Pittsburgh's American Sign Language community has found a silver lining in a frenzy of media attention focused on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's interpreter, whose fans have dedicated blogs to her animated facial expressions and made videos of her signing to pop music.
Interpreters here believe that the hype surrounding Lydia Callis, the woman who shared vital information on Hurricane Sandy, has created an opportunity for an overdue discussion on communication access.
"This should be a good wake-up call," said Michelle Balfe, coordinator of the Interpreter Training program at Community College of Allegheny County. "We really need to be in those screen shots. If you have a deaf kid or a deaf adult son who has a family, wouldn't you want them to get that information?"
The decision by Mr. Bloomberg's team to include her on screen in an emergency broadcast, interpreters believe, has set a highly publicized precedent in emergency situations that needs to be mirrored in daily events.
"Every mayor and governor that does a press conference from now on should have a sign language interpreter next to them if it's going out on social media or TV," said Joan Stone, interpreter coordinator for the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office only provides sign language interpreters at news conferences if a hearing-impaired person is in the audience, according to spokeswoman Joanna Doven.
Sign language interpreters have not been automatically available at emergency news conferences, either, but she said the mayor's team will consider it in the future after watching the broadcasts from New York City.
"In an instance where Mayor Bloomberg was speaking to the entire population of his city and the message was very urgent in nature, having an interpreter makes a lot of sense," Ms. Doven said
Accessibility for the deaf and hearing impaired is often provided with closed captioning. The National Association of the Deaf states that by law, closed captioning must be provided for televised emergency information in some locations.
But Ms. Balfe points out that captions can be inaccurate and confusing for anyone, let alone the average deaf adult who reads and writes at a fourth-grade level.
"American Sign Language is the third most spoken language in the world and there's a reason for that," she said. "They aren't going to get it in English."
Interpreters agree that Ms. Callis' signing was done well, following common practice of using facial expressions and movements to dictate tone, which is otherwise lost without a voice.
"We're taught to deliver a visual message," Ms. Stone said. "Now how people hit that range is your audience, your comfort level, your skill. She's probably very knowledgeable and skilled. She's not hesitating, so she's very confident in the message."
Due to the fact that her audience was broad -- New York City and beyond -- she used all of the tools at her disposal by mouthing the words for those who read lips and using animated signs and facial expressions to help everyone from children to elderly adults understand.
"I know Bloomberg has a little bit of a flat voice, but she's not really over the top," critiqued Ms. Stone, as she sat in her office and watched the video online. "He's explaining a lot of important information and she's getting it. She's a very nice signer, she's very competent and I think it just went viral."
Videos have been posted to YouTube of Ms. Callis, who has repeatedly declined interview requests, signing to South Korean hit "Gangnam Style" and The Daily Beast's version to "The Sign" by Ace of Base. She has been mentioned thousands of times on Twitter, with fans often professing their love for her.
Her allure seems to resonate most with those outside the hearing impaired community, who might not be as used to watching interpreters.
Vicki Marshall, 28, a hearing impaired woman from Beaver Falls, described Ms. Callis' signing style as average in an email message. She agreed that interpreters are easier to understand than captions, especially in emergencies, and believes they should be included more often.
"I am all for having sign language interpreters on TV and in public events," she wrote. "When interpreters are there, they know what to do and how to help us understand the best they can."
Ms. Balfe said she hopes the situation gives a voice to a group that struggles to be heard but has a simple desire to understand.
"It's a very easy population to overlook and it's a very easy population to make happy," she said.
Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or email@example.com. First Published November 1, 2012 4:00 AM