While the east coast battled Superstorm Sandy last week, the internet seemed to have found itself a new darling in the form of Lydia Callis, a sign language interpreter in the office of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Ms. Callis stole the show and secured the limelight when she appeared alongside Mayor Bloomberg in a series of televised press conferences where the mayor provided updates on the storm. Her hands had barely cooled down from the first telecast when the web went wildfire with comments:
The sign language lady in Bloomberg’s press conference entourage has way too much swag for this. She is hypnotizing.
I tell ya, the real star of Mayor Bloomberg’s press conferences is that animated sign language translator he’s got. Can’t look away.
OMG, the sign-language gal next to Bloomberg right now is AWESOME.
I agree with commenter #3 – Lydia Callis IS awesome…not because she’s animated or hypnotizing; but because she’s THERE, doing her job – which is to assure that information that every New Yorker deserves to have is accessible to its Deaf population as well…a population for which American Sign Language (ASL) is its native language and primary form of communication.
It wasn’t long before everyone was hopping on the “I Love Lydia” bandwagon. From YouTube to the Huffington Post to Time Magazine’s on-line newsfeed, Lydia-Mania swept across the nation, with everyone weighing in on their opinions of this “woman of a thousand faces.”
The problem is…the majority of these opinions were being generated by individuals with little if any understanding of interpreting, American Sign Language, or Deaf Culture. In another words – their qualifications to be giving any sort of intelligent analysis of Ms. Callis’s skills (or ANY interpreter, for that matter) are pretty much nil.
But that didn’t stop folks from expressing their thoughts. And it became pretty obvious pretty darn quick that such thoughts were predominately focused on Lydia’s facial expressions and body language – which is to be expected, since they obviously couldn’t understand anything she was actually saying with her hands. Thus we end up with descriptions such as hypnotic, animated, mesmerizing and the all too common sentiment of how “sign language is such a beautiful language”…which frankly, makes me want to gag.
Gag, you say? But I’m paying your language a compliment! Perhaps…but in many cases it’s a hollow one. It’s as a native speaker of ASL explains in this article that appeared in The Atlantic Wire:
I’ve always heard that sign language is “so beautiful,” but it’s an empty, meaningless compliment. To me, that means “I don’t care about sign language as a language, I just want it to amuse and entertain me.” It means “I’m making no attempt to understand what’s going on here, but it sure looks cool.”
The many people who have left comments may indeed think that Lydia Callis looked “cool”…or for that matter, pretty darn hot. But to a Deaf person such as myself, Ms. Callis looked exactly as she should – a skilled interpreter translating vital information during a tense, dangerous, emergency situation; utilizing a language that has its own linguistic structure.
And all that “animated facial expression” is a part of the grammatical rules of American Sign Language. As linguist Arika Okrent explains:
Callis was great, but not because she was so lively and animated. She was great because she was performing a seriously difficult mental task — simultaneously listening and translating on the spot — in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Sure, she was expressive, but that’s because she was speaking a visual language. Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.
Unfortunately, the lack of understanding that many people have about ASL and the culture that uses it has led to some questionable attempts to call attention to Ms. Callis’s efforts in ways that while perhaps trying to appear funny and positive, have actually come across as a not-so-subtle form of mockery, which many in the Deaf Community have found to be offensive.
At first, the spoofs of “Bloomberg’s Sign Language Lady” didn’t seem all that bad – some were even rather clever and comical…
But they soon crossed the borders of good taste…and instead of being funny, were merely insulting. The first culprit was Chelsea Handler of the late-night comedy talk show, Chelsea Lately. Her two-minute take on the mayor’s interpreter demonstrated a total unawareness of sign language and its use. Chelsea accused Lydia Callis of “editorializing” the mayor’s speech, called her overzealous, and spoke about the interpreter in a condescending manner. To add insult to injury, as described by a Deaf commenter in a post on the AllDeaf on-line forum:
To top it off, she brought out a fake interpreter dressed as Callis to convey her words to her co-hosts. What ensued was nothing short of a complete mockery of a very real language that millions of people depend on every day to communicate. At one point during the skit, the interpreter even grabbed her own boobs. It was highly insulting, even to those without hearing loss, because it showed a gross lack of empathy and understanding to a group of people historically patronized, ridiculed, and bullied for years.
Needless to say, the Deaf Community was not amused. The deaf advocacy organization known as Deaf Nation sent a letter of explanation to Handler, stating
First, the interpreter is not ‘overzealous.’ Secondly, our language and culture are not to be mocked or made fun of. Thirdly, the interpreter did not have ‘cranked up passion’ – she was using appropriate ASL grammar, which calls for varied facial expressions and use of space in varied ways.
Even the National Association of the Deaf got in on the criticism with its own letter, admonishing Chelsea Handler and expressing “extreme disgust with you and your show for the despicable manner in which you mocked American Sign Language (ASL) and the profession of sign language interpreters.”
Chelsea Lately wasn’t the only show trying to spoof Lydia Callis – Saturday Night Live also aired its own skit. While not as offensive as Chelsea’s (it’s actually been described by some as being “fairly decent”), by this time the Deaf Community had pretty much had enough. Jokes about sign language and interpreting just weren’t that funny any more. Even Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin tweeted her objections:
“Millions of deaf people use sign. Why poke fun/fake it? Poke fun at ME but not the language. Would they do that to Spanish or Chinese? FAIL!”
It’s not that the Deaf Community lacks a sense of humor. We can laugh right along with the rest of them. But we don’t want something that we take quite seriously – such as Equal Communication Access – turned into the butt of jokes by individuals who do not have the necessary background to understand that the very thing they are making fun of is in fact an integral part of the way our language operates. And if we’re a little sensitive about it, bear this in mind…
The Deaf Community has had to fight long and hard just to gain recognition and respect for themselves, and for their language. That there actually WAS an interpreter standing next to Mayor Bloomberg during these press announcements was an accomplishment in itself, for which we are truly grateful. Even today, many Deaf people are denied interpreters and thus full communication access in situations where it should be a no-brainer. Hospitals, courtrooms, police stations, etc. continue to refuse to provide such services. The use of sign language for educating deaf children continues to be hotly debated. So when the opportunity arises to gain some positive national recognition for the concept of Equal Communication Access, for the visual language of the Deaf Community known as ASL, and for deaf and hard of hearing people themselves…we don’t particularly relish seeing the chance to educate the public and raise awareness instead deteriorate into a gross joke for “open-mike night” at the local Comedy Club.
The presence of Lydia Callis was a good – and for some of us, necessary – inclusion. Let’s keep it that way.