Alison Smith hails from Glasgow but now lives in Shropshire with her partner, two dogs and two cats. Her background is in disability arts as a manager, practitioner, performance poet and a programme manager. She founded Pesky People in 2009 to work to improve digital access for Deaf and disabled people and recently made a splash with her Twitter campaign for subtitled online videos, #SubtitlesNOW. She found some time in her busy schedule to tell us all about her work and life.
What was your childhood like?
My parents are fairground travellers and I spent most of my school years at a boarding school being the only deaf child there. My parents believed that I’d get a better education than I would have done at a state school. It was a nightmare – like being in prison!
I was bullied from the age of 9 right through to when I was 15, for being Deaf and wearing glasses (that great combination). It took major counselling in my mid 20s to really sort that out. I’m from a hearing family and I’m the only one that is Deaf. I learned BSL when I was 24 in London, and it was from there that I also met another Deaf person for the first time. Shocking really!
Did you wear hearing aids?
I got my first hearing aid when I was nearly 9 years old. I still have clear memories of screaming that I didn’t want to wear one of the boxes and it took a long time to calm me down. I’d previously gone to a school in Glasgow where there were quite a lot of disabled kids so changing schools was a shock. Added to that that I had lots of health issues as a child – being born without my oesophagus meant lots of operations and hospital appointments even right up to leaving school. So I now identify as being Deaf and Disabled.
How deaf are you?
I’ve got severe – profound hearing loss (mostly high frequencies). As a kid I’d be what other Deaf people would call ‘hard of hearing’ where I had good level of hearing in my left ear (the ‘good’ ear) and none in my right ear. I have clear speech, which confuses people who tell me I’m not Deaf, but that was due to 10 years of speech therapy at school. I also had severe tinnius as a kid and I still remember not being able to sleep due to the continuous high pitched noises buzzing in my ears when there was no sounds.
I mix in both the hearing and Deaf worlds but mostly in hearing worlds. I think of myself as Deaf, not deaf, although I’m sure other people would think differently. I’ve been called deafened but I don’t agree with that.
Tell me about your career. How did you get started?
I loved arts but not being a painter or anything as creative as that, I studied business.
Getting a job after completing my degree wasn’t easy and I fell into the arts by accident! I applied for a job with Disability Arts Information Line and didn’t get it but my application was passed on to Arts Council England. So you could say I got head-hunted by the Arts Council.
I stayed there for 3 years and went on to work in disability arts and in the mainstream before turning freelance in 2008. I set up Pesky People in 2009 as a response to lack of digital access or inclusion online and it snowballed from there.
What’s Pesky People all about?
Pesky People has been a catalyst of change. Two things that happened to me helped put the site on the map. The first was being sold a mobile phone that didn’t work with my hearing aids. The second was when I wasn’t given a BSL interpreter at a conference. I took both those issues public and they both had a big impact online.
Pesky People takes on digital issues and helps people find a voice by blogging and using social media to take up the issues. I take it up with the companies concerned and what would take months to sort out usually takes a matter of days. We have successfully made organisations radically improve their access, including the Dr Who Experience and the National Digital Inclusion Conference. We’ve also taken on Ikea, Empire Cinemas, See Tickets and Ticket Master.
Since starting Pesky People, I’ve moved over to work in the digital area, so that included obtaining funding to develop Go Genie as a way of finding access information for cultural venues in one place. It also allows you to connect to companies via email, Facebook and Twitter.
To date we have been supported by over £65,000 in total from Arts Council England, NESTA and from winning NOKIA’s ‘Pitch n Win’ event last June. Doing anything involving websites and mobile apps is expensive!
So what is next?
To keep going and be the best I can at raising digital access issues for Deaf people and Disabled people, and finding new ways for the technology to be used to support us. To keep being creative and keep my toes in the cultural sector.
Lastly, continuing to campaign. My next challenge is to find ways to get the cultural sector to make their video content subtitled/BSL interpreted and audio described. No mean feat. We are locked out enough in real life. so why should we be locked out online?
The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancyDeafworks, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.
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