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Sign-Language Interpreter Uses Newfound Fame to Advocate for the Deaf

By LC Interpreting Services on Tue, June 16, 2015

 

 
 

Sign-Language Interpreter Uses Newfound Fame to Advocate for the Deaf

Photo
Lydia Callis leads a sign language tour for hearing-impaired visitors at the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan. Ms. Callis gained fame providing sign language interpretation for news conferences given by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in the days after Hurricane Sandy.Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

For a week or so around the end of October, Lydia Callis seemed to be everywhere: On television, standing just to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s right as he, then she, urged New Yorkers to stay indoors while they waited out Hurricane Sandy. On Twitter, where admirers gushed that they could watch her “for hours.” And on “Saturday Night Live” — in caricature form, anyway — in a skit even Mr. Bloomberg could not resist mentioning.

Less visible these days, but no less busy, Ms. Callis now wants to capitalize on the unexpected fame she gained as a sign-language interpreter to improve the state of services for the deaf and hard of hearing in New York, which she calls surprisingly dismal for a city with a significant deaf population and a large number of interpreters.

The first fruit of her efforts has been modest: she now leads a regular series of deaf- and hard-of-hearing-oriented tours at the New York Public Library’s flagship building on Fifth Avenue, which has begun to offer more deaf-oriented events and to hire interpreters for other events. And she has been meeting with officials at other institutions to get them to recognize what she says is the hearing world’s lack of awareness about the needs of the deaf — an ignorance that was underscored recently when deaf customers of Starbucks accused the coffee chain in a lawsuit of discriminating against them at two of its Manhattan locations.

With her gesticulations, wide eyes and endlessly elastic facial expressions, Ms. Callis rose to fame during Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath as millions of New Yorkers tuned in to the emergency briefings that were broadcast on what seemed like every channel.

She was called hypnotic, mesmerizing and full of “pizazz.” But she said the attention paid to her showed how little most people understand the deaf population and American Sign Language, which often depends on facial expressions and animated gestures to lend emphasis and emotion to communication.

“I was like, when is it over? Seriously, when is this going to die down? Wow, people just really don’t know much about the deaf community,” she said, recalling the time her fiancé traveled to Italy and found her notoriety had spread to perhaps the most gestural people on earth. But her celebrity also meant access to the institutions she felt had the most to learn.

There are 170,928 people with hearing difficulties in the city, according to census data, although advocates for the deaf have said the number is higher. While several well-known facilities in the city are deaf-accessible, including Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, the mayor’s office often receives requests for better accommodations at outdoor city festivals, in theaters and in taxis, Mr. Calise said.

He said the city had fielded several inquiries from other cities about Ms. Callis’s consistent presence at Mr. Bloomberg’s side after Hurricane Sandy.

“People with deafness, the hard of hearing, are a forgotten disability because you don’t see it,” Mr. Calise said. With ambassadors like Ms. Callis, “people see it, and it’s a little bit more front and center,” he added.

Ms. Callis was born into a deaf family, and signing was her first language; not until she began preschool did she begin to adopt English. She grew up interpreting for her mother and three deaf siblings, but decided to become an interpreter only eight years ago. To that end, Ms. Callis founded an interpreting company of her own, LC Interpreting Services, and also freelances through other agencies.

Brigid Cahalan, who oversees outreach services at the library, said the initial tours received enough interest that she decided to offer them regularly this past spring. The library also plans to offer more events dedicated to the deaf, like a series of talks with deaf authors, and to provide more interpreting and closed-captioning at other events.

When she looked for interpreters for the tours, she was surprised and pleased to see that Ms. Callis had signed up for every single slot.

“Obviously, there was an eagerness here, so I was happy,” Ms. Cahalan added.

Eagerness may be an understatement, though Ms. Callis said her efforts have been stymied so far by the twin roadblocks of budget difficulties and indifference.

Advocates for the deaf have long struggled with a lack of awareness about deafness, said Jeffrey Wax, the director of the emotional health program at the Center for Hearing and Communication. Getting interpreters can be costly and time-consuming, he said, and it can be hard to gauge how often an interpreter will be needed, leading many institutions to engage interpreters on an ad hoc basis instead of hiring one full time.

Ms. Callis says American Sign Language is often mistakenly characterized as a foreign language. It is, she said, merely an alternate way of communicating. But it is also not an exact simulation of English; in part because the deaf do not hear inflections, ambient conversation and noise, idioms and jokes are often different in sign language.

Though many found her interpreting style during Mr. Bloomberg’s news conferences amusingly exaggerated, Ms. Callis said that she was simply reflecting the gravity of Mr. Bloomberg’s delivery.

“People truly have a hard time wrapping their heads around it, and that’s when the deaf community suffers,” she said, leaning forward and opening her eyes wider as if to underscore her point. “People just don’t know. Look how far we came with gay rights — but then we can’t get access for deaf people!”

“It’s 2013,” she said. “It’s about time.”

Correction: August 30, 2013 
The City Room column on Monday about Lydia Callis, a sign-language interpreter for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, misstated the number of people with hearing disabilities in New York City in 2012. It was 170,928 — not 800,000, which was the approximate number of people in the city who had some type of disability.
 

Tags: Sign Language Interpreters, Local Interpreters

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