Michael Albert at a press conference for Governor Pritzker. Credit: Fox 32

Pandemic celebrity is a weird thing—anyone who isn’t a raging sociopath doesn’t relish the idea of becoming famous for doing their job in the midst of a global catastrophe. But for Michael Albert, last week brought a tsunami of media attention. As the American Sign Language interpreter for Governor J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s press conferences on the COVID-19 crisis, Albert caught the eye of everyone from Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens to WGN Radio’s John Williams to WBBM Newsradio. (There is a video of him signing “coronavirus” on the WBBM website.) He also became a hot topic of conversation on social media, and I’m willing to bet that if Halloween actually happens this year, somebody will go as Albert.

I know Albert socially—we have a mutual friend who hosts a fabulous Labor Day barbecue and a New Year’s Day open house every year. (Turns out, we also both did some acting with Andy Dick in our college days; me at Columbia College Chicago, Albert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he first studied ASL.)

As he pointed out to Stevens, interpreters don’t often take the spotlight; an exception is Lydia Callis, who interpreted for then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg when New York City was under siege from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and subsequently became the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch starring Cecily Strong as Callis. Marlee Matlin, the deaf actor who won an Oscar for her performance in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, took exception to the parody on Twitter. “Millions of deaf people use sign. Why poke fun/fake it? Poke fun at ME but not the language. Would they do that to Spanish or Chinese? FAIL,” she wrote.

And there are also, as Albert tells me, “interpreters who aren’t really interpreters who achieve notoriety because they’re doing so poorly.” Example: Thamsanqa Jantjie, the interpreter who signed while standing next to President Obama and other dignitaries at the 2013 funeral of former South African president Nelson Mandela. His work was dismissed by (among many others) Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman to be elected to the South African parliament, as “rubbish.”

As he has been careful to point out in all the interviews he’s done, Albert reminds me that he is himself not deaf, and the attention paid to him “gets problematic. And the reason it gets problematic is because this language is not our language, the interpreter’s language. It is the language of the Deaf community.” (Albert notes that “people who are members of what we consider Deaf culture prefer it be spelled with a capital ‘D.'”)

Albert has worked as an ASL interpreter with the Chicago Hearing Society for over 20 years. CHS was founded in 1916, and according to its website, its original mission was “promotion of social intercourse among its members” along with providing “assistance for the deaf and hard of hearing in the matter of procuring and retaining employment,” and “promotion of an interest in lip-reading.”

Michelle Mendiola, manager of community outreach and advocacy for CHS, notes that the current mission for the organization is spread among three groups: the audiology services department; interpreter services, where Albert works; and her department, which encompasses everything from assistance with taxes to helping deaf and hard of hearing people who have been victims of domestic violence and identity theft. They also offer youth programs and assistance for parents of children with hearing loss.

The COVID-19 shutdown has affected how CHS provides those services, but they are still assisting clients; for example, clients who use hearing aids can still drop them off for repair through the audiology department, and audiologists are still available through appointment. Mendiola adds, “Our COA staff transitioned to virtual communication [with clients] through e-mail, videophone, texting, FaceTime, Google Duo, as much as possible. If it requires, for example, [going to] court, we will meet the client in person.” 

Providing interpreters for medical appointments is also one of the services CHS offers. Mendiola says, “We have one client who was impacted by COVID-19. They had not tested for whether they had it or not, because they were not high risk. But the client is very concerned, and we gave them all the information in American Sign Language and explained what they need to do to stay quarantined.”

Although Albert has not yet interpreted for any families facing decisions around COVID-19, he says that he has been present for “things like funerals and end-of-life discussions.” Those can take an emotional toll. “My father had died about a year before,” says Albert, recalling one such discussion. “I remember leaving that room and calling my brother and crying.”

As for the attention that interpreters get for their own perceived emotionality while working, Albert says, “It’s always our goal as an interpreter to match our speaker in affect in addition to active interpretation of content.” For Lightfoot, Albert describes her style as “very matter of fact. What you see is what you get with her. So yeah, I think we try to embody something of the speaker in our interpretation to the extent that we can. The information at these press conferences involves factual kinds of stuff for the most part, although Governor Pritzker has become emotional in his anger at the president and in his anger at the federal government’s lack of response.”

Albert also says, “I think the media, the visual media, has become much more aware than I’ve ever seen before through this crisis. The interpreters need to be in the frame the entire time. Usually what happens is the TV [camera] will pan out and show the interpreter, but then they’ll focus again on the speaker, they’ll come out again for a minute, and then go back in. And in this crisis, they’ve been staying on the interpreter the entire time.”

That commitment to full and effective communication with the deaf and hard of hearing should always be present, but the current pandemic raises the stakes. Mendiola notes that it’s important for service providers to know what their clients who are deaf or hard of hearing require ahead of time, whether it’s an ASL interpreter or extra time to make sure that the client has received all the information they need.

“We do, for example, get a lot of complaints that [health-care facilities] don’t provide interpreters for COVID-19, and it’s kind of sticky,” says Mendiola. “We do have some interpreters who are willing to be on standby if needed. But it’s important that the hearing people—the doctors, the health-care providers, social providers—meet the deaf communication needs.”  v

To request an interpreter or to inquire about other services available through CHS, call 773-248-9121 or 773-904-0154 (videophone), or visit chicagohearingsociety.org.