Jamal Keron Legen in the garden at the National Centre for Disabilities in San Fernando. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Originally published in the Trinidad Express , February 05, 2018

I was born hearing into a single parent home in Sangre Grande. My mom worked hard to support her seven children. One month after my seventh birthday, I contracted meningitis and was rushed to the hospital. I can remember my uncle saying, “This boy dead inno!”

After six weeks of being warded, I was the only person who survived meningitis at that hospital. I was alive, but something was different; I did not hear anything, but was able to speak.

My mom was blamed for my hearing loss. This was hard for her. However, my paternal grandmother and aunts were very supportive. My mom was advised by the doctors to carry me for a hearing test at DRETCHI. I called it the ‘ears factory’ because they were always ‘digging in my ears’.

I got hearing aids, and I thought I got back my hearing, but when I looked in the mirror I thought I looked like an alien.
At nine, I stopped using the hearing aids because I could not hear words. That year my aunt visited and suggested that I go to a school for the deaf.

When I entered Cascade School for the Deaf, I saw children signing. When I walked up to them and began to speak, they all watched me funny and walked away. I felt alone. As time moved on, I learned to sign. I do it so well now, I teach sign language.

I was transferred to Good Shepherd Anglican, wrote the Common Entrance exam and passed for my first choice Matura Government Secondary but there was no interpreter there. We were advised to send me to the Cascade School until one was sourced. I refused, stayed at home and started farming.

Jamal Keron Legen in the garden at the National Centre for Disabilities in San Fernando. Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

In January of that school year, I was enrolled into El Dorado Secondary Comprehensive. There I met Ms. Maria Baptiste- Gulston and Ms. Dawn Crooks, my Special Education Teachers who taught 13 Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students. I focused on sports and represented my school in Basketball, Boxing and Badminton. This made me feel included and respected among hearing students.

I must state that life as a Deaf Adult is not easy. I became aggressive because I felt that people could not see beyond my deafness and denied me opportunities so I joined regular activities to prove people wrong. One example was when I applied to become an SRP.

I did the entrance exam and passed. I was called to do my physical. The Officer walked up to me and asked, “Did I call your name?” I then explained I did not know because I could not hear. He looked confused and told me I could not be a Police Officer because I was deaf. This was a turning point for me. I couldn’t serve my country because I was deaf?

In 2009, I was part of a team of deaf persons that started what is now called Deaf Sports Trinidad and Tobago. No one cared if you were deaf as long as you could play. People learned to communicate with you and respected you on the field. You were part of a team.

My whole life changed in 2012 when I was involved in a motor vehicular accident on the PBR. I broke my leg and had to undergo surgery. While at the hospital, I realised that no one signed. I was even asked to sign consent to my surgery without the presence of an interpreter.

At the time I did not know this was a violation of my rights. I met Anessa Hamilton, a social worker who worked with the deaf community and she asked me an important question; “What is the legacy you want to leave when you die?”

I started to think about my life in a different way. I used a crutch for 6 months and saw how hard it was to walk on pavements. For the first time I understood how persons with mobile Disabilities felt.
In November 2013 after my eldest sister was murdered, I became aggressive, grieved and forgot about making a difference.

The day after her funeral I was asked if I wanted to be part of a Leadership Academy for Persons with Disabilities that was organized by CODO. I said NO! Anessa sent my resume anyway and I was asked to attend an interview 2 days later. After the interview I felt like my deceased sister was telling me to continue.

My interview was successful and I was asked to start training the next week but I was not emotionally prepared. My first session was with Ms. Alison de Franco, a Human Rights Lawyer from the US who is legally blind. Her story helped me to think about changing my society again.

This time I had interpreters, was involved and I started to feel involved in The Community of Persons with Disabilities. I learned that all of us had similar problems, we did not all have full accessibility to everything. No ramps, no braille, not enough interpreters, no true educational opportunities, no therapies, no visibility.

I am currently the President of The Voice of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Association and a board member of CODO and Disabled People International. I am also going back to school to complete my education, while engaging in farming, which is my passion.

My biggest goal is to one day speak in Parliament just as my role model, Dr. Eric Williams. He was the first person with hearing loss to make a difference that changed our country. I want to be the second.

The production of the Lions segment of the Lioness Project series, highlighting the experiences of ten men in the disability field, is supported by the Cause an Effect Organisation, the Massy Foundation and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.