A native of Washington, D.C., Shirley is considered by many Deaf and hearing people as an exemplar for Sign interpreting music. Passionate about her work, Shirley is a skilled professional Sign language interpreter who learned American Sign Language (ASL) from her Deaf parents. In their honor she founded the Herbert and Thomasina Childress Scholarship Fund to assist other children of Deaf adults (CODA) to explore Sign interpreting as a work option.
Shirley’s career has included providing interpreting services for most life experiences – for students in high school and college classrooms, for employees in staff meetings, job training, and professional conferences, in legal settings and in religious services. In health care, Shirley interpreted with the Mental Health Program for the Deaf at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, and with Project Access of Deafpride, Inc., who sponsored her first international assignment to Nairobi, Kenya as interpreter for a Deaf delegate to a United Nations conference.
Shirley’s extensive performing arts interpreting include an off-Broadway production of Lost in the Stars, and with a host of artists including Bernice Johnson Reagon, Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely, Holly Near, Pete Seeger, and In Process. Shirley has also interpreted for such stellar writers as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Audrey Lorde.
Shirley was first to recognize the need for more African-American interpreters when she founded the organization BRIDGES to focus attention on Black Deaf consumers and interpreters. Shirley was also a founding member of the organization Black Deaf Advocates. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf published a tribute to her entitled Shirley Childress Johnson, the Mother of Songs Sung in ASL, pointing out the distinction Shirley has brought to the field. Shirley has been recognized for her interpreting service to the community with awards from Deaf advocacy organizations the Silent Mission Circle at Shiloh Baptist Church, Deafpride, Inc., Women Unlimited, and National R.I.D. Interpreters of Color.
Shirley holds a bachelor’s degree in Deaf Education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Honorary Doctorate Degree received from Chicago Theological Seminary. She has authored several articles on her experiences as a CODA and her work as a Sign language interpreter and also was a recipient of the Trailblazer Award presented by the National Alliance of Black Interpreters based in Washington, DC. Shirley’s family, sons Reginald and Deon, and sisters Maxine and Khaula all Sign.