New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and sign-language interpreter Lydia Callis were the target of a Saturday Night Live opening spoof after going viral during Hurricane Sandy.
Callis, 30, became an Internet sensation because of the dramatic facial expressions and body language she used to translate Bloomberg’s dire warnings about the dangers coming with Sandy.
However, SNL wasn’t the only show to leap on Callis’ sudden fame. On the popular Chelsea Lately comedy show, a sketch aired that showed an actress who resembled Callis ‘interpreting’ for the show’s host, using contorted facial expressions and gurns while spinning her arms around miming her own signs.
America’s largest Deaf organisation, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has written an open letter to the producers of a comedy show accusing them of “mocking” American Sign Language (ASL).
In the letter, they point out that ASL is a language in its own right, with it’s own grammar, structure and syntax. They also note that Callis was performing a valuable service by communicating safety information to Deaf people as the storm approached.
When the mayor talked about falling trees, high winds, heavy rain and rising waters, Callis made sure her face, hands and body conveyed the urgency to those who could not hear.
A falling tree took both arms to convey. One arm was the ground, and the other was the tree.
When Bloomberg warned “It is dangerous,” viewers could see the danger on Callis’ face.
As the mayor scolded two New Yorkers who had been arrested trying to surf the rolling waves of New York Harbor, calling it “just an outrage,” the outrage was clear in her expression.
Several Tumblr accounts immediately appeared paying tribute to images of Callis signing for Bloomberg. Twitter postings of amazement erupted. Newspaper stories and online blogs soon followed.
New York magazine said Callis gave the city “a legitimate reason to smile” even as the storm loomed.
The mayor’s news conferences became must-see TV for her new fans.
But Callis herself was staying out of the spotlight, apparently giving just one interview to DNAinfo.com reporter Jill Colvin, who tracked her down at the New York emergency management headquarters in Brooklyn on Wednesday.
“As you can see from when I’m interpreting, you see the tree falling, you see the building, you see the crane moving around,” Callis told Colvin. “Because I need to have those pictures for the deaf people that need ASL,” or American Sign Language.
Her dramatic expressions, gestures and body language are needed to communicate the urgent message, she said.
“Hearing people tend to not understand that deaf people need those facial expressions,” Callis said. The body language replaces the intonation others hear in a voice, she said. “If I stand up there with a straight face and just interpret it, they’re not getting half the message.”
Callis said she tries to translate Bloomberg’s emotions.
“When a reporter asks a sarcastic question, you can see it in my face,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Really — did you just ask that?’ Because that’s how the mayor is reacting in the tone of his voice. But I’m doing it on my face.”
She told Colvin that she began signing as a child for her deaf mother and three siblings.
But Wednesday afternoon, Callis was gone, replaced by another woman whom Bloomberg introduced at his news conference as Pat Mitchell.
The mayor’s office, obviously with bigger matters to address, did not respond to CNN calls or e-mails about Callis and her replacement.
Callis has remained mostly silent, not jumping into the New York media circus — yet.
Silence is a job requirement, according to Kim Kurz, who chairs the American Sign Language & Interpreting Education department at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
Callis earned a degree in American Sign Language from that school, which is part of the Rochester Institute of Technology, before moving to New York City last year, a school spokesman said.
“We are honored to see Lydia’s skills recognized in this situation and send her our best wishes for continued success in her profession,” Gerard Buckley, the school’s president, said in an email to CNN.
Did you see the SNL spoof? What are your thoughts?