There wasn’t much time for Monica McGee to prepare Saturday afternoon. New information was coming in too fast, flood waters rising too quickly, roads closing too precipitously. Sometimes, when McGee stands to Roy Cooper’s left during emergency press conferences and interprets the governor’s words into American Sign Language, she knows what’s coming. Saturday, she had to wing it.
Her fingers whirled as she spelled out roads and cities and counties, trying to keep up with Cooper and the other officials who spoke at the hastily scheduled briefing, called as interstate traffic was being detoured around the entire state because of the worsening flooding.
“This one was draining,” McGee said afterward. “Spelling all of the counties associated with each river, that part of it tired me out early on, more so than normal. I did the best I could.”
McGee’s sign-language interpretation and the dramatic facial expressions and contortions of her upper body that go with it have made her something of a storm celebrity during Hurricane Florence, a performance as incomprehensible as it is mesmerizing to most but absolutely essential to a deaf and hard-of-hearing community that uses ASL as a first language and numbers in the hundreds of thousands in North Carolina.
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Her television appearances next to Cooper, and Pat McCrory before him, are actually a very small but very important part of her job. McGee works for the state Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, interpreting for state employees. When a hurricane or an ice storm descends, she takes her very visible position next to the governor.
A native of Morganton, McGee grew up signing, the hearing child of two deaf parents. It became her career after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sign-language interpretation from UNC Greensboro’s Professions in Deafness program in 2008, the only one of its kind in the southeast. She’s now one of 561 ASL interpreters in the state licensed by the North Carolina Interpreters and Transliterators Licensing Board.
At these public briefings, she is actually part of a team of two, with another state interpreter, Lee Williamson, in the audience feeding her information via ASL if she falls behind. Williamson fills in at the podium sometimes, but having a regular presence for both the public and the public officials is an important part of the process.
“Having a consistent interpreter on the stage been most successful piece of this collaboration,” Williamson said. “On the governor’s team, every person on that stage knows Monica on first-name basis and that helps with us getting the information we need to interpret. They’re all busy people.”
The McCrory administration was the first to allow an interpreter on camera during emergency briefings, and there were some bumps to start. Television broadcasts would cut away from the podium, or show questioners during Q&A, leaving deaf viewers without needed information. Those issues have been fixed, and advocates for the deaf and hard-of-hearing say McGee’s work is essential during dangerous times.
It’s a considerable audience: State officials say there are more than 1.3 million people in North Carolina with some kind of hearing loss, and 20 percent of them use ASL. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 139,217 people in the state aged 18-64 with a hearing disability in 2016. Even in an era of instant closed-captioning, ASL is the best way to communicate with that community.
“For many deaf people, ASL is their primary language,” Craig Blevins, president of the North Carolina Association of the Deaf, said via a telephone interpreter. “Some of them may not read English, or possibly move here and not understand English. But they pick up ASL, and the interpreter on the screen can get them the information that way. Captions are beneficial as well, but definitely the deaf and hard of hearing approve of having the interpreters there for these press conferences. We appreciate it so much.”
While McGee’s expressions and twisting contortions have made her a minor celebrity, that’s not an affectation: ASL uses the entire upper body to convey emotion and emphasis, not merely the hands. Even McGee’s dark clothing has a specific purpose. While it helps her to blend in at the podium, it also creates contrast with her hands for the deaf-blind who have some visual acuity and can pick up her light hands moving against the dark background.
It is both a physical and mental challenge. This storm, with its rapid developments and longish name – she has to spell out Florence each time the hurricane is mentioned – has been a particularly tough one, but live interpretation of emergency information is difficult by nature.
“It’s hard on my hands and my arms and my shoulders and mentally – mentally, especially,” McGee said. “You’re going from English to ASL to English, and I’m trying to convey the two and having to elaborate on a concept in ASL while memorizing what’s happening in English and listening and trying to process mentally the concepts that I’m hearing.”
There are rewards, though: The appreciation of her family and others in the deaf community both inside and outside the state. This storm in particular, with its national spotlight, has brought more attention from elsewhere than normal. For people outside North Carolina, McGee may even be more recognizable than Cooper at this point.
“She’s kind of been the person everyone’s expecting to see,” Williamson said. “I joke that it seems like people are disappointed when it’s me.”