Lydia Callis on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in New York City

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Lydia Callis doing ASL interpretation during a Mayor Bloomberg Sandy briefing.

Lydia Callis was an American Sign Language interpreter for the mayor during press conferences about Sandy last year. Now, she's trying to raise awareness about what it's like to be hard of hearing in New York City and what would make it easier. She discusses her background, her activism, and her work.

Lydia Callis Interprets Brian's Primary Day Message

This is a transcript of Brian's interview with Lydia Callis:

Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. And we’ve been talking about the Sandy aftermath and tourism this summer with Janet Babin and our other guests. But now we’re going to spend a few minutes with someone who was in the spotlight during and just after the storm. Lydia Callis was one of Mayor Bloomberg’s American Sign Language interpreters during press conferences on preparation and warnings during Sandy – so even before the storm. Her style was so effective and distinctive that Saturday Night Live made it the focus of a skit (did you see that one?) and The Daily’s Show’s Jon Stewart saluted her on his program. I even heard her referred to on a sports talk station! In addition to working as an ASL interpreter, she’s now also an advocate for the hearing impaired – pushing for changes in the ways businesses and the city approach those citizens and customers and residents. So Lydia Callis it is such a pleasure to meet you. Hello. 

Lydia Callis: It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, Brian. Thank you for inviting me on the show today.

Brian: Why do you think you struck such a chord during the storm? It was certainly not the first time that there was a sign language interpreter on television.

Lydia: I think because of the fact that sign language is my first language. My mother is deaf, so she taught me sign language. When I was born I didn’t learn how to speak until about pre-school --

Brian: Wow.

Lydia: And so I’m extra-animated. Not only did I go to school for sign language and learn how to communicate growing up that way. So I think … that people were struck by it so much because of all the gestures and the facial expressions and then the signs on top of it.

Brian: And listeners, we have time for a few phone calls if anyone has a question for Lydia Callis about being an ASL – American Sign Language – interpreter, or to get into any of the issues about being hearing impaired in New York City and the world. 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692.

Do you have a particular style when you’re interpreting Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks? After Sandy is there something about him that you’re trying to capture, was it something about the gravity of the situation? Or would it just not have made any difference if it had been me or him or some six-year- d?

Lydia: It does make a difference. When you know your audience you can custom the interpretation to your audience. But because the audience was so wide I had to pull out my whole box of tricks. So I had to really be able to use ASL for people that solely rely on sign language and then I also had to put the words on my lips for people that don’t know sign language and only read lips. And also because of the seriousness of the situation and the tone in his voice is the reason why you saw that all over my face because it can’t be portrayed into words obviously so it needs to be shown through my facial expression.

Brian: By the way, I understand that you moved to New York City only a year ago.

Lydia: I did.

Brian: Where from?

Lydia: Well, Upstate New York. There’s a huge deaf community there and I was working there for six years but I’m originally from Chicago.

Brian: And it’s something we don’t often talk about on this radio program – we have in the past. But obviously people who are totally deaf don’t listen to the radio but many people who are hearing impaired at one level or another certainly do. But you’ve become kind of an advocate now for the hearing impaired. Are you pushing for certain policies, either at the government level or in the private sector?

Lydia: Well, we have the Americans With Disabilities Act in place to protect people, to provide the deaf community with better access and people just aren’t taking advantage of that access that they have available to them -- such as providing sign language interpreters or providing open or closed captioning at events and whatnot.

Brian: So, taking advantage of – meaning, to demand their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Lydia: That’s exactly what it is. And I’ve worked with the Commissioner for Peoples with Disabilities here in New York City, and -- Commissioner Calise himself told me that there’s a lot of red tape to go through. You can ask these people to provide services for the community. But they can refuse them and then pretty much you’d have to threaten them that you’re going to sue them.

Brian: And you’ve been talking to companies, I understand, about hiring practices and some adjustments that could be made to make work places hearing impairment-friendly?

Lydia: I have. I call it the “deer-in-the-headlights syndrome” – when somebody meets a deaf person, for example if they come in for an interview or whatnot and they didn’t know that this person was deaf or hard of hearing, they don’t know what to do. And really the only difference between the hearing and deaf community is the fact that the deaf community communicates in a different way. And because of technologies these days they are able to work efficiently with other hearing people as well, such as having an interpreter, having email – you can communicate through email or texting through the phone – or by providing closed captioning as well. One of the great things that they have these days is something called the video phone. You can just provide a video phone for the deaf community or somebody that is deaf at their desk. And they can just turn on the video phone and they can call the deaf person – the hearing person can call the deaf person and it would go into a  call center full of sign language interpreters that are trained there, ready to go, and the interpreter will be able to voice for the deaf person if they can’t speak themselves. And they’ll be able to sign what the hearing person Is trying to communicate with them and it’s right there.

Lydia Callis with us, who became to well-known as the sign language interpreter for Mayor Bloomberg in the time around Sandy. 212-433-WNYC, and Gitana in Brooklyn you’re on WNYC. Hello.

Gitana (caller): Hello, how are you?

Brian: Good, thank you.

Gitana: Greetings, Ms. Callis. I have a question.

Lydia: Sure.

Gitana: As a hearing impaired person myself I’m well aware that deaf and hearing impaired people are essentially an invisible population. People can’t see deafness so they’re not aware of deafness. And because they communicate in a different way they’re totally clueless as to how to try and communicate with them. My question is: are there plans to introduce even a rudimentary sign language curriculum into the public school system so that children can grow up having a basic understanding of sign language, learning about the deaf and hearing impaired community, and having a way to communicate with them thereby fostering understanding and tolerance?

Lydia: Well, I think that’s a great question and I think that would be fantastic if we can set something like that up. Reason being that it’s obvious that people aren’t educated about the deaf and hard of hearing community and therefore they don’t know how to react to them. You’re completely correct with everything you stated. But the problem is that we’re struggling in the school system because they’re saying that it’s not a foreign language and some people bed to differ. And that’s where the problem lies, and I think it would be great to be able to just spread the knowledge and let them know that they’re not any different and it’s just about communication and access.

Brian: Gitana, thank you for your call and Dick on Roosevelt Island you’re on WNYC. Hi.

Dick (caller): Hi, Brian I enjoy your show. I would like to ask this lady if she finds herself thinking in sign language or kind of automatically translating things that people say to her without actually making the signs?

Lydia: Without actually making the signs? I do, I think in pictures – very much so. When I’m trying to wrap my head around somebody’s idea or something that they’re trying to explain to me, I look at it in pictures. But my friends do tell me that I’m signing all the time to them. They’re like, did you just sign that to me? And I’m like, Oh! I did, I did. And sometimes they can understand me as well because it’s a very gestural language.

Brian: Now, we want to give all of our listeners an opportunity to see you sign. And here’s what we’re going to do, folks, so get ready to go to a little later today after what we’re about to do. Because you’ve agreed that before you go you’d help us get the word out about our primary day coming up on Tuesday in New York City.

Lydia: Yes.

Brian: So would you interpret for me, the following words?

Lydia: Right now?

Brian: Right now.

Lydia: Sure.

Brian: And we will put this up on our website. We have our producer Jody Avirgan right here with his phone camera. And so here we go:

A reminder: Tuesday is Primary Day in New York City – can I go faster? – make sure you go out and vote! If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s okay – you can still catch up this weekend and make your decision on the mayoral race, other city-wide races, and some local city council races. The important thing is that you go to the polls. On the WNYC website there’s a guide to voting day – including a mayoral position tracker. So go to, get informed, and vote on Tuesday!

Cool, so we will post that on our website shortly at, click on Brian Lehrer Show. Now, I only realized it once I started that my impulse – knowing that you were signing -- was to talk much more much slowly than I usually talk.

Lydia: That’s great.

Brian: Now, Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t do that when he’s giving a news conference. I don’t think he’s thinking of you that much or anything but the content and answering the question. You said that’s great. It’s helpful to go more slowly?

Lydia: It’s very helpful but then at the same time sometimes people will talk like a turtle and I’m just like, okay you can just talk normal! Talking too slow or talking too fast doesn’t really work but if you just talk at a normal rate then that would be great.

Brian: It’s something that I know blind people experience when sighted people are speaking to them they sometimes speak to them like they’re children. Even though they’re sight impaired, they need to be spoken to loudly. “Hi! Are you okay? Would you like some help crossing –“ You know what I mean?

Lydia: Definitely. Definitely. A deaf person once told me that she was on the airplane and they were trying to explain the rules and regulations. And the woman, the flight attendant came up to her and gave her brail, a piece of paper. And she’s like, no, I’m not blind – I’m just deaf.

Brian: Fritz in Jamaica Estates, you’re on WNYC. Hi Fritz.

Fritz: Hi, yes, thank you Brian. Okay, I’m a retired translator. And I never studied translation but I have some experience. And recently I heard an interpreter say that the most difficult thing to do is translate jokes from one language to another. I would like to ask your guest: how does she do it? Translate jokes?

Brian: It’s a great question. Can you do it?

Lydia: Well, you can. It’s just like idioms: I mean, idioms in English aren’t the same as idioms in ASL and we all have different jokes from ASL versus spoken language. And so what I do is take the language that I’m hearing and I know what the joke means and I put it in a conceptually accurate language for sign language.

Brian: Is there a way to indicate a joking inflection or anything like that, or people just have to get it from the words because you can’t put expressions in sign language?

Lydia: You can, you can put expressions in sign language. I guess I wasn’t clear in what I was saying. What do you is you take the spoken word and you put it into the sign language, a conceptual language that the deaf people will be able to understand. And within that is the vocabulary words and then there’s also the facial expressions and the body language.

Brian: Right, and of course – and we have a caller who we don’t have time for saying she thinks you got such a powerful reaction because of your powerful facial expressions so that’s definitely part of the work of an American Sign Language interpreter, right?

Lydia: That’s correct.

Brian: We just have 30 seconds. Mayor Bloomberg’s press conferences during the emergency of Sandy were accessible for deaf New Yorkers. What about the debates? Do you think they’re accessible enough for the hearing impaired? Now that we’re finishing up the primary season going into general election season should there be interpreters at all of them? I don’t think I’ve seen that.

Lydia: There’s hasn’t been but I definitely think there should be – if it’s open to the public and accessible to them then it should be open to the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Brian: Is there a best mayoral candidate for the hearing impaired, or don’t you get into that?

Lydia: I’m not going to get into that. [laughs]

Brian: Lydia Callis, who has been famous as Mayor Bloomberg’s sign language interpreter during the period of Hurricane Sandy. Thanks so much, it’s been great to have you on the show.

Lydia: Thank you, it’s been nice to be here.

Brian: And have a good weekend everybody. Brian Lehrer on WNYC.