Meet Mayor Bloomberg's Sign-Language Interpreter

By Jill Colvin on October 31, 2012 11:14am 

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — As New Yorkers kept their eyes glued to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s frequent news conferences for updates on Hurricane Sandy, one bright spot emerged from the gloom.

Lydia Callis, the mayor's new sign-language interpreter, has been the star of the disaster, earning rave reviews for her animated interpretations of the mayor’s often gruff demeanor and his descriptions of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy.

“The sign language translator on NY1 is just mesmerizing.” Tweeted one early admirer.

"We Love You, Lydia Callis," another raved.

She's even spawned several Tumblr pages, including "Lydia Callis's Face For NYC Mayor."

For Callis, who doesn't usually pay attention to Twitter, all of the attention has come as a bit of a shock.

“It's pretty exciting," Callis told DNAinfo.com New York in her first interview, at the city's Office of Emergency Management headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn.

Callis, 30, who lives in Westchester, grew up in a deaf family, and has been interpreting for her mom and three deaf siblings since she was a child. She now works as a professional American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, signing for schools, hospitals, businesses — and now for the mayor.

Callis said that her role is to interpret the mayor's message as faithfully as possible — which means presenting the good along with the bad.

"If he stutters, if he messes up a sentence, you’re going to see me stuttering, and you’re going to see me messing up the sentence," she said. "Because the point of interpreting is to render the message faithfully, and that's what I have to do."

When she's interpreting, Callis mouths out words as well as signs them to reach the widest spectrum of the deaf and hearing-impaired community — including those who can't read lips and depend on the pictures she creates.

“As you can see from when I’m interpreting, you see the tree falling, you see the building, you see the crane moving around," she said. "Because I need to have those pictures for the deaf people that need ASL.”

The most common misconception Callis has noticed is that people think she's being too animated, she said. But Callis explained that her exaggerated facial expressions and larger-than-life gestures are a key part of getting the message across.

“Hearing people tend to not understand that deaf people need those facial expressions... they need the body language" to make up for all of the information that's usually transmitted in our voices when we speak, Callis said. “If I stand up there with a straight face and just interpret it, they’re not getting half the message."

And when it comes to the often-prickly mayor, that can mean a lot of eye rolls and eyebrow raising — especially when he's dealing with the press.

“When a reporter asks a sarcastic question, you can see it in my face. I’m like, 'Really — did you just ask that?' Because that’s how the mayor is reacting in the tone of his voice," she said. "But I’m doing it on my face."

In addition to all the attention online, Callis said she’s also been thrilled at the response from deaf New Yorkers grateful to finally have access to breaking news from the mayor.

“The city is catching up on what they should have been doing a long time ago," she said. "They’re providing accessibility for people that don’t necessarily have access to the information.”

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