Sign-language interpreter honored by mayor

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

Mayor Greg Fischer recognized Norma Lewis on March 12 during a taping of "Mass of the Air." (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)
Mayor Greg Fischer recognized Norma Lewis on March 12 during a taping of “Mass of the Air.” (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)

If you watch “Mass of the Air” or even catch it occasionally on WHAS television on Sunday mornings, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Norma Lewis. Her image appears in the corner of your screen, her hands gesturing in swift graceful motions as Mass is celebrated on the big screen.

The 91-year-old Lewis has been interpreting for hearing impaired Mass viewers since the local program began airing 37 years ago.

Last week, she was honored for her service to the hearing impaired by Louisville Metro Mayor Greg Fischer.

He surprised her with a plaque on March 12 at the Ursuline Motherhouse Chapel, during the taping of a Mass set to air on the last Sunday of Lent.

“The city is so proud of Ms. Lewis,” said the mayor as he presented the award. “She has been such a hero for so many years.”

The citation reads, in part, “Norma Lewis has helped the spoken word come alive for countless individuals. … A grateful community honors her service which was always offered with a huge smile and an optimistic attitude.”

The pronouncement notes her decades of service interpreting for people in the court system, for Catholic worshippers, patients, students and voters.

“You need to let them keep their dignity so they can participate in the world with equal access to communication,” Lewis says, very pointedly, when asked about her service to people with hearing impairments.

She has also met some interesting people. She interpreted for President Bill Clinton when he visited Louisville; she accompanied Robert Kennedy to Appalachia; she interpreted for Ross Perot when he was campaigning and she has interpreted for Romano Mazzoli — who, by the way, she says is one of her heroes.

Norma Lewis, signing during "Mass of the Air." (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)
Norma Lewis, signing during “Mass of the Air.” (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)

Despite her age, Lewis drives and continues to work full time. She’s the type of person who smiles as a habit and means it. She also cracks jokes and does impressions at every chance.

That’s part of her outlook on life, she said: “I have to laugh so I don’t cry. I’ve always said that and I will until the day I die.”

Her life wasn’t easy, she explained during an interview at her home March 14, but her sense of service, of wanting to help other people, surfaced early on.

Her work with the deaf community began when she was a child, interpreting for her aunt and uncle, who raised her in Connecticut. The couple were deaf, and young Norma — who was somewhere in the range of 9- to 11-years-old when she went to live with them — began to learn their language. She accompanied them to all sorts of appointments, she said, and interpreted the priest’s homilies for them after Mass.

At age 19, she responded like other young people of her generation to a nation in need. She set aside her language skills and joined the United States Navy during World War II. She worked in intelligence — tracking submarines from a base in Charleston, S.C.

Lewis wouldn’t use her language skills professionally until much later — when she moved to Louisville in the 1960s.

She began by interpreting for deaf and hearing impaired students who previously had limited access to higher education. She earned $4 an hour, she said.

In the intervening years, Lewis noted, legislation drastically improved services and access for deaf and hearing impaired people. And she’s thankful that she’s been there to help.

Lewis said she sees her skill as a gift.

“My life has taken a wonderful turn that I could do so much for so many,” she said. “That’s a gift. I will share this gift ‘til I drop dead.”

She is particularly happy that she could volunteer for Mass of the Air — which reaches a large audience in Central and Southern Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

“I’m so happy that I can do this,” she said. “I never thought something like this would happen for the deaf.”

Father Nick Rice, executive director of Mass of the Air, said the gift she shares with viewers is invaluable.

“She is a woman of deep joy and faith and absolute commitment to serving the deaf community,” he said. “She has experienced great challenge in her own life and has faced it all with great joy and the enthusiasm of a teenager.

“She has what we call body transcendence,” he added. “Her spirit is stronger than her body. If her body is giving her aches and pains, her spirit transcends that.”

Lewis, a member of St. Stephen Martyr Church, said she intends to keep interpreting for as long as her body will let her.

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8 replies on “Sign-language interpreter honored by mayor”
  1. says: Melissa

    Great article but the author did not do his research on politically correct words, hearing impaired is not the way you call us deaf population. Use deaf or hard of hearing or deaf population.

  2. says: Row Holloway

    congratulations Norma! You deserve this so much and have been an inspiration to so many people. You will live on forever!!! Love you so much!

  3. says: Bruce Finkbone

    Well deserved recognition! Norma, you were my inspiration and first mentor in the field of Sign Language interpreting. I love you and am so proud to call you friend.

  4. says: Barbara Garrison

    Have loved Norma most of my adult life and love her still. Remarkable gifts of communication and friendship…Keep on Norma! Barbara Garrison

  5. says: Louis

    Please be advised that the term, “hearing impaired” is unacceptable. Here is the explanation:

    The term “Hearing Impaired” is a technically accurate term much preferred by hearing people, largely because they view it as politically correct. In the mainstream society, to boldly state one’s disability (e.g., deaf, blind, etc.) is somewhat rude and impolite. To their way of thinking, it is far better to soften the harsh reality by using the word “impaired” along with “visual”, “hearing”, and so on. “Hearing-impaired” is a well-meaning word that is much-resented by deaf and hard of hearing people. This term was popular in the 70s and 80s, however, now is used mostly by doctors, audiologists and other people who are mainly interested in our ears “not working.”

    While it’s true that their hearing is not perfect, that doesn’t make them impaired as people. Most would prefer to be called Deaf, Hard of Hearing or deaf when the need arises to refer to their hearing status, but not as a primary way to identify them as people (where their hearing status is not significant).

    We are deaf, and not people with impairments (obstacles) in life!

    Hope that you and your people respect by refusing to use the outdated and offensive term. Hearing loss is more acceptable for everyone who is not just deaf.

  6. says: Nancy Wiltshire

    I find it offensive that you offered NO KUDOS about a woman who dedicated herself to offering communication. Instead, you went off on a militant tirade about the term…..hearing impaired…..I bet the people she interpreted for couldn’t care less. Shame on you for degrading something really good…and making an argument over political correctness.

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