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Bloomberg's sign-language interpreter points way to growing career

by Michelle Rafter /  / Updated 
The nation's eyes were on Lydia Callis, left, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's American Sign Language Interpreter, last month as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the city.EDUARDO MUNOZ / Reuters

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Without uttering a word, Lydia Callis had the nation eating out of her very expressive hands.

An American Sign Language interpreter for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Callis’ signings were some of the brighter spots in the bleak days before, during and after Hurricane Sandy.

“Thank you Michael Bloomberg,” says Keith Wann, a long-time ASL interpreter and like Callis, a CODA, or child of deaf adults. “There are deaf people in New Orleans who said during Katrina they didn’t know what was going on. Hopefully other employers saw that and said, ‘That’s what we have to do.’”

Callis’ emphatic gestures and sympathetic facial features during Bloomberg’s Sandy-related press conferences made her an Internet sensation and spawned a skit on "Saturday Night Live." But it also pointed a spotlight on a sometimes overlooked career that has grown steadily - and is expected to continue growing - since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed more than 20 years ago.

Jobs for sign language and other types of interpreters and translators in the United States are expected to increase 42 percent by 2020, to 58,400, according to the 2012-2013 U.S. Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Interpreters for the deaf continue to be in demand because there aren’t enough of them to go around, according to the government report.

Educators are working to fill the gap. Seventy-eight colleges offer some type of sign language interpreter associate degree, 40 schools offer bachelor’s degrees and three offer master’s degrees, says Nataly Kelly, author of the new book, "Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World."

ASL interpreters must be certified to work at schools, government agencies or translate for hearing-impaired people during doctor’s appointments or other medical visits. One of the biggest certifying bodies is the nonprofit Registry for Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), which in 2011 had more than 15,600 members.

Like Callis, good sign language interpreters add a personal touch to their work, Kelly says. “It’s like how much an individual’s speech would vary,” she says. “Nobody uses language the same way, and it’s the same in sign language, except it’s visual, with facial expressions, and the speed of your signing.”

Despite the attention Callis’ signing brought to the field, some veteran interpreters are discouraged by increased competition and declining pay.

Wann, 43, worked as a staff or freelance ASL interpreter for 20 years in elementary schools, colleges and for the U.S. Defense Department. But he quit last year after seeing rates drop from $70 or $80 an hour to $40 or less. ASL interpreters without his high-level certifications or years of experience are commanding the same fees, he says. “It causes resentment.”

Today, Wann sells insurance during the week and on weekends travels to colleges across the country performing a standup ASL comedy act that’s earned him the reputation as the Jim Carrey of the ASL community.

But he hasn’t stopped advocating for the deaf community’s right to be heard. "It’s been the law since 1991, but deaf people still have to fight for an interpreter,” he says.

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