Signing sensation uses stardom to educate

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Photo by Spencer T. Tucker/Office of NYC Mayor

Lydia Callis ’10 became an Internet sensation after she interpreted for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Now she is using that fame to educate people about deaf culture.

After working as an American Sign Language interpreter at RIT for six years, Lydia Callis ’10 (American Sign Language and interpreting education) decided last summer to face new opportunities and challenges working as a freelance interpreter in New York City.

Little did she know, within a few months, she would be a topic of national conversation, she would be referred to as an Internet sensation and portrayed in an opening skit of Saturday Night Live as the interpreter used by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the Hurricane Sandy press conferences.

“I actually had no idea what was going on,” Callis says. “Then one day I walked out of a press conference and people started clapping for me. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ They said I was famous. I was trending on Twitter. People were posting pictures of me in action on Instagram and Tumblr. People were setting up fan pages on Facebook. People were inviting me to be a guest on their talk shows. I was shocked. All the attention was completely overwhelming.”

Callis was flooded with media requests for interviews. But, as her interpreter training taught her, she was reluctant to be the story. She was merely doing her job well, facilitating communication. The clear, expressive mannerisms she used when she worked weren’t so much an extreme style of signing, but rather demonstrated the public’s lack of understanding of how sign language and interpreters work.

Born and raised just outside Chicago, ASL was Callis’s first language. Her mother and three siblings are deaf, including her brother, Joey Ouimet, a current student at RIT/NTID.

When she was 18, Callis moved to Phoenix and received an associate degree from Phoenix College’s interpreter training program. After graduation, RIT recruited her to come to Rochester in 2006 and work as one of 125 interpreters on campus. She interpreted in classrooms and for many non-academic events.

“I came to Rochester from sunny, beautiful Arizona because of the diversity in Rochester, the culture,” she says. “You see everybody from every different walk of life on a daily basis. It was a great career move not only for my profession, but for my family. My sister was at RIT/NTID at the time and I wanted to be exposed to more deaf culture. The interpreters at RIT are just wonderful. I wanted to work with people who could mentor me and help me be a better interpreter.”

When she turned 30, Callis decided it was time to move on. Her motivation and passion for new challenges led her to New York City. “When the hurricane hit, the agency picked me to be the main interpreter for Mayor Bloomberg’s press conferences. And the rest is history.”

She received letters and emails from across the country, thanking her for her work. Some young people said they were considering being an interpreter after seeing her. She is recognized daily and has a huge following.

“I was starting to ask, when are the 15 minutes of fame going to be over?” she says. “I decided to turn it into something positive, to open the eyes of people who don’t know much about deaf culture. Why was I getting this reaction? Because people have not been exposed to sign language.”

Callis decided to use her fame to educate others about communicating with deaf people and the interpreting profession. She consented to a few national interviews, including CNN. She is in the process of starting her own business, LC Interpreting Services, where she provides ASL interpreting and mentoring to recent interpreting graduates and one-on-one ASL training.

“I’m not out there to be a shiner,” she says. “I’m trying to help bridge the gap between hearing and deaf culture. I’m grateful to be a part of both cultures.”

In January, Callis accompanied NTID President Gerry Buckley to Capitol Hill, where they met members of Congress and talked proudly of NTID and its interpreting program, the oldest and largest in the nation.

“Lydia’s presence by Mayor Bloomberg’s side during and throughout the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy reminds the public of the important role interpreters play in providing access to vital information,” Buckley says.

And Callis worked with Aidan Mack, a deaf entrepreneur who is attempting to start her own television talk show to help lessen the gap between the deaf and hearing communities.

“I want to show hearing people that deaf people can do the same things they can,” she says. “They are not disabled. They communicate through a signed language instead of a spoken one. That’s my destiny. That’s what I’ve been put on Earth for.”

To learn more

For more information on Lydia Callis, go to her website at She posts weekly blogs about cultural issues.