FOR the first time in its more than 70 years of existence, the TT Association for the Hearing Impaired (TTAHI) has a deaf president, and he is Bryan Rodrigues.
And with a shortage of interpreters being a major problem for the deaf community, one of the major initiatives Rodrigues is pushing for is an inter-Caribbean video interpreter network.
With the help of a sign language interpreter, Rodrigues, 39, shared with Sunday Newsday how life took him along the path of being an aspiring priest to marriage, and leadership of the association, during an interview at TTAHI on Wrightson Road, Port of Spain.
Rodrigues was born deaf and his parents were also deaf.
“It felt very normal for me. We communicated very well with each other. It helped me learn sign language faster as opposed to being in a hearing family.”
He attended Audrey Jeffers School For the Deaf and after common entrance, he was a student of Marabella junior secondary and Marabella senior comprehensive schools. Like many in the deaf community, he found mainstream schooling to be a challenge. While he was at Marabella junior secondary there was one interpreter for the first three forms to assist him and other deaf students.
“He had to spread himself thin to help the deaf children.”
At Marabella comprehensive, there was no interpreter but Rodrigues was still able to learn English, become a prefect in form two and would even place first in test.
Priestly goal changes to marriage
In 2001, he enrolled at La Guardia Community College in New York to study to become a priest. There were many different people from around the world also studying to become priests.
“I recognised our cultures were pretty similar and they also spoke of a need for more interpreters in their countries.”
Rodrigues said the course was too costly and he did not have sponsorship so he returned to Trinidad. He was disappointed he was unable to complete his studies but his parents were happy he returned home as they were worried following the September 11 terror attacks.
Back home, he signed up for a two-year Bible studies course at a school in Caroni. He then moved to Mt St Benedict for five years to become a priest but things did not work out as planned.
“My goal was to become a priest. Maybe God shifted my goal.”
At Mt St Benedict, Rodrigues had an interpreter, Niobe, and the two became close. His friends encouraged the two to pursue a relationship but he initially rejected the idea, as he was focused on becoming a priest and Niobe was also not interested at first. Eventually, the two relented and they were married in November 2005. Before his marriage he took a course in building and repairing computers and got an A+ certificate.
When not falling in love with his interpreter, or fixing computers, Rodrigues enjoyed a game of basketball in his hometown of Mayo where he still lives. He would also help others who were deaf and wanted to learn basketball which led to his involvement with the Deaf Basketball Association of TT and Deaf Sports TT.
In 2014, his deaf friends encouraged him to become a board member of TTAHI. He recalled at the time there were many problems and division among board members that led to a legal battle between two factions. Because of these problems, he decided to retire from TTAHI.
When a board was installed in 2016, Rodrigues decided to accept an invitation to join it and said there was some improvement compared to the previous board. He continued into 2017 as the public relations officer under president Patricia Charles. Rodrigues said Charles led in a fair manner, and deaf members had more of an input and she allowed a deaf director to become an officer as well.
Need for more interpreters
Before he became president, last year, Rodrigues retired from Deaf Sports TT, Deaf Basketball Association and the Deaf Empowerment and Advancement Foundation. He explained TTAHI is an umbrella body for ten organisations and while he continues to give them advice, he is not involved at a managerial level at the three associations.
The new 17-member board, led by Rodrigues, was installed on November 23, 2018 at the association’s 69th annual general meeting and consists of eight deaf and hard of hearing members and nine supporters of the deaf. Rodrigues said the board has been working well as a team and members were very collaborative. He added the deaf community has expressed excitement about a deaf president – the first since the association was founded on July 29, 1943 – and look forward to improvements including more interpreters and increased access to services.
Rodrigues said there are more interpreters than when he was growing up but there was still a need for more, and he hopes to balance physical interpreters with ones accessed via technology. With a background in computers, he volunteered to assist the Caribbean Telecommunications Union with a project to have interpreters across the Caribbean accessible via video conferencing. The project started in the US and his discussions has taken him to Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent, Antigua and Guyana. He said Jamaica was almost at the implementation stage and then Trinidad was the next planned location, with the Telecommunications Authority of TT already agreeing to it.
He said another initiative was to change the name of the association; TTAHI was originally TT Association for the Deaf but was changed to hearing impaired, a move many deaf members did not agree with and led some to leave the association. He and former TTAHI member Valdano Tobias collected a petition and wrote Parliament asking the name to be changed to TT Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing which follows international standards. He was awaiting a response from the Social Development Ministry on the name change.
His general plans include more meetings with the Social Development Ministry and the Education Ministry on the needs of the deaf and more access to services. He also wants the TTAHI building to become a more deaf-friendly space with visual communications and to have new rules about spaces for the deaf.
“The goal is to establish different things where the deaf feel more welcome and happy. We want the same thing with deaf schools.”