony gives free tickets to the deaf and Jackson makes sure they get good seats back four or five rows so they can see the interpreters well on stage.

Jackson, a servant leader of servant leaders, took ASL coursework in the early years but never completed a college degree. As a young woman, she dropped out of business college to care for her ill brother and mother. That decision later led to work as a nurse’s aide, then 12½ years at Goodwill, 16½ years at the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and 19½ years in the Akron mayor’s office, retiring in 2003.

“Love led me to leadership,” she said. “I have the gift of help.”

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or

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