Signing with Antoinette Aiken
BEFORE she was two years old, Antoinette Aiken was already signing for her deaf parents. Now at just 24, she is the person Government ministers, educators, court officials, and media houses contact to get their messages out to those who can't hear.
Aiken was the only child for her parents up age 16, when her father had two other children. This meant she was the one tasked to bridge the communication gap between her parents and society. It was a huge responsibility for a child who also had to deal with unkind remarks from other children and even adults who questioned whether she was "dumb".
"I never thought I would be doing interpreting, because growing up, I just didn't like it," she told All Woman last week, minutes after coming from a meeting where she spent hours interpreting for a small group.
Although her father — a mentor and a deaf culture facilitator at Lister Mairy Gilby School for the Deaf — was born deaf owing to the fact that his mother had German measles, her mother was able to hear up until a couple months after birth. Then she fell and hit her head in the process of being passed from her nanny to her mother.
"I was raised between my mother's and father's house, they were not married, so it was two separate families. I lived with my mother and grandmother during the week and my father and his wife on weekends," she explained.
Because no one could sign in either household, Aiken had to find a way from early to communicate with both parents. She was then taught officially as a teenager by her stepmother . Thankfully, by the time she enrolled at Immaculate Conception High, her parents needed her less, and so she could focus on her schoolwork. She was to secure eight CXC subjects.
"I did very well there although not many people expected me to do well because I have deaf parents," she said.
In 2009, on the advice of her mother who is a deaf culture facilitator at Danny Williams School for the Deaf, Aiken signed up to become an interpreter for the Jamaica Association For the Deaf (JAFD).
"I used to be the communications liaison officer who dealt with interpreting on a whole, getting people to interpret for functions outside of the organisation, whether it be at the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, court systems, and things like that," she said, adding that she also interpreted at the weddings of foreign nationals who required such services.
But while working with the JAFD was very fulfilling, she decided to leave in 2011 to become a full-time interpreter to meet the demands of persons who sought her services. She has signed for various rallies for both political parties and was the interpreter during the national debates leading up to the December 2011 elections.
Aiken also interprets for the Council for Persons with Disabilities, the Combined Disabilities Association and for several courts on the island. She was also the personal interpreter for Miss Deaf International and also interpreted during CVM Television's recent coverage of hurricane Sandy. Even prior to this, she had interpreted for several other local television programmes.
"I want to be able to say I helped deaf people reach a certain standard ...or the intellectually disabled or the physically disabled reach a certain point in life," said Aiken, who is still the one her mother turns to each night to interpret the nightly news for her. Thankfully, her son is becoming very proficient at signing, despite his age.
Aiken is the mother of a two-year-old son, and as such, has to juggle her career and motherhood. In addition to this, she is currently pursuing a degree in international relations at the University of the West Indies and intends to do a minor in Caribbean sign language.
"I plan to continue in the sign language field, but my hope is to venture off into politics later in life," she said.
The interpreter said she became passionate about becoming a politician while interpreting for the various rallies during the December elections. She believes she could use this platform to better the lives of those living with disabilities as most are without jobs and do not have a good standard of living.
"Both political parties are supportive and I always tell them that I soon come catch them up when I'm finished what I am doing," said the woman, whose ultimate aim is to be prime minister.
Despite her hectic schedule, Aiken still finds time to give back and volunteers with Deaf Sports Jamaica and Dream Jamaica, in an effort to help inner-city youths achieve their dreams when they leave secondary school.
With her ever-present mohawk and comfortable sneakers, Aiken, who says she was always a tomboy, having been the only girl in her family for a long time, is definitely not your stereotypical female who can't go an hour without applying lip gloss and putting back every strand of hair in place.
"I guess a lot of people say it's not the typical look in terms of having long hair, make-up, but I am just me," she shrugged.
For her, more important than her looks is her performance. She was also keen to encourage parents to be accepting of their children when they are born with physical disabilities instead of turning their backs on them.