Saturday, April 20, 2024

No limits


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“I am a very independent, stubborn woman,” Malia Johnson says deliberately, and her face radiates as she adds, “I love my freedom, I love to travel, I love my friends, I love to be able to work, and even enjoy the luxury of life.”
A passion for life overshadows the physical disability of the American business executive, who told EASY magazine: “I am profoundly deaf. I don’t hear anything.”
She was six months old before her Los Angeles, California parents discovered their baby daughter was deaf, a shock to parents with no idea how to deal with this problem. They turned to several doctors and were told to consult a therapist about getting speech therapy for Malia. Without the availability of sign language in those days, Malia’s parents learnt how to teach their child to speak and had her fitted with a hearing aid.
She would go on to endure six-hour speech therapy sessions seven days a week for 13 years and the difficult experience of learning in a mainstream school system with no  interpreter and no other special accommodation for the deaf.
How did she cope? “It was hard. To be honest, I don’t know how I did it. We had a teacher who helped you with your studies. It was not easy to lip-read the teacher. I had to go through several different steps to make it through. Never sure how I did it but I did.”
She devised her own ways of communicating with her peers, ensuring they always looked straight at her so she could read their lips to understand what they were saying. The communication built up between Malia and her school colleagues who could hear made the sports in which she engaged an exciting exercise for her and frustration for opposing teams who could never crack the secret code her team would develop to beat other teams.
In high school the challenge was even greater. Now she was older and had to figure it all out on her own. Nonetheless, she made it through, though she decided she was not going to attempt the even more difficult prospect of college since most colleges did not have interpretive services. Instead she went straight into the workforce.
Malia has worked in different cities in the United States, in Africa and then Orlando, Florida, where she eventually opened, and is CEO of, Deaf Talk, LLC, offering professional development and interpreting services for the deaf. The company also provides both the deaf and hearing communities with the resources needed to make educated decisions.
“Over the years of the struggles I went through I started seeing what other people were not getting and I saw the frustration on the community, so I wanted to find a way to help the community to get the therapy they needed, to get the interpreting services they needed and to be able to succeed in their lives,” she said to EASY magazine.
“I took time and made the mistakes but I learnt along the way. I am grateful I did it because it really has grown and I am getting a lot of support.” In the process she learnt how to educate the deaf community and how to help them improve their lives and achieve their fullest potential.
Her message to other deaf people, informed by her own experience, is “Do not give up. Keep fighting for what you believe in” and she encourages them to go out there and educate people.
“Don’t do it in an angry way” she cautions. Instead she advises networking with people, trying to get the right information and “fight, fight, fight”.
Meanwhile she continues to confront her own challenges, the biggest of which she identifies as getting people to understand how to work and communicate with deaf people.
“Give us an opportunity to show that we can do the job. We have to be able to get people to understand that we can do everything that anybody else can do, except hear. Allow us to show you what we can do,” she implored.
And she is the perfect example, getting “involved in anything and everything.” She plays soccer, softball, racquet ball and a host of other sports.
Friends introduced Malia to her husband Tom, to whom she has been married for 13 years. Not being hearing-impaired himself and without knowing sign language when they met, he had to make the drastic adjustment of learning to communicate with a deaf wife.
Teaching him was a challenge for Malia. She explained: “It is hard to teach sign language to someone that you have a close connection to, because you get frustrated because you don’t want to criticize that person and they get frustrated because they don’t want to criticize you.”
“You kind of give up here and there. You just say, ‘Hang around here and there with me and deaf people and you pick up the language’.” But they worked it out together.
They have no children, and Malia quipped: “My children are my fur babies – three cats and a dog.”
Her dog Ayla has been her hearing companion for the past ten years. She got him as a puppy and with the appropriate training he became a certified service animal.
Ayla alerts Malia to a knock on the door, the alarm from the clock, the vibrating pager on the desk, burglar and fire alarms in the house and any other noise which needs to be brought to her attention.
It is a service which she wishes many other deaf people could have, but according to her, the service is unaffordable to most of them. For some organizations that offer it, there is a two-year waiting list since dogs must undergo two to three years of training and must be suitably matched and trained with the prospective owner.
Malia herself lip-reads well, though she confesses there are times when she wishes she could hear. On the other hand, she relishes when she removes the hearing aid and “I get my peace and quiet. That’s the best part of being deaf – no noise of traffic, aeroplanes.”
Her advice to parents of deaf babies: “Be supportive; be there for your child; learn sign language if you can; be there for their education because you want them to succeed. Don’t give up on your child.”
Malia was in Barbados last week sharing her knowledge and experience during observance of a week for the deaf and hearing-impaired.


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