Maria Zedda is Managing Director of Wideaware Training. She has worked in the Disability field for 17 years, running community based projects for disabled people, visually impaired people and people with learning disabilities. She is currently Vice-Chair of the London 2012 Disability Communities Engagement Group, is a qualified Access Auditor and is on the Board of Trustees of several large organisations. A speech she made at The Guardian in 2010 was described by deputy editor Ian Katz as “the best speech I’ve ever heard at any internal conference for the paper.”
Were you born deaf?
I was born hearing, to hearing parents, but no-one is really sure how I lost my hearing. Doctors told my mother it could have been a childhood illness or the severe jaundice I had when I was a few weeks old.
I’m about 90% deaf in my right ear and about 75% deaf in my left ear. My hearing loss affects the higher frequencies, so can’t hear screeching guitars or high flutes, but will enjoy a thumping bass sound!
In speech I cannot hear consonants, only vowels so I rely on lip-reading to make sense of what people say. I wear a hearing aid on my left ear, but none on the right one as I find it confusing.
What was school and education like?
I grew up in Italy. The second year at elementary school in Sardinia was horrendous, I could not hear the teacher reading aloud the stories we were meant to write, and ended up writing my own, which she thought was a deliberate act of defiance (I was 7 years old!). Then when they diagnosed me with hearing loss she refused to have me in the class, claiming that I needed special education.
My parents decided to move to another village so I could join a class with a teacher who was a distant relative. She sat me at the front and made sure I could see her face and I did not have any problems. I was with her for another 3 years.
Secondary school and college were another matter. I became fed up of asking the teachers to make sure I could see them – they kept walking up and down and faced the blackboard all the time. So I did not do as well as I should have but I still got a few B+ grades in my A levels.
I moved to the UK in 1990, then after working at the BBC’s Disability Programmes Unit, became a student at the age of 25. I was a bit older and had received very good disability “confidence” training, so I was more able to get what I wanted from the lecturers. I had no problems getting up to keep asking them to face the audience and eventually they got the message!
How did you first set up your own company?
I had a long career in disability in the UK, Italy and the USA. Then I found myself with a 1yr old baby and another on the way and I thought “I’m a mum, I’m deaf, no way anyone is going to give me a job”. So in 2006 I set up Wideaware as I’ve always wanted to deliver disability training and I’m really passionate about it.
My husband had been trying to talk me into it for months, then the motivation increased when I started to look for business advice and financial support from banks, as they were not deaf-aware – or customer-aware for that matter.
How has Wideaware progressed?
I think we have progressed really well. My husband left his e-learning developer job to join me full time. I was the only Disabled Entrepreneur to win a UnLtd Award for three years consecutively, a Changing Places Award in 2008 and win the national Ready To Start Disabled Entrepreneur of the UK Award in 2009.
We are now providing e-learning on disability and inclusion to major organisations, including the ODI (Office of Disability Issues), Westfield Stratford City, Ofcom, ATOC (Association of Train Operating Companies), the borough of Southwark, The British Library, and many others. All our work is bespoke and we pride ourselves in the exceptional quality of the training – if people just want to cover the basics with us they can – but we encourage them to do more.
What’s the most satisfying aspect of your work with Wideaware?
Delivering training and the effect it has on people and when they tell me how the training has really helped them understand the issues. Many also start to realise the business case for being inclusive and that’s great – if not for equal rights be inclusive for money!!!
You recently worked with LOCOG setting up access for the Olympics. What was that like?
That was an interesting experience – I was very enthusiastic about what the London 2012 Games could bring to disabled people in the UK, help them achieve “the most inclusive Games ever”.
The disability groups and myself as Vice-Chair worked very hard on many issues on a voluntary basis and we tried to be as helpful as possible. But ultimately the final decision-making rests with LOCOG so I realized that there was a limit to what we could do.
What’s your view on how the cuts are affecting disabled and deaf people and how we are currently portrayed in the media?
I consider myself to have a disability and I feel strong solidarity with disabled people who rely on benefits, because I’m very aware what they’re going through could happen to anyone. The abuse and the hatred they are experiencing is horrendous and exacerbated by the latest government’s proposals.
I identify myself as disabled because I am – and also to help awareness as to who we are, not these “disabled scroungers” as portrayed by too much media out there. Disabled and deaf people contribute greatly to society and it’s their human right to expect to co-exist equally to everyone else and receive financial support enabling them to be equal.
What I’m witnessing at the moment makes me feel ashamed of the UK’s government but very proud to see how disabled people are organizing and fighting against this injustice.
As a mother of two how do you juggle home and work?
I don’t juggle it at all, we just scrape by! I share the workload – both professionally and at home with my husband and we try to cope the best we can. In the past some of the awards money I received was used for childcare – so that helped a lot especially as childcare is far too expensive in the UK and when you have more than one child the cost is truly prohibitive.
At times we’ve enlisted the help of our family but at the moment we are focusing on working while the children are at school and after they’ve gone to bed – not easy but it can’t be helped!
You’ve just moved from London to Edinburgh. What’s the difference?
The difference for me has been the improvement of the quality of life for my family – Edinburgh is much more child-friendly than south London and my children’s current school is fantastic. In Edinburgh there is a lot to do and many places to explore and most venues are accessible for free.
We also moved to be closer to my husband’s family and being able to see them much more often has been great. I do go to London all the time, however, on business, so I do get my London-fix often, I still love it but as an individual, not so much as a mum!
What’s up next for you?
Next for me is to make sure that Wideaware, my company, is healthy and strong to plough on through these very tough economic times. We need to have our work secured for the months ahead, then I’ll be looking forward to a holiday in Sardinia – where I’m originally from – so that the family and I can enjoy the sun, the sea, the food and see our relatives…I’ve not been back for three years and I really miss it!
Thank you Maria. One last thing – could you think of a random question to ask the next person to be interviewed on The Limping Chicken?
Ok! Here it is. Being part of the Deaf world or the hearing world: why do you think people are so keen to separate the two?
Interview by Charlie Swinbourne (Editor)
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