For 21 years, Michael Albert has worked as a staff sign language interpreter for Chicago Hearing Services.
He translates small business meetings and large conferences into American Sign Language. He accompanies deaf and hearing-impaired patients to medical appointments and translates their doctors’ questions and advice. He joins them at their social service appointments and makes sure they understand the resources available to them.
Earlier this month, when it became clear the coronavirus pandemic was going to warrant frequent, televised communication from Illinois officials, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office contacted Chicago Hearing Services, or CHS, and requested a sign language interpreter to translate press conferences.
CHS sent Albert.
Now, when you tune into Pritzker’s daily press briefings, Albert is the one you see gracefully and emphatically translating crucial guidance, directives and compassion from Pritzker, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike and various other experts.
He has become a bit of a celebrity, albeit a reluctant one. He’s hearing from friends and acquaintances and members of the deaf community who are grateful for his work. He sees the tweets that critique his outfits. He watches the public weigh in on social media about which TV character he most resembles. (“I learned this week that I look like Screech from ‘Saved By The Bell,’” he told me.)
He’s grateful for the support. He shrugs off the petty stuff. He’s bewildered, a little, to be part of the public narrative right now.
“Any attention being paid to me is misplaced,” he told me Sunday.
I tracked Albert down through a series of press people for Pritzker, who eventually connected me with CHS, who passed along my email to Albert. We spoke by phone before Sunday’s press briefing.
“My only goal is to get a clear and accurate message to an audience,” he said. “All this extra stuff -- comments about me, interviews, all of this -- it’s just beside the point. I can’t emphasize enough that this is really about a health crisis and a community that needs information.”
I agree. And yet, I think his presence is a powerful, daily reminder of all the different ways we are experiencing this crisis. All different humans with all different needs, skills, gifts, talents, challenges and fears, brought together under terrifying circumstances. But brought together, nonetheless.
There is beauty in Albert’s rapid-fire translations. His hands, of course, do the bulk of the work. But his facial expressions and body language underscore the emotional and physical stakes in the messages he’s conveying. In American Sign Language, eye, mouth and body movements are essential grammar, serving as adjectives and adverbs and modifiers.
“It’s a balance,” he said. “I have historically been a relatively expressive interpreter, on the continuum. However, if we’re kind of going overboard on the expressiveness and the speaker is very stoic, that’s actually distracting from the speaker and not necessarily as effective as it could be.”
The public, he said, sometimes seizes on the visual paradox between restrained public officials and their more spirited translators.
He brought up Lydia Callis, the sign language interpreter for now-former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during Hurricane Sandy. Callis’ translations inspired YouTube tributes, a Tumblr page and a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
“Mayor Bloomberg was saying very powerful and very dramatic things, but very stoically, as he’s wont to do,” Albert said. “She was getting that information to a deaf community through a language that is much more expressive than spoken English.”
Remarks by Pritzker, Albert said, often call for an emotional translation.
“He speaks a lot about his anger with the federal government and his compassion for people who are suffering,” Albert said.
Still, he repeated, it’s a balance.
“I’m not a native user of American Sign Language,” he said. “For deaf people, this is their native language. We are interpreters, earning a living off their language and, in a sense, off their backs, and it’s important to always be mindful of that.
“This is not my language. This is not my culture. This is me trying to bridge two cultures: the hearing culture and the deaf culture. That is a big responsibility, and our goal is to try to keep ourselves out of that process and make the communication happen.”
Albert, who grew up in Skokie, took his first sign language class in 1987 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his undergraduate degree. The following year, he moved to Washington, D.C., for an internship, and answered a classified ad for a roommate who was deaf.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I know sign language,’” Albert said. “‘That will be fun.’”
That roommate was a student at Gallaudet University, a liberal arts college for deaf and hearing-impaired students, and that year (1988) was a watershed moment for deaf and disability rights. Gallaudet students staged massive protests demanding the university hire a deaf president, something it hadn’t done since its 1864 founding. The protests became known as the Deaf President Now movement, and they’re credited with helping pass the Americans With Disabilities Act. (And Gallaudet hired a deaf president, Dr. I. King Jordan.)
“It was kind of like the Stonewall riots for the deaf community,” Albert said. “I lived through that with my roommate, and that just sparked a lot of interest.”
Albert went on to earn a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, but he continued to feel called to serve the deaf community.
“I took interpreter training, and I never looked back,” he said.
He has worked and studied in Oregon, Arkansas and Georgia. He moved back to the Chicago area in 1998 to be closer to family and now lives in Edgewater.
“This is difficult,” he said of his press conference gig. “I’ve been honored with the role and very mindful of the responsibility. The information is critical. It’s literally life or death.”
But, Albert is careful to add quickly, that is also the case for many, many other people’s jobs right now.
“There are interpreters out there right now going to medical appointments with people,” he said. “Health care workers, the clerk in my store who just gave me a half-pound of turkey and risked their life doing it. It’s amazing.”
It is amazing. All of it. We should never lose sight of the lengths we’re witnessing our fellow humans go to in order to help one another through a deadly pandemic. The acts of courage and kindness and solidarity and ingenuity and grace. It will all be, I hope, part of the story that gets told, for years to come, alongside the destruction and grief this virus has caused -- and will continue to cause.
Albert is one of those humans whose work and gifts and courage are lighting our way. It shouldn’t go unremarked upon, even if he’s uninterested in accolades.
So a humble thank you, from one Chicagoan to another, for serving your city and embodying what’s true and unpretentious and beautiful about it.
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Heidi Stevens writes for the Chicago Tribune.
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