Before New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg updates reporters and the public about the latest fatalities, flooding and power failures caused by superstorm Sandy, he thanks one person -- Lydia Callis.
Callis stands next to the mayor and translates in sign language during his updates. Her sweeping gestures and facial expressions have been noted on the social media website Twitter and have inspired a Tumblr page of press conference pictures. The Daily Beast combined video footage with the Ace of Base song “The Sign.”
“She’s awesome,” Lynn Correa, 30, who has watched YouTube videos made about Callis, said today at a bus stop in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. “She’s much more expressive than he is.”
About 70 million deaf people across the world use sign language, according to the World Federation of the Deaf, an international nongovernmental organization. There are at least seven schools for American Sign Language and the deaf in New York City and Long Island.
That’s why Callis is by the mayor’s side when he addresses the public.
Wearing a charcoal-gray suit and blue blouse during one of the mayor’s storm briefings, Callis used her fingers to depict flames, broken powerlines and flooding. She beamed, scowled, shook her head emphatically, recoiled in horror and hung out her tongue. As Bloomberg stolidly plowed through his statement, she threw her whole body into a rhythmic interpretation of his warnings against flooding the police with phone calls, going out in the storm and putting anyone in danger.
While Callis isn’t hearing impaired, her mother is, said Evelyn Erskine, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office. Callis declined to be interviewed after an Oct. 30 press conference. She didn’t respond to an e-mail request for comment.
“By nature, the role of an interpreter is to accommodate effective communication, not to be the story,” said Greg Livadas, a spokesman for Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, where Callis attended. “She may be uncomfortable with all the hype.”
And hype there is.
“Mayor’s dramatic sign-language interpreter Lydia Callis steals the show!” Twitter user jmcshoebox wrote today. “She is my kind of celebrity.” The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Another Twitter user, Ross. D. Silverman, wrote: “Lydia Callis is my favorite interpreter since Mr. Hernandez, official interpreter for President Mellish.”
The character from the Woody Allen film “Bananas” translates American-accented English to Spanish-accented English before being pursued by men in white coats with a net.
The comments on Twitter shifted from dazzled to disheartened during the mayor’s 3 p.m. press conference today, when Callis was replaced by Pam Mitchell for the first time since the weekend that ended Oct. 28.
“Wait! Where is Lydia Callis?” Twitter user bklyndad wrote. “Can sign language translators lose their voice?” asked Gina Way. “Did they finally just give her a break?” wrote Dee Phunk.
Mitchell is the other American Sign Language interpreter for the mayor, and both she and Callis have been interpreting since the beginning of the storm, Erskine said.
Rochester’s American Sign Language and Interpreting Education program is the largest for interpreter training in the country, with 167 students, Livadas said in an e-mail. Callis graduated in 2010 and then worked on campus as an interpreter.
Linda Siple, one of Callis’s professors, recalled her as “highly motivated, gracious and professional,” according to comments sent by Livadas.
“Lydia was an excellent student,” Siple says. “She was very motivated with the deaf community here.”
“Amid the gloom and doom of Sandy, one woman has broken through as a shining beacon of optimism: Mayor Bloomberg’s expressive interpreter,” the Daily Beast page says. “We love you, Lydia Callis.”