One of the pleasures of being a captioner is working with such a wide range of clients. Depending on the Ai-Live user’s occupation, on any given day we might be asked to cover a university lecture, a business meeting or a public event – or all three. As well as helping to broaden our general knowledge (something that comes in handy around the Trivial Pursuit board at Christmas time), this also means we get an insight into the huge diversity of life experience among the deaf community.
Helena Martins’ story is particularly remarkable. After losing her hearing in adulthood to Ménières Disease, Helena went on to have a cochlear implant. Since switching on the implant and regaining a sense she’d feared was gone forever (an emotional moment memorably captured on video), Helena has gone on to become a bit of a celebrity, having appeared on TV to share her story.
Helena kindly took time out from her busy job at housing charity Shelter to tell us more about her experience and the outlook it’s fostered.
How does using a cochlear implant differ to your previous experience of hearing?
All experiences are different. Everybody that has a bionic leg has a different experience in running and walking. It’s the same thing with a cochlear implant, which you could say is a bionic ear. In the beginning, the brain does take a little bit of time to rehabilitate. I was lucky that I was only two years with no sound, or partial sound. Certain people are more. But the way I can describe it now is that my brain stretches as much as it can to the sound. It’s like the sound is being transmitted through speakers.
In your experience, how does society respond to somebody who is hard of hearing?
I think society wrongly thinks that you only become deaf or hard of hearing when you become old and retired. Most of us have no clue that people can become deaf at 20 years old, or at 30 or 40. I became deaf at 38.
I met somebody who was deaf in one ear. He was given a hearing aid. I said, “Why don't you use it?” He said, “No way am I going to use a hearing aid. People are going to think I'm old.”
As a society, we need to change this perception. If somebody in their 30s needs a pair of glasses because their long distance eyesight is becoming worse, nobody thinks, “Oh, you started using glasses, you’re old.” Nobody thinks like this anymore. So why do we still think that about deaf people?
What can we do about that?
It’s a campaign. Education needs to start with children, teaching them really how we can improve our communication and what we need to change.
But it’s not only children. Organisations with front-desk services should have some sort of awareness about how to speak with deaf or hard of hearing people. I can give you a quick story – it’s not a joke, but what can I say? It's funny. I like to visit historic places, where they often have this sort of Walkman which people will put on their ears, and they will follow the tour being spoken throughout these devices. One place I went to, I asked, “OK, you have these devices for hearing people. By any chance, do you have the same information in writing, because I’m deaf?” And she goes, “Oh, OK, yeah, we have it in Braille.” I said, “Right… That’s awesome for blind people, but I’m deaf, I can't hear. So do you have that written information? Her reply was, “No, we don't have anything written down, but we do have the audio tours in Italian and Spanish…” I just left it there.
So it would make a big difference in organisation like museums, palaces, castles, to think that accessibility is more than just putting in a ramp for wheelchair users. It’s to think about all sorts of disabilities and handicaps, and taking those barriers out.
What’s currently being done well, in your opinion?
Access to Work has been priceless for me. When I first used it in a corporate company, I needed to attend large meetings and I couldn't hear everyone. Now I work for a charity. Having speech to text, remote support for meetings makes sure that I understand every word that is being said, and therefore I can understand everything that is asked of me or everything that has any impact on my strategies. I am a senior manager, and the level of responsibility is quite high. Therefore, in order to make the best, informed decisions, I need to understand all the information available to me. Speech to text support allows that to happen.
Interview by Martin Cornwell, Captioner