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Allied Podcast: Professional Sports ASL Interpreting with Brice Christianson

December 17, 2021


Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Brice Christianson of Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting and is about ASL interpretation for professional sports.

Brice Christianson is a professional sports sign language interpreter and founder of Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting. Brice was born to two Deaf parents and grew up surrounded by Deaf culture. Growing up, Brice attended sporting events with his father and interpreted for him so he could have access to the game.

Twenty-five years later, Brice proposed to the Milwaukee Bucks to become the first professional sports team to provide ASL interpretation. Inspired by interpreting for his father and the successful launch with the Bucks, Brice launched Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting to usher in a new era of accessible and inclusive experiences for Deaf and hard-of-hearing sports fans.

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Episode transcript

ELISA LEWIS: Welcome back to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host, Elisa Lewis. And today we’re joined by professional sports sign language interpreter and founder of Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting, Brice Christianson.

Brice was born to two deaf parents and grew up surrounded by deaf culture. Growing up, Brice attended sporting events with his father and interpreted for him so he could have access to the game. 25 years later, Brice proposed the Milwaukee Bucks to become the first professional sports team to provide ASL interpretation. Inspired by interpreting for his father and the successful launch with the Bucks, Brice launched Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting to usher in a new era of accessible and inclusive experiences for deaf and hard of hearing sports fans.

Thank you so much, Brice, for joining us today. We’re super excited to have you here to talk about professional sports language interpretation.

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: It’s an honor to be here, and I’m humbled for the opportunity. Thank you so much.

ELISA LEWIS: So, to start off, we’d love to know more about your background. I know that you were born to two deaf parents and you grew up with American Sign Language or ASL as your first language. But I’d love to know what role sports played throughout your childhood and how you found yourself pursuing a career in sports interpretation.

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: Honestly, it’s– I use the word humbled a lot, but I truly am humbled for this opportunity to have this conversation. If you were to ask me a few years ago that I’d be on a podcast, let alone having a professional sports interpreting business, I don’t think I would have believed you.

So I’m a firm believer in these sort of moments are precious, and I’m really thrilled to talk a little bit more about this background. And I feel like a lot of people don’t know who I am, and they see my work with the Bucks. And I think it’s human nature to start making assumptions of who this person is and what are their intentions.

And I always used to be very concerned about that, what other people thought. But I started really tapping into where I came from. And, like you said, both of my parents are deaf. I was born in 1983, so in the ’80s, sign language interpreting wasn’t a profession. Family members were interpreters.

They didn’t even call them interpreters. They just assisted with communication. And it wasn’t until ’92, ’93, where the Americans with Disabilities Act came into play where accommodations were then provided for deaf and hard of hearing individuals like my parents.

So when I grew up in the ’80s, when I was born, my pediatrician was concerned that a hearing child was born to two deaf parents. Was he going to acquire language? How is he going to function as a normal person? I’m using quotations.

But that was the mindset in the ’80s. And so, luckily, I had a retired teacher for the deaf who was hearing, who her husband had just passed away. And she was looking for some volunteer opportunities. Again, like I said, in the ’80s, there were no background checks. It was like, hey, here’s this number. Here’s this address. Go meet these two deaf people.

And my dad, when– I call her Grandma Jones, as she’s affectionately known as. But her name was Elizabeth Jones. And she was pretty persistent on wanting to be involved in my life. My father was apprehensive and like, who is this hearing person wanting to be in our life. We’re fine. We’re going to take care of this child.

And, luckily, she convinced my parents to just be there for a support system to connect English and American Sign Language, connect me to the hearing world as well. And that was sort of– I don’t know where I’d be without that sort of experience.

There are so many things that– the building blocks, the language acquisition period in that time frame was so critical. And you see a lot of infants and toddlers and the bilingualism approach and where they’re sponges, and they absorb all this language. I truly don’t know where I’d be– I don’t even know if I’d be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Elizabeth Jones, who I call as Grandma Jones.

But that’s where it all sort of started. And my dad being deaf, his connection to the hearing world was sports. It’s visual. My dad was an amazing athlete. He went to the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.

He was recruited by colleges. But then, when they found out he was deaf, they passed on bringing him on to the team. So, again, there’s this form of discrimination and oppression that I’ve witnessed. And my dad sort of carried that, that he felt slighted. He had a chip on his shoulder.

Rather than use it as an opportunity to do good, he sort of dwelled on it, became very angry. And I know this probably wasn’t what we were expecting. But I grew up in a very chaotic, very violent, very traumatic upbringing.

My dad, like I said, was a very angry individual because he was deaf. And I’m not saying this to pity him. I’m saying this to raise awareness on how communication access is so important, and why we need to look at the human, rather than what they have and what they don’t have.

But it ties into sports because I never could understand my father. Even though ASL was my first language, I never felt connected to him. My dad always looked at me as you can hear. You can be perfect. And when I failed, my dad would beat me. There was a lot of psychological abuse.

And so I was always trying to figure out what my dad wanted. And, clearly, my acquisition of American Sign Language wasn’t proficient growing up. So, obviously, there are a lot of misconceptions.

It was sports that really allowed me to sort of have an out-of-body experience. And also, it allowed me to connect with my father for someone who I couldn’t understand. And so sports, I know a lot of people sort of scoff at it like, oh, it’s just sports. It’s people playing with a baseball, basketball, or football.

But sports has a powerful ripple effect that affects all aspects of society. And it had a profound impact on me. It allowed me to connect with my father in ways that I don’t think I could have. And it was from there where I started interpreting with my father at sporting events. And growing up and attending games at Lambeau Field or Bradley Center for the Milwaukee Bucks– now it’s Fiserv Forum, County Stadium– which is now American Family Field for the Brewers– I didn’t know any better.

For one, it was probably fear. I didn’t want to upset my father. So I just interpreted for my father. And I use quotations, again. It was more of, like, a brokering of language. I heard, and then I tried to convey it to the best of my ability. I didn’t have the proficiency in English that I do now. I didn’t have the interpreting background that I did now.

But, from there, sports gave me an opportunity to look beyond my chaotic and traumatic upbringing. It allowed me to sort of seek for sort of a sanctuary, a solace. And I feel like my dad had that same experience.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Thank you for sharing all of that. I think you touched on so many different things I could ask you about. I really love the story about Grandma Jones. And I think one of the things you mentioned there is so interesting and something that I’ve come across frequently in my work in accessibility and working closely with the deaf and hard of hearing community is this kind of divide around the hearing world and the deaf world. So it definitely is interesting to hear your experience kind of with both.

I do want to follow up on your career, but I’m also curious. You mentioned growing up in the ’80s that a lot of the sort of language and tools, if you will, that exist now weren’t really there, or certainly weren’t formalized. I’m curious if you could talk about what the experience was like sort of being the interpreter– and, again, using that term a little bit loosely– but being the interpreter for your parents growing up while you were a kid yourself.

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: I mean, it’s shaped me who I am now. It definitely had a profound impact later in life, and we can touch on a little bit later, but my focus on mental health and taking care of oneself. It was because I really didn’t have an identity as a kid. And I can say that looking back.

In the moment, I didn’t know. I just was like– any time my dad was angry, it was like, oh, it’s my fault. I need to fix it. And whenever we went to events, whether it was Thanksgiving, Christmas, parent-teacher conferences where I would interpret, all those sorts of things– again, that lack of awareness, the education, it just wasn’t there.

So I think for me it was just this is all I knew. And my father had a key to the hearing world. And I don’t think he would look at it that way. I think it was just like, he’s my son. I brought him into this world, and now he’s going to allow me to connect to this hearing world that’s excluded me.

My mom never really– my mom was there, but kind of wasn’t there. She was a loving person. But, again, my father being a very violent and turbulent individual, we were always walking on eggshells, that sort of thing. One, it was probably survival, like, I better interpret for my father. Two, it was also– maybe now looking back, I didn’t want my parents to feel excluded.

And so when we went to family gatherings, it was just automatic that I would interpret for my parents. That obviously had a profound impact on my mental health as I grew up, and I always felt like I was in between both worlds. I wasn’t necessarily– I could hear, but I wasn’t necessarily hearing.

I knew sign language and I was part of deaf culture, but I wasn’t deaf. And so that’s that odd existence of being a CODA, a child of deaf adults. And now you’re seeing this movie come out, CODA, which is shining a spotlight on CODAs. That movie– I mean, there were so many moments where I was like, wow, that was my childhood.

And just because I had this doesn’t mean that every CODA had this and every CODA had a very violent father. I just did. But growing up in the ’80s, that was just what it was.

And I think the concerning thing is history sort of repeats itself where you have all these laws, you have more education, you have more awareness, but you do see people cut corners. And that’s kind of what led me into professional sports. I hope I answered that question a little bit more.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. So getting back to your career a little bit, I know that your career began with the Milwaukee Bucks, who actually made history in becoming the first professional sports team to provide ASL interpretation. How did your relationship with the Bucks begin? And how did you sort of convince them to value ASL interpretation?

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: We talked about this a little bit in our pre-recording. I’ve always wanted to work in sports. And, like I said, growing up it was an out-of-body experience. I thought athletes were gods, like, Greek gods that were on Earth and that could do no wrong.

And some of my cherished memories growing up are watching games. And, I mean, I could laundry list of all these different games and athletes. But I’ve always wanted to work in sports. And initially, it was like, oh, I want to be a sports journalist or I want to be an ESPN broadcaster.

And life has a funny way of working out the way it does. And so I never got into an official major with sports, but I created a podcast on my infatuation and love for the Green Bay Packers. And I did that, one, because it was a hobby, but two, it also– I wanted to connect with sports.

And it was there that I realized how inaccessible sports was. I have– some of my closest friends are deaf. And they would say, hey, I’ve heard through the grapevine that you have this Packers podcast. Would you ever want to do this in American Sign Language? And my upbringing, you would think that would be automatic, where I’d be like oh, yeah, totally. Why didn’t I think of that?

I didn’t. And, again, I think that’s part of the nature of individuals, is that we’d like to point the finger and say, oh, how dare you not provide accommodations or accessibility? We’re all unique human individuals, and we live complicated lives. And sometimes we just don’t think about that.

And it was there that I started providing podcasts in interpretive form. And it was there where I realized how inaccessible sports was. And so that’s where the idea of marrying my two passions, professional sports and American Sign Language interpreting, came to be.

Around that time, I was also a certified sign language interpreter. And I had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, their interpreter training program. So I had that background. I wanted to get formal training. And even though my first language is American Sign Language, I wanted to understand the ethics and the professional side, the business side.

And I also wanted to hone in and become a little bit more skilled at American Sign Language interpreting. So I was sort of going back and forth. I was interpreting in the community. And then, at home, I was recording these podcasts and then interpreting them into ASL.

And I put that in the back of my head. And I won the contract at Fiserv Forum in– I want to say 2017. So they had just opened up their doors, and they were looking for sign language interpreting services.

And it was through my work within the community pro bono– I worked with a lot of different music halls and venues and helped them implement sign language interpreting accommodations and requests. I did that all pro bono. And looking back, I probably could have been a little bit more diligent on invoicing and all that stuff. But I was just getting my foot in the door.

It was there that allowed me to connect with the Milwaukee Bucks in Fiserv Forum. They’ve connected to all these different venues and said, who do you use for a sign language interpreter? And they mentioned me. And so that was that foot in the door. And I won the contract with Fiserv Forum.

And from there, I would interpret concerts. I would also bring in some of the best music interpreters for concerts that I couldn’t interpret. And we just had conversations. And so over a year and a half, we’d meet on a monthly basis and see how we could enhance accessibility and the viewing experience for deaf and hard of hearing music fans. And that’s where I sort of shot my shot.

It was at a lunch with Kieran Nulty, who was the Vice President of Arena Experience for the Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum. And right at the end of our meeting, I just mentioned, hey, there’s something that I’ve been thinking about. Would the Milwaukee Bucks be interested in becoming the first professional sports team to have a sign language interpreter?

And I just expected that he’d say no, just because I had sort of floated that idea around the Brewers in the past, the Packers in the past, and I never heard anything. And I just thought, oh, this is never going to happen. And, believe it or not, I’ll still never forget the look on his eyes.

You could see this sort of glimmer in his eyes, and this excitement. And I felt like we were on to something. And within the next, I would say three to four days, he had run it up to President Peter Feigin. He’d gotten the communications team on board, the social media team on board. And we were doing test runs before the 2019-2020 season.

And then we kicked off the home opener October 26, 2019– I still remember the date– as the first team to provide a sign language interpreter for their post-game press conferences. So that is how I sort of convinced them. But really, it was networking. It was all these relationships that I had cultivated in the past that had built trust within the community that kind of gave me a leg up with the Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum.

And then it was constant communication and developing a relationship with them where I could feel comfortable proposing this idea. And we’ve been doing it now for two years, three seasons. And I feel like every single game, every single opportunity, it just strengthens our bond on we’re doing the right thing. And it’s also for the right reasons.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you for sharing that. I know you mentioned you could have been a little more diligent with invoices and everything, but it sounds like it led you to where you are now and all worked out for the best. So that’s great.

I was smiling when you mentioned interpreting concerts I remember the first time that I saw an ASL interpreter at a concert online, I should say. But just the passion and the expression, it’s really amazing. Matt Maxey and Amber Galloway Gallego are two that I’ve come across, and just really amazing.

I would love to know– you mentioned that you realized sports really are inaccessible, and this kind of encouraged you to create an environment where they’re more accessible. And I’m curious if you could explain and share some examples of what you mean by that and how, in a live game or online virtually, professional sports can be more accessible, whether that’s the game itself, emergency preparedness, PSAs, all kinds of things. But I’d love to have you share some examples in your experience.

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: To be frank, I think this is a perfect example of how inaccessible our world can be. I’m talking about the deaf community. I’m talking about American Sign Language. And, unfortunately, podcasts are inaccessible, often.

You can provide transcripts. But, again, it’s in their second language predominantly. And this isn’t to criticize the podcast or anything like that. But it is also to raise awareness on how privileged we are as individuals who can hear.

And that’s the thing that I– it’s sort of embedded in me. Every time I listen to music or a podcast or I walk around, the privilege is right in my face of I can hear. I don’t have to worry about communication access. I don’t have to worry about if there’s a sign language interpreter here, are they going to voice the same things that I’m signing? Is their tone going to reflect my tone? All these sorts of nuances that I think that we take for granted on a regular basis.

We talk about all these sort of forms of oppression and microaggressions and all that. I think communication access is one that we don’t think about. And I think that’s the beautiful thing, for lack of a better term, with professional sports interpreting and what I’m doing and what we created with the Milwaukee Bucks, is that it shines a spotlight on how inaccessible society is and how inaccessible sports is.

If you go to a game, it’s riddled with inaccessibility. From the minute you walk into the arena, you have to trust that you know where the seat is. If you go to guest services, if it’s your first time at Fiserv Forum or any other sports arena, you have to also wonder– and I’m speaking on behalf of a deaf individual. But you have to wonder what’s their view of this deaf person. Are they going to be cordial? Are they going to be OK? Or are they going to freak out and say this person isn’t using the same language as I am?

And deaf people can pick up on that. And so it’s this constant re-education that I see with my parents and with my deaf colleagues and my deaf friends. And that’s something that I want to make it easier for. I want to use my privilege in ways to break down these barriers.

I never thought we’d be doing this in professional sports. Now that we’re doing it, there’s just so many examples that I can see of how inaccessible things are. For example, when you look at closed captions in arenas, where are deaf individuals, where are hard of hearing individuals placed? Where are they seated? Can they easily view the captions?

A lot of times, closed captions that are placed in these arenas, stadiums, parks, and et cetera. It’s so that they don’t get sued. And that’s where I– I want to reframe the intent. Is the intent to make your environment inclusive? Is your intent to make it more of a humanitarian effort, we’re all human beings? Or is the intent so you don’t lose money and you don’t get sued?

And working with the Milwaukee Bucks, who are great, but I also work with several other sports teams behind the scenes. And that’s something that I pick up on. How are we not going to get sued. It’s the constant thing that I hear about.

And so I talk about my mental health and how do I corral that and how do I control that in ways and recognizing their intent? And so the closed captions– and even when they place that, is it up to speed? Are there delays? If it’s delayed, it’s inaccessible.

Public service announcements, those are never interpreted. And if it is closed caption, there’s a significant delay. There’s so many different examples.

I use one often. I was at Lambeau Field for the home opener against the Green Bay Packers. And I was with three of my deaf friends. The closed captions malfunctioned, so they didn’t even have access to any sort of information.

Two, there was inclement weather. And so they were telling everyone to seek shelter after the game. How was that conveyed to deaf and hard of hearing individuals? It’s not.

And it’s those types of experiences that made me feel more confident in this role right now. Before I felt like the Milwaukee Bucks, for lack of a better term, were doing me a solid. Like, hey, we’re going to help you out because this is a cool thing to do.

Now they realize that it’s important. But, with that, I’m more confident and galvanized that I belong here. Professional sports interpreting and ASL accessibility has a place in professional sports.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. I think accessibility, you mentioned, has really become how are we going to avoid a lawsuit. What is the legal requirement? What’s kind of the bare minimum I can do to check off the box? And that’s not what it is and not what it should be. It’s not a trend. It’s people’s access and people’s rights.

I do think, over the last year and a half, it seems that accessibility has maybe become more in the spotlight. I hope it continues to do so. But I think you raised a really good point as well, that it’s a privilege to be able to communicate without an interpreter and in our own first language.

And as you were talking through the experience and describing what it might be like for a deaf individual to attend a sports game, I was kind of picturing how I would feel and what it would be like if I were to go to a sports game in another country where I didn’t speak the language, and how overwhelming that might be if that was not just a one-day experience, but if that was every time you went out to a sports game or the grocery store or a concert or whatever the case may be.

So I certainly think that the work that you’re doing is really critical. And I’m glad that you feel that it’s kind of becoming more necessary and certainly not a favor.

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: I appreciate that. I wanted to add something to that. When you mentioned– that’s what I’d like for hearing individuals and people in professional sports. There’s this aura that people have about professional sports and where everyone wants to work in professional sports.

Everyone wants to attend game– or people that are sports fans want to attend games. And I think that there’s this leverage that sports teams have. Like, they know the power that they have that people are going to continue to come through the doors. But what I’d like is for hearing individuals that work with sports teams to just kind of take a walk in someone’s shoes where you don’t have access. Just reframe that for a second, and that will increase more fan engagement.

ELISA LEWIS: You also brought up a really good point about podcasting and the lack of accessibility around podcasting. You mentioned, sure, you can add a transcript, but that’s not necessarily the full experience.

I think many people assume that captions are sufficient as well in providing access to deaf and hard of hearing viewers. I’m specifically thinking in recorded or sports on TV or online, where you’re not live at a game. Do you hear this argument a lot? And can you talk about why this assumption is false and why both captioning and ASL are important for full access?

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: I really appreciate this question. It’s such a great question, too. And that’s sort of– it’s kind of my competitor. And I mean that respectfully. And the value of captions, that’s the bare minimum of access.

Like, if you’re providing captions, you’re providing the bare minimum of access. But there’s so much more that could be done. And I think once sports teams and other aspects in society– when they recognize that they can do more, it’s not an expense. It’s an investment.

When you do more, there are so many different examples of inventions and innovations that were created for people with disabilities that now impact us as a whole. For example, texting. That was created for deaf individuals to communicate. Now we all text as a form of communication.

So I think the lens of we’re doing this to support people with disabilities, or we’re doing this to support deaf and hard of hearing individuals, I’d like to reframe that and say that when you start implementing these sorts of things, it has a ripple effect for everyone.

For captions, for example, there are a lot of times where I don’t want to put the sound on. Whether I’m in bed, I’m in a public place and I don’t want to be loud– there are so many instances where I’ll just scroll through. If a video is not captioned, I won’t even look at it.

And so it’s not that captions is just for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. It’s for everyone. And these examples of maybe being in a public place where you don’t want to be a distraction, but you still want to access this information, captions provides that.

So I think captions has a critical role not just for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, but for everyone as a whole. In terms of American Sign Language interpreting, oftentimes you’ll see like, oh, we provided captions, so we’re being accessible. But I think people don’t realize that– so there are 48 million deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States alone. And there are two million that use American Sign Language.

And so when you look at that, that means that English is their second language. So typically they’re not as proficient in English. So when you’re providing captions and saying, hey, we’re accommodating you, what you’re telling someone is that you better be proficient in English. And you better understand what all these words mean.

I think, in terms of interpreting, you can see a word like run, for example. Well, running water, I ran for president, I ran around the block– when you interpret that, you interpret those into three different interpretations. But when you see that in captions, all it says is run. So then you’re forcing the deaf and hard of hearing individual to go, all right, and break down what they’re reading.

So you’re putting a lot of burden on deaf and hard of hearing individuals to access the information. They’re also taking their eyes off of the visual nature of whether it’s a press conference, interview, what have you. And you’re relying them just to pay attention to the captions.

Also, captions doesn’t provide inflection, tone, pace, humor, sarcasm, which sign language interpreting does. And I think when we provide captions as well as interpreting, we’re really providing an accessible environment for everyone. And we’re not putting the burden on a deaf and hard of hearing individual to accommodate to what accommodations are being provided.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I wanted to mention– I think it’s worth noting here for those that may not be familiar. And you can certainly speak to this better than I can. But ASL isn’t just a visual representation of English. It’s its own language. It has its own structure.

And a lot of words in English don’t have precise translations into ASL. I would love if you could talk about some of the nuances of translating sports terminology into ASL and how you’ve done that. And I think that really can help clarify why it’s so critical to have both ASL and captions.

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: This is, again– like, I love the questions. And I love the dialogue, too, because it’s organic. Yeah, I love this question, too, because I might have mentioned this at the beginning or in our pre-recording. I struggled with imposter syndrome. I have my entire life. But I struggled once I became the first professional sports sign language interpreter.

And I didn’t want to be. That wasn’t what I was seeking out to be. I wasn’t looking to be the first. And I accept that responsibility. And it’s taken me a while to be comfortable in that regard, one, because it’s never been done before. And two, what were people viewing me as?

You have hearing individuals. For example, like the Milwaukee Bucks, we had conversations where they said, we don’t really know what you’re interpreting. But we’re confident that you’re interpreting it effectively.

And that always sort of stuck with me is because it’s true. They put a lot of trust in me that I was getting up there and interpreting effectively. For the deaf and hard of hearing community, and also for the hearing community, I was being that– for lack of a better term, that poster child of what accessibility in sports could be like.

And it was a heavy burden for me. So it took me a while to get comfortable in that. And I think if you would have asked me two years ago, I probably would have declined this opportunity to be on the podcast just because I didn’t want it to make it about me. And that was something that I had to work on, where I have this opportunity to spread awareness and share insight.

In terms of interpreting on the fly, it goes back to these experiences. And I talked about how my networking and setting up pro bono services throughout the city of Milwaukee gave me that opportunity with Fiserv Forum and the Milwaukee Bucks. I share that also because we can’t understand in the moment, but we can understand when we look back.

And all these sorts of interactions that I had with my father, interpreting at Lambeau Field or watching a game on television, my dad saying, hey, what are they saying and me interpreting it– Little did I know I was getting practice, and little did I know that I was actually preparing myself 25 years later to do this as a career.

And so it’s those types of experiences and those interactions that I had that allowed me to be very comfortable in interpreting sports. I used to attend a lot of deaf club events, and the topic of conversation was always sports.

Deaf and hard of hearing people are rabid sports fans. And that’s another reason why I’m doing what I’m doing, is because it breaks my heart to think that they love sports so much, yet sports teams and professional sports in general exclude them on a regular basis. And so that’s another reason of being a conduit and being an ally, so they can appreciate all these other nuances that they’re missing out on.

This is not to pity them. It’s just to raise awareness. But it’s those interactions that I had growing up and talking about baseball, talking about basketball, football, and getting that terminology, where it was almost embedded in my brain, and then also interacting with the deaf community. My close friends are huge football fans. We’re always talking about sports.

And a lot of times, I just sit back and I try to absorb how they’re using the language. All those experiences allowed me to sort of interpret on the fly. But it was a work in progress. I remember the first couple of times, it didn’t feel natural. It felt forced. I felt like I was processing.

I didn’t realize how fast press conferences were. And so it’s that speed and trying to figure out. And also, there’s all this attention on me. Journalists, tech support, the president, the owners– they were all staring at me in this little press conference.

So not only did I have to interpret that information, but also I had to corral these emotions and realizing that I really was being put under the microscope. In terms of interpreting, it’s been a work in progress where I have deaf friends, and I also have three deaf consultants that I work with that I will say, hey, I heard this term in a press conference. How would you interpret this?

And so what I’d like to let people know is that I don’t have all the answers. And I’m a lifelong learner, and I’m always constantly trying to get better. But it takes a village. And, for me, it’s connecting with the deaf community, sharing things that I don’t know, and saying, hey, I don’t know this, and being vulnerable and saying how can I interpret this?

And then also realizing that every press conference, any time that I would be interpreting professional sports, knowing that I’m not going to always interpret it effectively. But I’m always going to strive to try to get that correct interpretation, if you will. But it really is staying connected with the deaf community, being a fly on the wall with their conversations about sports, and just sort of grasping at like, oh, they use that sign for rebound or assist and being like, OK.

But a lot of that is conversations I had with my father growing up. So I’ve been able to unlock that and share that with the world now.

ELISA LEWIS: Something that I think is really unique about accessibility and you sort of mentioned the imposter syndrome, and you were really one of the first to sort of do this. But one of the unique things about accessibility is that it sort of builds and improves over time. So your work, even though it started out new and very unique, is going to pave the way for future access.

So I do want to ask you a little bit about your company, Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting, which you started in 2020, sort of right before the pandemic began. Can you share a little bit about what your company does and maybe some of the obstacles you faced in getting that business started, and kind of where you see it going in the future?

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: So when I proposed to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2019, I had just been functioning under my sole business, Brice Christianson Interpreting, where I focus on coordinating. I do a lot of press conferences, a lot of community work. And now it’s all video remote interpreting because of the pandemic.

And it was those conversations with President Peter Feigin and other people within the Milwaukee Bucks that said, hey, have you ever thought about creating a sports interpreting company. And I remember telling them I already have a business. I already have Brice Christianson Interpreting. So I’m just going to function like that.

And they suggested that it would be smart to set up your own professional sports interpreting company. And we were getting started to expand, and they were supporting me. It’s been a beautiful marriage, if you will, because I’ve supported them, and they’ve supported me.

And I don’t think that– I haven’t had that type of relationship with other teams. A lot of it has been a la carte. It’s been one offs, which is fine. But that’s the beautiful thing about the Milwaukee Bucks is when you saw them boycott during the NBA bubble after Jacob Blake was shot, that’s not just PR. That’s not just like, hey, we’re going to do this because it makes us look good.

It’s embedded in their fabric, and you can see that. And that allowed me to feel confident in, all right, we’re on to something here. And then, as you have it, COVID-19 came. And the pandemic shuttered through, and the lockdown happened and the NBA shutdown.

And we were just in the first steps in its infancy of creating a professional sports interpreting company. And so when the lockdown happened I spent a good two, three weeks being very angry, almost like those– like the stages of grief. And I was angry because, one, I felt like the opportunity was gone. And I felt like we weren’t going to get another opportunity because the whole world has changed, and no one is going to care about this anymore.

And it wasn’t until we went to the NBA bubble that they wanted to resume interpreting, but all through video remote interpreting. And so I had to learn how to edit and produce and do all that stuff, put the picture in picture in the press conferences. I learned that on the fly.

And that’s where I realized that I should create my own company. And so it was right after the NBA bubble that I established Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting. And we focus solely on, one, providing interpreting access in professional sports. But I do a lot of consulting with professional sports teams, one, in how to make their arena, stadium, park accessible, two, how to interact with deaf and hard of hearing sports fans. And, three, I also do presentations for employee resource groups where if they were to hire deaf or hard of hearing employees how would that look like.

So not only is it providing interpreting in press conferences, but I have realized that a lot of my work is consulting, educating professional sports teams, and how they don’t have to feel, for lack of a better term, awkward and knowing that they have an opportunity to connect with the company, like Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting, where I also use deaf representation. And I don’t use that for PR or for business leverage.

I’m not deaf, and I don’t pretend to be. And I don’t know what it’s like to be deaf. And so the last thing I want to do is speak on behalf of deaf and hard of hearing people. And so that’s why I have two deaf consultants and one hard of hearing consultant, where I make sure that everything that we’re implementing is cutting edge, but also it’s applicable to what deaf and hard of hearing individuals are facing right now.

But a lot of what our company does is education in how to make arenas more accessible, and then also helping teams host ASL night or deaf awareness nights, and making sure that it’s not from a hearing perspective. It’s from a deaf perspective. What do deaf and hard of hearing sports fans want? And that’s what I hope to cultivate and execute with Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting.

ELISA LEWIS: You mentioned– and you mentioned this a couple of times, that you have sort of a network or community of deaf individuals who do help inform you with some of the nuances and everything in the language. And I’m curious what your response has been like from deaf fans. Being a hearing interpreter, what has that been like? And do you have any kind of stories that you can share with us?

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: Yeah. You know, growing up in the deaf community and my relationship with my father, which– that shaped my lens and how I viewed the deaf community. And I always knew that there are hearing individuals that take advantage of the deaf community for monetary gain or for fame.

And that was another concern of mine when the Milwaukee Bucks agreed to becoming the first professional sports team to provide an interpreter. It was like, oh, this is no longer just a figment of my imagination. This is a reality.

And that’s why I really struggled with this imposter syndrome and how was I going to be viewed. Was the deaf community going to hate me because it was another hearing person in the spotlight? You see a lot of music interpreters that go viral. And a lot of times it’s fixated on the interpreter and the hearing person, yet the deaf community is excluded.

You’re seeing more and more representation now in movies, in TV shows, models, actors, what have you. And so knowing that the pace and the speed of press conferences right now, it’s really hard to have a certified deaf interpreter in there. And so I’m a placeholder right now and realizing that once we get to a step where I sort of have full control on how to provide an accessible environment, that’s where we’ll have more deaf representation.

And so I had to accept the fact that there are going to be individuals within the deaf and hard of hearing community that wasn’t going to understand my intent. But, at the same time, they don’t know who I am. And I had to be OK with that and get comfortable in my own skin.

The pandemic really allowed me to say, you know what, I believe in this. And I also– I’m not trying to help the deaf community. I want to make sure that people look at the deaf community as a cultural and linguistic minority, not as a disability.

And so I often say, for people that work within the deaf and hard of hearing realm, you need to find your deaf and hard of hearing community. And what that means is I have a strong relationship with my mother. Two of my best friends are deaf. I have two colleagues that we get coffee on a monthly basis. And then I have three consultants that I work with that are deaf and hard of hearing.

They’re my connection to the deaf community. And it’s almost like it’s a checks and balances sort of thing. I always try to navigate in a humble manner, and try to take it one day at a time, and realize that I don’t have the answers, and realize why I’m doing this.

It’s so that my father, who was angry at this world that excluded him, that no other people experience the same anger and distrust and exclusion that he does, and realizing that my privilege has an opportunity to make it a better and more accessible environment for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

Sports has a ripple effect where it doesn’t just affect sports. It affects society. And so it allows other organizations to say, wait a minute. If the Milwaukee Bucks are providing a sign language interpreter, and we haven’t, maybe we should too. And so knowing that there are going to be individuals that don’t understand my why, and that’s OK. And I hope that, in time, they do.

But I also stay connected with my deaf community, and they sort of have a checks and balances with me. They’ll provide feedback and insight to make sure that we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. And I think that’s probably one of the biggest hurdles is realizing that it takes time.

You’re seeing a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion being the buzzword. And you’re seeing a lot of that. But also the Civil Rights movement in the ’70s, I mean, look how far we’ve come with that. And we’re still fighting all these sorts of forms of racism and oppression. That’s going to happen with the deaf community and professional sports, and not taking it so personal and realizing that we’re better than where we were a day before.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. As we wrap up, I’m curious if you have any final pieces of advice or any sort of last tidbits that you want to share with our listeners. And I’d also love if you could share where our listeners can find you and connect with you online.

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: Yeah. Once again, thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about this it’s so near and dear to my heart. And it also gives me solace in knowing that there are people out there that are seeing what we’re doing. I know I’m a one man shop right now with Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting.

But, really, it takes a village. I’m here because of my experiences of growing up. I’m here because of my connection with the deaf community. I’m here because of my love and slightly obsessive nature with professional sports.

But I think the biggest thing that I want people to realize is what we can do, and realizing that it’s OK if we make mistakes. And I think that’s part of how we can grow and how we can learn.

But how can we be allies? And I know that word gets thrown around a lot, like I’m an ally. And I think that’s where I’m conservative in that nature where I try not to promote because what I know today I didn’t know yesterday.

And so I think the biggest thing is realizing that communication access is a fundamental right for all human beings, and realizing that whenever we’re walking around and we can hear and we can access information, it’s a privilege. And how can we make this world a more accessible environment for all walks of life?

And this isn’t to pity the deaf and hard of hearing community and say, oh, they can’t hear, but also reframe it and realize that they’re a cultural and linguistic minority. They have a different experience. And I think that’s what makes our world so unique is we have all these different perspectives.

And I just encourage every individual to be open in realizing that it can be awkward. It can be uncomfortable. But realizing how beautiful life is where you start to learn a little bit more about all these other walks of life and how we can support one another.

And so, really, it’s about raising awareness and how can we make this world a more accessible world for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. And that’s where professional sports comes in. It has that ripple effect. If we can provide access there, we can provide it in other ways.

But where you can find me– you can find me on my website at playbyplayinterpreting.com. I’m very active on LinkedIn and Twitter. On Twitter, it’s @Brice_PXP. You can also find Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting there at @PXP_ASL. And then on LinkedIn, it’s Brice Christianson, as well as Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting on LinkedIn. You can also find my videos on YouTube as well at Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting.

But thank you so much, and I hope I didn’t ramble too much with my answers.

ELISA LEWIS: Not at all. Thank you so much, Brice. I really enjoyed having you on Allied today, and really excited about our conversation and to see where Play-By-Play Sports Interpreting goes in the future. So thanks again for being here.

BRICE CHRISTIANSON: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

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ELISA LEWIS: Thanks for listening to Allied. If you enjoyed this episode, and you’d like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave us a rating and review. To catch all the latest on accessibility visit www.3playmedia.com/alliedpodcast. Thanks again, and I’ll see you next time.


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