When Jason Hurdich served as an interpreter for former Gov. Nikki Haley’s press conferences during Hurricane Matthew, he was told he’d have to quiet down.
Apparently, his American Sign Language was just a tad too loud.
“After the first press conference was over, somebody came up to me and said, ‘Jason, you’re loud,'” Hurdich said, speaking in ASL. His friend, Heather Knight, sat in on the interview to interpret his sentiments into English.
“The sign for ‘school’ is a clapping motion, and the governor — she wasn’t distracted, but you could tell that she was startled,” Hurdich said. “So then my coordinator came up to me and said, ‘You’ve got to sign soft.’ And from then on, everything went smoothly.”
Hurdich, 43, became somewhat of an online sensation for his expressive signing when he was brought on to convey the severity of the storm to South Carolina’s Deaf and hard-of-hearing residents. Haley later called Hurdich, who is South Carolina’s only Certified Deaf Interpreter, a “rock star” and thanked him for his dedication.
“Jason Hurdich has become a rock star, and so I want to personally thank you for all that you’ve done,” Haley said during a press conference last year.
Later this month, he’ll continue his service in South Carolina as he begins teaching as a lecturer of American Sign Language at Clemson University.
When Hurricane Matthew became a threat to South Carolinians in October 2016, Haley contacted the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department to request an interpreter. Hurdich, who was working at SCVRD at the time, stepped up to the task.
As a Deaf individual himself, ASL was Hurdich’s first language. Many people misunderstand ASL and believe it’s an extension of English, when in reality, the two are very different.
“There’s a significant portion of our community that may not understand that ASL does have a structure and follows specific rules,” Hurdich said, adding that ASL is essentially a foreign language, just like French or Spanish.
Misconceptions of that nature fostered the online response to Hurdich’s use of ASL, he explained.
Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who may only speak ASL, or who may have limited comprehension of written English, rely on facial expressions and body language in communication — much like a hearing individual would listen for intonation and emotion for added context.
“There are many Deaf individuals that don’t have the ability to read English, or struggle to comprehend big concepts within their second language,” Hurdich said. “So my goal, really when I interpret, is a monolingual aspect to interpreting to fit the needs of individuals that use ASL as their primary method of communication.”
During those press conferences, Hurdich would look to a team of two interpreters sitting off camera who were relaying Haley’s words back to him. He’d then sign what she was saying on camera as quickly as he could, keeping in mind Deaf individuals who were watching would need to understand the intensity of the situation.
“For example, the possibility of a storm surge while driving — the sign for this is water over a car. So Deaf people see that and they’re like, ‘Oh! Maybe I should leave, I don’t want that,'” Hurdich said. “Some interpreters might just finger spell ‘storm surge, be careful.’ It really depends on the skill of the interpreter, so I would know the visual component would be required to help them understand that water can go over your car, so you need to leave.”
Hurdich, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Boston University and a master’s degree in interpreting from the University of North Florida, has been a professor and lecturer at various universities for the past two decades. Soon after his work with Haley, he learned of a job opportunity at Clemson and decided to apply.
“It’s the only four-year interpreting bachelor’s degree program in the state,” Hurdich said. “After the hurricane, I realized that interpreters, we as a community, are struggling to meet the needs of the Deaf community in terms of service. My heart is with and for the Deaf community.”
There’s a nationwide shortage of interpreters, Hurdich said, estimating that South Carolina has around 65 certified sign language interpreters. In North Carolina, that number is around 120, and in Georgia it’s about 200.
Stephen Fitzmaurice is Clemson’s ASL section head and an assistant professor of interpreting. Addressing the demand for sign language interpreters in South Carolina is a mission Clemson is happy to embrace.
The program has about 25 students majoring in ASL, and has a track dedicated to K-12 educational interpreting for students who would like to work as interpreters in a public school system.
“One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that ASL is English on the hands. ASL is its own distinct language, and as part of that, language is so deeply rooted in culture,” Fitzmaurice said. “We teach them the interpreting skills so they can work with Deaf and hard-of-hearing children in public schools. Public schools have a grave need for interpreters right now.”
Bringing on Hurdich was important for the department to keep up with its growing popularity, Fitzmaurice said.
“We’re so excited to have Jason come join us because he’s a not only a star in his own right, but he’s also an outstanding educator,” Fitzmaurice said. “He’s special because it’s really, really difficult to find someone who has fluency in ASL, has a graduate degree and is an amazing teacher.”
Hurdich joins three other faculty members in the department, all of whom are deaf or hard-of-hearing, with the exception of Fitzmaurice. In 2010, Clemson began offering ASL as a major and remains the only four-year college in South Carolina to do so, Fitzmaurice said.
Though Hurdich not new to the world of higher education by any means, he’s looking forward to the new role he’ll have in developing South Carolina’s future interpreting workforce, Hurdich said.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity to work at Clemson,” Hurdich said. “My goal here at Clemson is to not only be a part of improving the overall quality of interpreters working in educational or any other setting, but to ensure I still continue my bond with the Deaf community.”