The role that made Jason Hurdich famous happened by accident.
Hurdich, who was born deaf, had just moved to South Carolina to work for the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Department when Hurricane Matthew began forming off the Caribbean coast.
The storm left a trail of destruction, battering Haiti and Cuba as a Category 4 hurricane before turning north toward Cape Canaveral, Florida. When it became clear that the system was headed toward the Carolinas, Hurdich’s boss told him to pack a bag. Then Gov. Nikki Haley had just declared a state of emergency, and Hurdich was needed at a press conference in Columbia.
“I had no idea what to expect going into it,” Hurdich says, speaking through an interpreter on a recent Friday afternoon. “They just kind of threw me into the fire.”
At the time, Hurdich was — and still is — the only Certified Deaf Interpreter in the state, and one of only 231 in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, a membership organization for the profession.
“South Carolina had never had a CDI anywhere or at any press conference in all of South Carolina history, so this was really the first time they were welcoming a CDI to the stage in the state,” Hurdich says.
Even now, interpreters who are deaf are still extremely rare. Compared to hearing interpreters, CDIs must undergo a series of rigorous tests and many hours of training to become certified. CDIs are specifically trained to interpret for deaf patients who may have a limited understanding of American Sign Language, relying on facial expressions and body language to convey emotion and context and enhance communication.
Using a thumbs up or thumbs down symbol may show a question is being asked. Shaking your head “no” while making a wide sweeping motion with your hands might convey an action that should be avoided (like socializing during the coronavirus outbreak).
To interpret in real time, Hurdich relies on a hearing ASL interpreter in the audience, who then signs the speaker’s words to him.
“In regular ASL you could sign ‘don’t,’ but the severity isn’t there. When I sign it the way I do, it makes a greater impact on how much we need to not socialize,” Hurdich says.
Becoming a rock star
Of his first day on the job as interpreter for Haley, Hurdich says: “Everything that could go wrong did.”
The room was hot and cramped. He had packed the wrong clothes; his jacket was too short. He knew almost nothing about South Carolina geography or the names of counties and cities. And he had no idea what “DHEC” was.
“I did my job, but I wasn’t sure of all the meaning behind everything I was saying,” Hurdich says, smiling at the memory.
The following day, Hurdich says he was told the Governor’s Office wanted to replace him because he was too loud.
It turned out that Hurdich, who had been positioned next to Haley’s microphone, had distracted the governor each time he signed the word for “school,” which involves a clapping motion.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m deaf, how do I sign quieter?’” Hurdich says. “It was a learning process, but ever since then, things have been good.”
By the end of the week, he had earned his own fan base and become an online sensation for his expressive signing.
Haley even thanked Hurdich on camera, calling him a “rock star” at the end of one press conference.
“I want to personally thank you for all that you’ve done. Not only do you have a major fan base, but you have made your South Carolinians very proud, and for that we are grateful,” she said.
Hurdich signed back: “Thank you.”
Born and raised in New York City, Hurdich moved to Greenville in 2017 and now teaches ASL at Clemson University.
He learned of the program soon after his work with Haley and decided to apply. According to Hurdich, it’s the only four-year interpreting bachelor’s degree program in the state. He also interprets for the city of Greenville and has become a familiar presence at the weekly press conferences the city hosts to provide updates on the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked why he decided to become an interpreter, Hurdich says: “I believe everyone should have full communication access.They need to have access to information and be able to enjoy the world around them. Growing up, I was really fortunate. I had a good education. I had great schools. I was very lucky to have all that, so I want to be able to give back to the [deaf] community.”
Teaching at Clemson is another way to do that.
“I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a teacher, but a lot of people believed in it,” Hurdich says. “I guess people saw something in me to be able to become that.”