Service provider, MIT IS&T
42nd Annual MLK Leadership Award
Barbara A. Johnson has a story that deserves to be heard. [She] has worked with energy, creativity, and humor to educate and improve the day-to-day experiences and long-term prospects for people with hearing loss and other disabilities. While working as an information technology service provider in Information Systems and Technology, she has made MIT more welcoming and inclusive in many ways.
Cochlear implant leads to so much more
In 2012, Johnson had surgery to implant a neuralprosthetic hearing device — a cochlear implant — to communicate directly with her auditory nerve. Johnson had lost her hearing over the course of adulthood, and with minimal residual hearing, she was found to be deaf. The cochlear implant restored a functional level of hearing and allowed Johnson to hear certain sounds for the first time — the scratch of beach sand under her feet, bird calls, rain on leaves. Her delight in interacting with others as she spoke and heard in a new way ignited a spark of advocacy for others with significant hearing loss and ultimately for those with other kinds of disabilities.
Johnson began by sharing information about her deafness with colleagues and those on campus who knew her. She helped them understand the sense of isolation that can occur when you can't hear what's going on.
“As a hard-of-hearing person with a severe loss I’ve been 'hidden,'” she says. “Having grown up as hearing person and fully mainstreamed without any special hearing assistance, my loss has been largely invisible to others. It’s as if I’m on a raft and the sea is very calm. Slowly, slowly but surely I drift farther from shore, where all the hearing people are. I’ve been gradually moving into a sort of hearing limbo, neither fully hearing nor fully deaf.”
Johnson’s efforts to help those around her understand her experiences led several colleagues to disclose that they, too, couldn’t hear well or had other kinds of communication restrictions. They couldn’t fully participate in activities ranging from staff meetings to lunch-table conversations. Johnson researched various amplification devices, transmitters, and receivers for certain kinds of hearing loss. She convinced Information Systems and Technology to routinely use microphones and amplification, with assistive devices on hand for meetings.
Methods that work in smaller spaces aren't suitable for large lecture halls and auditoriums, so Johnson began testing services that provide simultaneous captioning for speeches and lectures. She enlisted support from MIT's Audio Visual Services, which now provides live captioning services for events, as well as for video production.