American sign language interpreter Lydia Callis became an overnight sensation when she worked with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last fall during Superstorm Sandy. Though interpreting vital information for the deaf community, her vibrant nature, strong facial expressions and seemingly dramatic gestures appeared humorous to some non-signing viewers. Loads of satirical YouTube videos, a spoof on "Saturday Night Live," and a mention on "The Daily Show" soon followed.
Callis, however, was not dismayed. She has used her newfound fame to bring positive attention and advocacy to the deaf community.
"What I realized throughout all that is that the general population doesn’t know much about deafness, or deaf culture or the language, and I think that’s why it was such a novelty to everyone," she said.
Callis' mom, three younger siblings and two nieces are all deaf.
"I'm the only hearing person, which is rare," she said. "Usually it's one deaf in a family and the rest are hearing but in my family, it's the opposite."
Sign language was her first language.
"Growing up in a deaf family was unique, to say the very least. It was my culture, it was what I learned," she said. "Even to the point where we would be silent for days because we would just communicate with each other through sign language.
"Sometimes I would act like I was deaf, just so I could see what it feels like to be them and put earplugs in and just sign all day with them," Callis said. "And even go out to a restaurant with them and just sign. And when telling them my order, just doing it all through pointing at things on the menu or writing it down on a piece of paper and communicating with people that way, just so I could feel closer to my family."
Callis, who earned a bachelor's degree in ASL English Interpretation from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, in Rochester, N.Y., stresses that deaf people can do everything hearing people can, they just do not do it through a spoken language.
"I noticed that people have a hard time disconnecting from that," she said. "They really think that they are disabled but they’re not. Especially with today's technologies -- the cell phone has definitely helped big time because you can just write messages in there and communicate through that way.
"All in all I think that it shows that hearing people need to try to include deaf people more in their daily events and daily life things that they do and even going out and learning the language, because so many people look at it as a disability, that they can’t do something, but they can, and it would just be great to be able to learn the language," she said. "It's a beautiful language that is silent."