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445th Airlift Wing med tech brings shows to life with sign language

  • Published
  • By Capt. Rachel Ingram
  • 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Master Sgt. Michelle Lee, medical technician, welcomes new members to the 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron each month, acting as a bridge between technical training school and the Air Force mission in action. Long before she ever joined the Air Force Reserve, however, she was serving as a bridge to connect other groups of people in the community.

She was first exposed to American Sign Language as a fourth grader. Later, she enrolled in an introduction to deaf culture course at Sinclair Community College.

“That class opened my eyes to the culture, the people, all the nuances and levels to it,” she said. “I realized that there’s so much more to the deaf community than just some signs.”

In spring 2004, as a freshman at Sinclair, Lee joined the Disney College Program—a three-month internship at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Still a teenager and unsure of what she wanted to major in, she had only completed general education courses and was assigned to work in the merchandise department at the amusement park.

Not long into the internship, Lee witnessed an event which she credits with altering the trajectory of her life.

“I’ll never forget this,” she recalled. “I was at one of the Lion King shows at Disney, and there was a little girl, dressed in a Minnie Mouse costume, who was signing along with the interpreter at the show.”

Lee said the girl was bobbing up and down, her gaze locked onto the sign language interpreter’s movements.

“Just seeing that child not be excluded from something so magical—that was the moment when I made the decision to become an interpreter,” Lee said.

She completed the internship and returned to Ohio to finish her degree program at Sinclair.

Upon graduation and confident of her next steps, she promptly moved to Orlando and rejoined the Walt Disney World team, this time as one of approximately 15 theatrically-trained ASL interpreters. The rigorous Disney training included drills to control muscle movements, refining minute details of each sign, and perfecting facial expressions, she explained.

“Music is poetry, but English poetry and sign language poetry are two different things,” the nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter said.

As part of her tenure at Disney, Lee interpreted for a number of musical plays, Disney on Ice performances, and various concerts across the eastern United States. Her cumulative interpreting experience includes performances featuring Eminem, Blake Shelton, and New Kids on the Block with Boyz II Men and Paula Abdul.

“I’m trained for theatrical interpretation. When you’re interpreting a play or a show, you have to absorb their characterizations and personality traits, and show the character through your movements,” she said. “It’s like dancing.” Throughout the course of a show, Lee said she is constantly monitoring her posture, facial expressions, and body language. “All of those little details make a difference,” she explained.

For nine years, Lee lived in Orlando and worked seasonally at Disney, as well as on various cruise lines to provide ASL interpretation for vacationing guests. Her services not only allowed those individuals to participate in the recreational activities available to everyone else, she also provided a critical safety function in case of an emergency on the cruise ship.

Since moving back to Ohio, she earned a Bachelor of Science in sign language interpreting from University of Cincinnati and is now in the final semester of a Master of Arts in adult education program at Capella University.

In 2019, she joined the faculty at Fairborn High School, her alma mater. Still on faculty there, she helped pilot the ASL program, which is now in its fourth year.

“The program is flourishing,” she said. “We hired a second teacher and we still have waitlists.”

The high school now offers ASL levels one, two, three and four, and College Credit Plus, Ohio’s dual enrollment program for college credit.

Their levels three and four honors classes, which Lee teaches, incorporate community outreach events with DWAVE, an Ohio nonprofit, and local elementary schools. The high school students also learn to interpret the national anthem at sporting events and other public events.

“Being able to pilot the ASL program there [at Fairborn High School] has been full circle for me,” she said.

When she isn’t teaching classes at the high school or community college, or serving in the 445th ASTS, Lee also works as an interpreter for live musical performances in Ohio, like “Hamilton” at the Schuster Center in February 2022.

As a medical technician in the Air Force Reserve, Lee is American Heart Association certified to provide CPR training to groups. She has used this certification to provide CPR training to the deaf community, which offers a direct line of communication between the instructor and the trainees taking the course, rather than secondhand instruction through an interpreter relaying information from a trainer.

“As an interpreter, my goal is to make sure things are accessible to the entire community,” Lee said. “I want to do them justice.”

(No Federal endorsement intended)