She’s become a local icon overnight, standing alongside New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and interpreting valuable information for the deaf community. During a chaotic and quickly-changing time, Nixo Lanning has been a constant.

“I want to remind deaf people that we are not forgotten.” –Nixo Lanning, deaf interpreter

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Her animated facial expressions and dynamic signed language bring a visual representation to the stark, and sometimes scary, words spoken by state leaders during the Coronavirus response. Lanning is a world traveler, five-time Deaflympics multisport medalist, and University of New Mexico alumna. She is also one of only a handful of deaf interpreters in New Mexico – making her a valuable resource during this time when communication to all members of the community is essential.

“Although this is a difficult time, it also opens doors to remind people that deaf interpreters are available as resources,” she said, speaking via three-way video chat with a hearing interpreter. “I’m happy to see the State of New Mexico is valuing and respecting its deaf community through using deaf interpreters, and I hope other states pick up on that and learn from how New Mexico is creating access for the deaf community. That kind of connection needs to happen more on a national level.

Deaf Interpreters are language specialists who are able to bring a more natural interpreting to the deaf. Being deaf themselves, deaf interpreters understand the more colloquial signs and deaf cultural awareness. As opposed to their hearing interpreter counterparts, they are able to more naturally bridge communication between spoken and signed language.

“Because we have those intrinsic skills, it’s much more experiential. The deaf person can then look at me and know we’re similar – I’m a deaf person, they’re a deaf person – and that creates more trust and connection,” she explained. “It is a deaf person’s right to have full, 100 percent access to the information that’s going on. My job is to modify the language to make sure they understand and to match their level of American Sign Language and their level of understanding depending on their background.”

Interpreting a message from Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller
Interpreting a message from Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller

Lanning has appeared in countless press conferences since the start of the Coronavirus response. What people watching from home don’t see is the hearing interpreter “feeding”, or signing, information to her from the speaker. She then uses visual elements to translate the concepts, tones and directions, while conveying information to deaf audience members.

So, how has she become the go-to deaf interpreter for state officials? Lanning explains the answer is simply one of scheduling and availability. Her work as a freelance interpreter for seven companies statewide enables her to have a flexible work life to interpret for both the mayor and governor at a moment’s notice. Not only does this break barriers of communication to the deaf community, it also shows the state’s dedication to making sure the message reaches all New Mexicans.

“The state of New Mexico really believes in providing access to information without barriers to communication, and we’re one of very few states doing that with deaf Interpreters. They don’t forget about us, they include us. We are here to make sure that language barriers are not a problem, whether you speak Spanish or other languages, or you are deaf. We are trying to provide accessibility points to make sure everyone understands.”

Lanning is swift to include that hearing interpreters are also essential, but just bring a different set of services to the table. Her skills include being able to make a trustful connection with her clients, and bring a sense of common ground and cultural awareness to her interpretation. She says her winding career path and personal experiences have honed and developed her particular style of interpreting.

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“I’ve been involved in sports, traveled, and met a lot of people internationally. My strongest tool to improve my language skills in this job has been visualization,” Lanning said. “And that’s come from seeing other languages in action and meeting other deaf people around the world. I got that experience through traveling and competing in sports.”

After graduating from Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. with a degree in Parks, Recreation and Leisure Studies, Lanning came to New Mexico to work at the New Mexico School for the Deaf. It was there that she realized she wanted to pursue her passion for athletics, and completed her Master’s degree in Sports and Fitness Administration at UNM in 2014. But Lanning had difficulty finding work in that field and instead moved more into the Deaf interpretation and advocacy arena.

Despite not landing a job in sports administration, she continued her own athletic training and found great success. Lanning is the only woman in the deaf community who has competed regularly in both the winter and summer Deaflympics and in a variety of sports,  including soccer, basketball, women’s handball and snowboarding. Since participating in her first games on the international level at the age of 17, she’s competed in 10 Deaflympics and achieved gold, silver and bronze medals.

“I’m just waiting till my body shuts down, but until then I’ll keep going,” Lanning concluded.

It’s that kind of spirit, passion and dedication that will help thousands of New Mexicans during this uncertain time. As Lanning pioneers new athletic competition records for deaf women, she also is breaking barriers of communication for the deaf community.

Nixo Lanning brings spunk and expression to the TV screen that both hearing and deaf viewers can appreciate. Her story is a testament to the importance of communication and acceptance while pursuing and embracing the richness of life.