Unable to Speak, This Woman Found a Voice With An Interpreter and An App

She was trapped in an abusive environment and couldn’t get police to help her. New technology has given her a voice.

By Joy DiazJanuary 27, 2016 1:31 pm| , ,

How we take for granted the sound of a voice! Yet we know its power. We know in case of an emergency crying out “Fire!” is likely to get someone’s attention. But what happens when there’s an emergency and there’s no voice to alert anyone?

Estela Lopez and I look at each other in silence.

She’s beautifully made up for our interview. We are alone at her home. She smiles at me. I smile back. Her lipstick is fuchsia. But beyond that, we can’t communicate

“We just got notification from Jessica that they are just about all set on their end,” Kate Pascucci says.

Estela is deaf and mute and Pascucci is facilitating our conversation. We’ll be talking through interpreters. I’ll need my iPad and an app called Stratus Video.

A man in an orange sweater appears on my iPad screen. A woman’s voice says, “Hi, there.”

At first, I’m a little confused – my eyes see a man but my ears hear a woman. She calls the man “a CDI,” certified deaf interpreter.

Like Estela, our interpreter is deaf, but he specializes in communicating with people like Estela. She’s not just deaf – she’s also mute and illiterate. Estela grew up poor in Mexico and never attended school.

She never learned how to sign – not in Spanish while she lived in Mexico and not in English, now that she’s in Texas. Instead, Estela communicates—or at least tries to communicate through “home signs, “a kind of self-invented language of gestures for which there’s no alphabet or common set of rules. Yet the man in the orange sweater is fluent in her language. He knows how to decode the gestures that make up Estela’s only vocabulary.

On my iPad screen, there’s also my interpreter.

The man in orange interprets for Estela by relaying all messages to my interpreter, who in turn voices them for me.

And so the conversation begins.

Estela starts with the story of why she’s blind in one eye.

“So, what happened was that my husband started to hit me and I called the police at that point,” she says. He was drunk.

He beat her with a metal rod and stabbed her in the stomach with a knife.

“My husband turned on our gas stove and then took my head and forced it into the flames,” Estela says. Her face trembles as she tries to mouth the words.

By the time the police arrived, she was a bleeding mess. “There was no way for me to communicate clearly with the police when they came,” she says.

Police never filed a report. The abuse and the beatings – no one did anything to help. Estela’s hands stop moving. For the first time, her story has found a voice.

Estela had tried to draw pictures of what had happened. Her injuries are documented in medical records. But since police couldn’t understand her and no police reports were ever filed, she’s never had the paperwork to demonstrate that the violence was real and she tried to stop it.

Image credit Joy Diaz

Estela Lopez made drawings of her abuse, because she wasn't able to communicate to police what happened to her.

Though Estela would likely qualify for a special visa for victims of violent crime, what’s called a “U” visa, there’s no evidence that she wanted to work with police to stop the abuse. So, no special visa. Unable to communicate, she was trapped.

Amber Farrelly gets frustrated when she hears these kinds of stories. “For law enforcement not to investigate a case properly and talk to their witnesses properly in that situation,” she says, “That’s their job!”

Farrelly is an attorney in Austin. She mostly works with deaf clients and is appalled at how often she says Texas police officers fail to provide interpretation for people who are deaf.

“If we had someone who spoke Spanish, we would have an officer interpret in Spanish or French or German or whatever,” Farrelly says, “but they key issue is that we have to recognize that – not only are deaf people using a separate language, but they are also a protected class.”

She would be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But in the real world, Estela and others like her can suffer from abuse and violations of rights unless they can find a way to tell their stories and be heard. The Stratus app Estela and I used a few minutes ago represents a huge leap forward. Technology has given them a voice, if others will listen.

Farrelly says that unless Texans demand that the law be upheld and the deaf be heard, people like Estela will remain vulnerable and voiceless. And that, she says, cannot stand.