As a child, Michael Spencer Albert never knew how important his hands would be one day as an interpreter for the deaf community. He was born in Edgewater Hospital and grew up in Skokie.
In college, he majored in psychology at the University of Illinois. When he needed some elective credits, he took a sign-language class for fun. The following summer he started an internship with the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C. He found a deaf person looking for a roommate in a personal ad and lived with him for a year; this was during the student protests in 1988 at Gallaudet surrounding the appointment of I. King Jordan, a deaf university president. Seeing the empowerment in the deaf community sparked an interest in Albert to move in that direction for his career.
After working on his masters at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, he took a leave of absence from psychology and took an interpreter training class at Western Oregon University instead.
He began working the Chicago Hearing Society ( CHS ) in July 1998, and still does to this day. CHS is a division of the Anixter Center, an organization that services people with disabilities and challenges. He translates for hospitals, lawyers, meetings and conferences on a regular basis. In the past, Albertwho is out and proudhas appeared at Pride festivals and Market Days.
He has garnered much local media attention recentlyespecially for signing during Gov. Pritzker's COVID-19 press conferencesbut said he wants the focus to remain on the virus and community.
Windy City Times: Has all this attention been overwhelming?
Michael Albert: Yes. In a time of a crisis, it is good to have something else to focus on to take their mind off of constant barrage of bad news. Interpreters can give people something else to look at. I have been there every single day since the beginning of Gov. Pritzker's press conferences. It has been challenging.
WCT: What do you like about working for the Chicago Hearing Society?
MA: Any interpreting that I do that generates revenue is going to other people that are deaf and hard of hearing, also to youth services and domestic violence survivors or victims of crime. There are a lot of services that are supported by our work. It's one of the things that has kept me loyal to that agency. There's not been a moment where I regretted devoting my career to them.
WCT: How difficult is technical sign language?
MA: Sign language is like any other language. When technical innovations arrive or slang comes around, languages struggle to adapt to that. For example, when "email" came out, there were several signs for [that term]. Over time, the deaf community arrived at a certain sign that would be generally accepted.
Same for the word "transgender"it was decided at a transgender conference what would be the most appropriate sign.
Sometimes it happens more organically by sharing information among deaf people and agreeing on a sign. With technical terms like "coronavirus," it's a broad term and means a lot of different things.
WCT: So things are always evolving?
MA: It's an evolving language. If I'm interpreting at a conference of medical professionals, I will translate it much differently than if I am describing it to an 80-year-old grandmother going to a doctor's appointment. If I spell out the letters "EKG," they may not know what that means, so I have explain how it's attached to someone's body and I may draw the jagged heartbeat pattern. I really try to match my client.
It's very complicated, especially at these press conferences with a variety of clients out there that I can't see. I am trying to use sign language that is the most accessible to the greatest number of people.
WCT: Do you ever want to ask Pritzker to slow down?
MA: Pritzker is a very well-paced speaker. I have really been impressed the last few weeks with his leadership. When he speaks with passion, I try to convey this in my interpretation. He speaks with anger at the government sometimes and speaks with empathy for the citizens of Illinois. Backstage, I can see this isn't just lip service. He is really stepping it up.
WCT: Do you spend much time with the speakers before going on TV?
MA: The governor and Illinois Department Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike generally come in at the last minute. I've exchanged pleasantries, but I was flattered and touched that he recognized me publicly.
I do have time when we are backstage with other people, and they are sometimes nice to share their notes with me about what they are going to say.
WCT: Do you hear from people on social media about the job you are doing?
MA: I am hearing from a lot of people. There are comments that I have stopped reading. There are hearing people that have said a lot of wonderful things. I take their comments with a grain of salt, because they don't know the language.
What bolsters me to continue [are] the wonderful comments from the deaf community and the support from my fellow interpreting colleagues.
Chicago is a unique place with a supportive interpreting community and a deaf community that collaborates with us pretty well. I've seen other cities where interpreters were divisive. This whole recent experience has made me incredibly proud.
WCT: How did you prepare to be on TV with wardrobe?
MA: Stores were closing. I don't do a lot of dressy work, maybe a bar mitzvah or a funeral. I had four colors of dress shirts and now this press conference is going on every day. I try to mix and match.
WCT: What was your favorite concert to sign?
MA: My favorite was Olivia Newton-John, at Market Days.
Music interpreting is controversial in our field. There are interpreters who differ philosophically on how we should handle music.
I want to embody the rhythm and give the lyrics. If Eric Clapton is doing a guitar solo, then I just turn toward him and watch him. In the modern music interpretation world, some will relish a pitch or show instrumentation. I think that looks like an air guitar and not the approach that I care to take. It draws focus from the artist to me. Some deaf people love it, though. You may have seen some of those interpreters go viral.
WCT: What's your new favorite word to sign?
MA: "Coronavirus." "Pandemic" has also become very popular. I combine the sign for disease and spreading out an area.
WCT: What do you recommend for aspiring interpreters?
MA: Find deaf people and interact with them. Like any language, you are only going to learn it with native users of the language. People can study books, but there are a variety of styles to learn. They do have to go to school and learn the professional standards and ethical code that we abide by. To become certified you have to have a bachelors degree, but not necessarily in interpreting.
WCT: What trends do you see for interpreters?
MA: There's a shift in my profession for video remote work. We provide interpreting services to computers. College students are learning from home so we provide that service for them.
WCT: What can you tell people about the LGBTQ deaf community?
MA: They are like everyone else. Some have hearing partners, some of them have deaf partners and some have no partners. I think Chicago has the same amount as anywhere else. People just notice them more when they are in a group signing at the bars. It is very diverse here, just like the rest of the gay community.
WCT: What's a common misunderstanding between the deaf and hearing communities?
MA: "Hearing-impaired" is not used anymore. It's okay to say "deaf" and "hard of hearing," but "hearing-impaired" makes the deaf community bristle. The description "hearing-impaired" was invented by hearing people saying that someone is broken and that's all they are. "Deaf" is a cultural identification and the community finds using "hearing-impaired" as diminishing.
"Deaf and dumb" or "deaf-mute" are also irritating terms, so don't use themever!
For more information on CHS, visit ChicagoHearingSociety.org .