Summer Nakaishi

Shaun Shimizu lives in two worlds. In one world, he’s an American Sign Language interpreter, both personally and now professionally. Shimizu, who grew up as the only Hard of Hearing person in his Deaf family, has been interpreting as long as he can remember. In the second world, Shimizu was born hearing and became Hard of Hearing by the age of 5, attending speech therapy between classes and occasionally on the weekends. His life is in constant flux between those two worlds.

While attending Pearl City High School, Shimizu said he was enrolled in a class called Special Ed, but it was renamed the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, noting how the language evolved since graduating in 2004.

Shimizu signing “communication.” (Photo by Brandon Miyagi)
Shimizu signing “communication.” (Photo by Brandon Miyagi)

Overtime, “Deaf” and “Hard of Hearing” have changed in its usage and how members of the community identify. Carol Padden and Tom Humphries stated in their book “Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture,” deaf with a lowercase d refers to “the audiological condition of not hearing,” while the capital D “Deaf” denotes a “particular group of deaf people who share language — American Sign Language (ASL) and a culture, and like many other cultures in the traditional sense of the term, historically created and actively transmitted across generations.”

According to the National Association of the Deaf, the phrase “hearing-impaired” was once viewed as politically correct but is no longer accepted by most of the community because “impaired” focuses on what a person cannot do. “Hearing-impaired” establishes hearing as the standard and anything different as substandard, implying that something is not as it should be. The NAD website’s FAQ’s page stresses the importance of words and labels and when in doubt, asking the individual how they identify. “We may be different,” the website states, “but we are not less.”

Shimizu identifies as Hard of Hearing, with capital letters, and acknowledges the balancing act of living in both worlds.

“To this day, I still feel like an outcast,” said Shimizu. “I still call myself the black sheep of the family. I meet with a lot of hearing kids with Deaf parents, and they call themselves CODA, Child of Deaf Adult. I don’t feel like I meet that standard of how they grew up because I lost my hearing, too. And then I also don’t feel heavily involved with the Deaf kids because even though ASL is my first language and I have a Deaf family, I can hear. They say, ‘you can still hear and you can talk clearly, people can understand you,’” Shimizu explained. “So I’m stuck in the middle.”

He notes that growing up in Hawai‘i, where the pool is already small, the Deaf community is even smaller, where “everyone knows everyone.” Even so, he rarely met someone in the same situation as him — Hard of Hearing in a Deaf family.

To be Hard of Hearing in a hearing world can be an invisible struggle, since a person doesn’t “look” Hard of Hearing or Deaf. Since he speaks clearly — though Shimizu said he struggles occasionally with the “s” and “z” sounds — he sometimes is faced with people who think he’s ignoring them when in reality, though he wears a hearing aid and can read lips, he said he just can’t hear everything.

In contrast, being Hard of Hearing in a Deaf world means that Shimizu is the family interpreter, and said he’s been “interpreting forever.” ASL was naturally ingrained in his upbringing, and his mother said as a baby, he was signing more than talking. His grandparents, who are hearing, conversed with Shimizu frequently, and he credits his grandmother for developing his vocabulary and encouraging extra speech therapy classes.

Many childhood nights were spent at his grandparents’ house in Hawai‘i Kai and Shimizu would listen to his grandparents and sign their words to his parents and sisters,  then read their responses and translate back. “My grandmother learned a little bit,” said Shimizu of learning ASL. “She did a lot of fingerspelling, but most of the time, my sisters would say, ‘you have to interpret.’”

Top to bottom: Uncle Mikey Tomita, Gail Nakahara (Tomita), Grandpa Melvin Tomita, Shana Shimizu, Grandma Catherine Tomita, Sherry Shimizu and Shaun Shimizu.  (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)
Top to bottom: Uncle Mikey Tomita, Gail Nakahara (Tomita), Grandpa Melvin Tomita, Shana Shimizu, Grandma Catherine Tomita, Sherry Shimizu and Shaun Shimizu. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)

His grandparents, like many families with Deaf members, utilized a “home sign,” or a basic sign language. “My grandparents developed a real basic home sign — gestures like ‘you want to eat?’” said Shimizu, demonstrating spooning food into his mouth. “Or ‘you want to go home?’” He pressed his fingers together in an inverted triangle to symbolize the pitched roof of a house. “Real simple signs. But when they wanted to have a full-on conversation, that’s when I came into the picture.”

Shimizu is part of one of the largest Deaf families in Hawai‘i — his parents, Gail Nakahara and Stanford Shimizu, and two older sisters, Shana and Sherry, are Deaf. On his dad’s side, an uncle and three cousins are Deaf, and on his mom’s side, an uncle and two cousins are Deaf.

During holidays or if he’s given a head’s up that hearing people will be at a family meeting, Shimizu said he would ask a friend to come along and interpret, (and he’d serve as a backup) so he could be more involved or engaged with family.

Shimizu siblings: Shana, Sherry, and Shaun. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)
Shimizu siblings: Shana, Sherry, and Shaun. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)

“If you’re interpreting for a family member, you get emotionally involved and kind of just forget about interpreting, and talk,” said Shimizu. “I have to remember to come back to my role and interpret for my family because they don’t understand what people are saying.”

The ethics of an interpreter is to remain neutral and impartial, and Shimizu shared that it’s harder to socialize when he’s both an interpreter and participant, because as an interpreter, he’s trying to keep a boundary.

“If I interpret for people I hang out or I socialize with, it kind of feels awkward,” Shimizu explained. “Because if I interpret for their medical appointment, I think they feel awkward, and I don’t want to make them feel more awkward.”

But, however uncomfortable interpreting a mammogram appointment may be, Shimizu said he would do anything for his godmother, who he said basically raised him after his parents divorced. “We’re not blood related, but anything for her, I will do. I could say she’s one of my heroes,” he said. “She teaches me stuff about life, basically everything. Once I got my license, I was always at her house.”

His godparents, Michele and John Mekaru, are Deaf and live nearby. Shimizu interprets for them frequently, and he’s happy to help and tries to see them as much as he can. “They communicate really well with my son,” he added.

Part of the reason Shimizu started working at Hawai‘i Interpreting Services is because he felt it was time to come back to the Deaf community after working different jobs. Shimizu has been the office manager at Hawai‘i Interpreting Services since 2018 and enjoys coordinating schedules and placing interpreters with Deaf, Hard of Hearing or Deaf-Blind clients who need assistance. Oftentimes, Shimizu will take ASL interpreting jobs as well and is one of the 40-plus interpreters spread out across the islands.

Hawai‘i Interpreting Services is a female-owned minority small business, established by Sabina Wilford and Judy Coryell in 2007. The company’s mission is client driven and committed to “providing equitable communication for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing/Deaf-Blind so that they receive the equal access that they are entitled to.” The company is known for its high standards and offers ASL Interpreting, Deaf-Blind, Real-Time Captioning (CART) or Computer Assisted Note-Taking (CAN).

Shimizu’s godmother, Michele Mekaru, and his son, Lucas. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)
Shimizu’s godmother, Michele Mekaru, and his son, Lucas. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Shimizu said services slowed in the beginning due to lack of in-person connection, but they were able to utilize video remote interpreting through mechanisms like Zoom and Google Meet to help people communicate. They also use a videophone, which Shimizu described as a very large phone, almost like a webcam but with its own phone number and runs on WiFi. Video, he said, makes it easier to communicate so they can sign faster instead of typing or emailing things out.

Following the Maui fires, Shimizu said Maui interpreters are on the ground going from shelter to shelter to see if people in the Deaf community needed interpreting.

Shimizu, who is 36 years old, said he enjoys working with older Deaf people around his parents’ or grandparents’ or godparents’ age, noting that younger kids and teenagers tend to use slang within ASL and make up new signs, and he sometimes doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

“The most important part of being an interpreter,” said Shimizu, “is providing that communication access.” He says that as a local person, he feels like it’s important to him to be there for the Deaf people who have lived on the islands all their life or have lived in Hawai‘i for a long time. “It’s almost like Pidgin, where you feel comfortable with somebody.”

Shimizu said he’s a typical local guy. He grew up racing and fixing-up cars with his dad, who worked as a mechanic for Nissan before becoming a postal worker. As early as he can remember, he was passing tools to his father as they worked on his dad’s classic reddish-orange 1967 Camaro, and later a light blue old Volkswagen bug. He recalls nights when his dad would let him drive around an empty park in Pearl City or around the block when he was 12. “We checked for traffic first,” he said with a laugh.

Shimizu also played volleyball since he was 13 and played in Pearl City’s Junior Varsity Volleyball team. Sometimes it was difficult to interact in sports. “Back then, the hearing aid wasn’t as great as it is now,” he said. “You had to take it off if it got wet because if the hearing aid gets wet it becomes dysfunctional and you have to let it dry.” He remembers once getting hit in the head with a volleyball and the hearing aid “just flew off.”

But Shimizu said once he got his driver’s license, he fell in love with mechanics and all he wanted to do was work on or race his car. Back in high school, his dad bought him a maroon Honda Civic, which he would race at Hawaii Raceway Park by Campbell Industrial Park. After high school, he followed that passion to Honolulu Community College and Leeward Community College, earning an associates in auto repair.

These days, Shimizu surfs, likes going to the beach and spends Sundays off-roading with his wife, Jaycia, and 6-year-old son, Lucas, at Ka‘ena Point and driving around in his Toyota 4Runner and Toyota Tacoma. “Typical Hawai‘i life,” he laughed.

Free time, however, is in short supply — during the week, he works at HIS in the mornings and at Pearl Harbor at night. His love for cars never wavered, and he spends a few hours one day a week working as a mechanic at MJ Motorsports in Waipio, lifting Toyotas and trucks.

When he’s not working or spending time with Jaycia, Lucas and godparents, he’s also learning Japanese Sign Language from a friend’s wife and Korean Sign Language from his boss at HIS.

“A lot of people assume that sign language is just general but it’s like a regular language, you know?” Shimizu said, explaining that just like Korean, Japanese and Chinese spoken languages each sound distinct, its sign language varies, too. “If you go to Australia, they have their own signs — everywhere is really different. I think it’s cool to learn.”

He explains that Japanese sign language, like the Japanese alphabet, combine letters like hiragana and katakana. For example, in ASL, he would sign each letter in Shimizu separately — fingerspelling seven different signs. But in JSL, he only needs to fingerspell three signs — shi, mi, zu. But, unlike spoken Japanese, with Japanese Sign Language, you don’t have to learn the Japanese words to understand the symbols.

Shimizu, with his wife, Jaycia, and son, Lucas. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)
Shimizu, with his wife, Jaycia, and son, Lucas. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)

Like Shimizu, Lucas’s first language was ASL. As early as three months, Shimizu would say “milk” and sign “milk” in ASL (opening and closing his fist a few times) and by eight months his son was communicating “milk” (and other signs) on his own.

Jaycia and Lucas are both hearing, and while they are still learning ASL, Shimizu often interprets for them with Deaf friends and family when they can’t translate a sign.

“[My son] cannot really express himself in sign language, but in some ways he can,” said Shimizu. “If other people are talking to him in sign language, he can understand, but then he’ll look at me and ask ‘Daddy, how do I sign this?’”

Shimizu said he used to wish he could be one or the other — totally hearing or totally Deaf, so he could fit in one world, but there’s nothing he would really change, because he can’t change being Hard of Hearing.

However, there’s one exception. In the multiverse where Shimizu is hearing, he would be a first responder — a firefighter, police officer or emergency medical technician. He said his boss at HIS tells him he’s like a first responder in his role as an interpreter and laughed and shrugged it off as he relayed the memory, but the two professions are really quite similar.

A first responder and language interpreter share common goals. A first responder is someone with specialized training who is the first to arrive at a scene and provides immediate assistance. An interpreter is someone with specialized training who facilitates communication and enables individuals to participate in various environments like meetings and medical appointments. An interpreter is someone who bridges communication gaps and promotes inclusivity by ensuring equal access to education, healthcare and social participation. In a way, a first responder and interpreter both are responsible for the protection and preservation of life.

Shimizu stressed the importance of learning ASL if you are a caregiver, parent or teacher of a Deaf child or student. “Learn sign language,” he said. “I strongly, strongly encourage that. Just learn to communicate with them.”

Shimizu said that even though learning ASL may be difficult, “if you know the basic fingerspelling, that’s great!” He said, “I look at my grandparents, and as they became older, they lost some of their hearing, but they know fingerspelling. So at least you have some form of communication.”

Shimizu said lately some doctors push cochlear implants — an electronic device surgically implanted under the skin that works with an external portion behind the ear that bypasses damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulates the auditory nerve. “I’m not totally against cochlear implants; I just don’t like when a parent forces it onto their kid if they’re Deaf or if they lost their hearing,” he said. “I think it should be the child’s decision when they grow up.”

Top to bottom: Shaun, Jaycia Shimizu, Grandma Elsie Shimizu, Cheryl Shimizu, Stanford Shimizu, Grandpa Stanley Shimizu, Uncle Eric Kimura, Aunty Iris Kimura.  Bottom row: Marie Shimizu, Lucas Shimizu, Sherry Shimizu.  (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)
Top to bottom: Shaun, Jaycia Shimizu, Grandma Elsie Shimizu, Cheryl Shimizu, Stanford Shimizu, Grandpa Stanley Shimizu, Uncle Eric Kimura, Aunty Iris Kimura. Bottom row: Marie Shimizu, Lucas Shimizu, Sherry Shimizu. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Shimizu)

He said sometimes parents will choose to go the cochlear implant route instead of learning sign language and it can affect the connection parents have with kids. “I talk with a lot of kids whose parents are hearing. They want to be in school all day until they have to go home and sleep because when they go home, they don’t get to interact with their own parents.”

Shimizu said sometimes parents would communicate with “home sign” and ask surface-level questions like “you want to eat? “You know that’s not the same communication; there’s no real interaction or a deep conversation.”

Language is a mechanism that binds and unites. Language gives us the freedom to express ourselves and to find human connection. Just as sharing language is a chance to create stronger bonds, an interpreter fills in communication gaps, bringing together what may otherwise remain separate.

Shimizu said one of his favorite things about spending time with his son is just communicating with him. And as a lifelong interpreter, in the middle of the hearing and Deaf world, but nevertheless a connector between those worlds, communication is something he doesn’t take for granted.

For more information about Hawai‘i Interpreting Services, please visit its website at


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