Lydia Callis was just doing the job she was paid to do when she stood beside Mayor Bloomberg the other day and used American Sign Language to convey his speech to the city's deaf and hard of hearing residents regarding Sandy and the recovery. And yet when people not familiar with the way the Deaf communicate, they expressed fascination and curiosity about the interpreter's use of vivid and passionate body language. One Twitter user even called her a "living emoticon."
The Press Conference Raises Interest
The video of the press conference went viral, and Chelsea Handler picked it up and used it on her show, "Chelsea Lately," during a two-minute segment. What transpired was evidence of a woman completely unaware of the way deaf people communicate. She accused Callis of "editorializing" the mayor's speech, called her overzealous, and spoke about the interpreter in a condescending manner. She also ridiculed people who use sign language interpreters like a high school bully.
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.
Hearing folks simply don't get it. Being deaf doesn't make one dumb. Hearing loss or deafness does not make it alright to ignore, dehumanize, or otherwise exclude from activities just because they are unable to hear and speak properly. Most people aren't even aware that some deaf children don't even learn how to "talk" until they are in school and begin to learn sign language. This is because most deaf children are born of hearing parents who don't know or don't want to be bothered to learn sign language. Even children implanted with devices such as cochlear implants risk having communication problems if the device fails.
Callis Explains Sign Language
Callis has remained mostly inaccessible to interviews, instead opting to stay silent for the most part. She has given one interview, however, in which she explained the sudden interest in her interpreting:
"Hearing people tend to not understand that deaf people need those facial expressions. The body language replaces the intonation others hear in a voice. If I stand up there with a straight face and just interpret it, they're not getting half the message."
This is precisely the problem with Handler. She has no awareness of deafness or American Sign Language (ASL).
Deaf Nation Responds
As a result of Handler's insensitivity, deaf advocacy organization, Deaf Nation, released a letter the group sent to Handler this morning on their Facebook page. The letter, which received rave reviews from the Deaf community, reads:
"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 different ways."
As of this writing, the YouTube video of the segment has received overwhelmingly negative responses, mostly from the Deaf community or those familiar with it. Whether Chelsea Handler responds to Deaf Nation's letter remains to be seen, but Lydia Callis and interpreters around the nation deserve respect, not scorn or mockery. They serve a valuable purpose in keeping people informed of important events, such as superstorm Sandy.
Photo credit: Deaf Nation Facebook page