Last night I was glued to my phone, obsessively checking for news on Hurricane Sandy’s calamitous arrival to the East Coast. I was (and am) incredibly concerned for friends and family who live there in addition to the numerous residents with disabilities who currently have no access to personal caregivers and/or power. Electricity is of course, imperative when you rely on equipment in need of daily charging such as wheelchairs and ventilators and Sandy effectively caused dramatic, massive blackouts in New York. Since I don’t have a TV, I was relying on The Weather Channel’s live Youtube coverage for updates as well as Twitter, which proved to be amazingly informative and offered a broader up-to-the-minute perspective on what people were experiencing. The emotional spectrum of the reports was extensive. There were the requisite innocuous posts about booze and snacks, the unbelievably terrifying reports about NYU Hospital’s backup generators failing, which prompted emergency evacuations of intensive care patients (including children) down nine flights of stairs, and A LOT of lovesick talk about the “sign-language lady.”
The “sign-language lady’ is Lydia Callis, official ASL interpreter for New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg. Judging from the myriad tweets about her hypnotizing “swag,” she has officially upstaged El Bloombito and become an unlikely star in the wake of this catastrophic storm. She even has a Tumblr fan page! Rapper Jean Grae tweeted that she was going to battle her, The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones said he was writing her in as a presidential candidate, and about a thousand other people mentioned how “mesmerizing” she is. The overwhelmingly enamored reaction of the public is fascinating and somewhat amusing, but also indicates how little the hearing majority understands about American Sign Language.
Many people commenting on Ms. Callis’ interpreting seemed unaware how integral facial expression is to ASL. Just as those of us who hear take cues from tone of voice and inflection, those who are Deaf (and there’s a big distinction between Deaf with a capital ‘D” and “deaf”) take cues from facial expression. Facial expressions are a grammatical aspect of the language and can relay more information than the signs themselves. Many hearing people appeared to mistake her animated signing as being theatrical or over the top, when in reality she’s simply conveying the emotional tone of what’s being discussed. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of Ms. Callis’ vibrant signing with Bloomberg’s monotone delivery that made her interpreting appear so striking. Or maybe a weary city of millions was looking for any excuse to distract from the mood of impending doom and this particular interpreter was, as so many remarked, “hypnotizing.” Or, maybe the majority of hearing Americans just aren’t that familiar with ASL so watching interpreting in real-time seemed incredibly novel. I’d say it’s a likely combination of all of those things.
Regardless of why Ms. Callis has become an overnight celebrity, she’s unintentionally brought ASL into the forefront of American media, highlighting not only the vibrancy of the language, but also the necessity of diverse communication strategies- particularly in emergencies. By all accounts she did an incredibly skillful job and has probably inspired more than a fair share of Google searches for learning basic signs. Also: crushes. To swoon over/watch Ms. Callis in action, check the video below.