Mariella Paulino creates systems and tools that center on helping people interact better with the world around them. As a Deaf technologist, she has worked in tech as a software developer, designer, and now as a project manager and is passionate about the intersection of technology with social impact initiatives that create inclusion, accessibility, and equity.
How did you get your start in accessibility?
Up until the last few years, my disability wasn’t a part of my identity. When I was in high school, I was traveling to Antarctica on academic expeditions, I got into NYU with a scholarship, and I have an invisible disability which has afforded me the tremendous privilege of being insulated from discrimination.
Then I moved away from my home in NYC to Washington D.C. and started to test the limits of my so-called independence. One fateful night, I was having communication challenges with a taxi operator who had hung up on me. I found myself stranded in a strange part of town, by myself, and I realized I wasn’t as independent as I thought myself to be. I had to call my sister at three in the morning, who was four hours away in NYC, to have her call a cab on my behalf. My sister has never complained about the needs I have placed on her (and her hearing), but it was then that I realized that I didn’t want to need her. I knew a day was coming when she couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to help me and I needed to figure out how I was going to be able to do things without her.
This was around the time that apps and technology were starting to hit the scene and I discovered Uber months later. Uber was an application that made me feel empowered and allowed me to gain a sense of independence that then transferred to every other aspect of my life.
For every problem I was having because of my hearing disability, I started thinking, “is there an app for this?” As I began to explore, I found out about apps like ZocDoc which helped me manage my healthcare and book appointments online. I discovered SoundHound and Shazam to identify music and follow along with the lyrics. And most recently, I was introduced to Google Live Transcribe which has removed so many communication challenges now during Covid19, a time when people wear masks and I struggle because I am no longer able to lipread.
You are the Founder of Project Hearing. What inspired you to start the platform and what are your primary goals?
In 2014, I got pulled over by a police officer who initially mistook my inability to hear and understand his commands to turn off my vehicle as a form of deliberate noncompliance. Thankfully, the misunderstanding was resolved quickly when I moved my head and showed him the metal affixed to the back of my head. At the end of the ordeal, the officer let me off with a warning saying, “For your safety, you need to figure out something about this disability problem. This could have escalated.” I asked him to volunteer suggestions that could have helped in that situation. His response was, “That’s not my problem. You figure it out.”
I needed a tool that would allow me to communicate my hearing disability to a police officer without me having to say a word. Individuals with disabilities make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers and half of those of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. Law enforcement officials also put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe and they often have to make split-second decisions where they must rely on their training to keep themselves and others safe. I decided to create bumper stickers for my car so that when a police officer or a first responder sees the “Deaf Driver” bumper sticker during a traffic stop, they are immediately made aware of the possibility they will be engaging with someone with a hearing disability and as such can set up methods of effective communication to facilitate communication.
My primary goal for Project Hearing is to create a platform where I educate people with hearing disabilities and allies on technology to facilitate the inclusion of people like me in the world.
As part of your work with Project Hearing, you co-host the Chicas Talk Disability event series. How does your experience as a Latina inform your work in disability inclusion and access?
I grew up in a Dominican household with deeply rooted family values. My family never saw my disability as something negative or an annoyance– it was simply something that we needed to work together to find workarounds for. For example, when a new song would come on the radio that everyone in the house would quickly memorize and sing together, my sister or mom would take the time to record the song on a cassette player and play it again and again as they wrote down the lyrics by hand so that I could learn the song and sing along. My inclusion in the family unit was not optional, it was mandatory. I was expected to work with my family and advocate for myself so I could be included in every activity from board games, dinner conversations, and sing-alongs.
In many ways, this is one of the driving inspirations behind my work with Chicas Talk Disability. Chicas Talk Disability was born out of serendipitous circumstances where my colleague Catarina Rivera and I bonded over our shared workarounds as we moved in the world– all the little things we had to figure out around topics like sex, dating, our careers, and our relationships. The lack of representation and information on social media created by, for, and with people with disabilities made us both realize that we had a lot to offer to this space just from sharing our stories.
What is an accessibility barrier you would like to see solved?
My life’s mission is to get all media and spoken communication captioned. A lot of people have the misconception that ‘hearing disability’ is the equivalent of knowing American Sign Language (ASL) or being a part of the Deaf Community – a tight-knit group of people whose culture centers on ASL. According to multiple studies, there are anywhere from 250,000 to 2 million people using ASL today in the United States and Canada, including some children of deaf adults. ASL speakers, however, make up less than 1% of the often-cited 48 million people in the United States with hearing disabilities.
I depend on captioning to follow along to conversations or content and I believe that one of the main reasons why people don’t caption their content is simply because they don’t know what tools are available or how to do use them. Applications like Google Live Transcribe, Google Meet, Descript, Kapwing, and Otter have completely revolutionized our ability to add captions into our daily lives, be it social media content, conference calls, or in-person meetings.
One of the things I have started doing is hosting workshops to educate people on how to add captions to their social media because I firmly believe that there is no use in complaining about something unless I also come up with real tools and services that also solve the problems I am complaining about. I also lead my life by example, making sure to caption all my content, host accessible conferences and meetings, and advocate for myself as much as possible.