Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Mariella Paulino (CAS ‘12), Founder of Project Hearing

Mariella Paulino
What is your favorite memory of your time at NYU? 

One of my favorite memories was during my very first week at NYU. My family lives in the Bronx, and my mother came with me for orientation week. Since I was a student with a disability, we were informed about the disability office - now called the Moses Center for Student Accessibility - via Ms. Valerie Cabral, the Assistant Director for the NYU Opportunity Programs at the time (now the Director of Alumni Relations at New York University Tandon School of Engineering). 

At the Moses Center, Ms. Cabral introduced me to Maria Schiano, the Coordinator for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services. Following our first meeting, Maria set up services I had never received before and didn't know existed! These services included real-time captioning from people like Lauren Schechter and Wendy Ruiz, two of the best stenographers in the industry. There were other services like notetakers, preferential seating, and hearing equipment upgrades like the newest state-of-the-art personal microphones —which came in handy during the freshman year lecture halls which had over 150+ students! These services were set up almost immediately for all my orientation week activities and summer and fall classes. I started having access to classroom conversations that allowed me to engage with my peers and professors with a new sense of independence and access I never had before. 

I remember looking at my mom during that meeting and knowing that we had made the right decision in choosing NYU. After our first meeting, Maria made a comment along the lines of, "She is going to get everything she needs to be successful here." I finally felt a sense of being seen as a person with a disability who needed accommodations to facilitate equal access and being in a space where I knew I would be supported with tools that met only the highest standards. 

Mariella Paulino: her story continues

What did you study at NYU and how did that education shape what you do now?
I initially started as a premed student, but organic chemistry was the end of my medical career. I ultimately found my fit at the intersection of Politics with the College of Arts and Sciences and Economics at Stern. 

One of the things that I love about NYU is that I was able to receive a holistic, individualized education across the University's campuses, and in doing so I was able to explore industries from management, to social work to engineering, to communications within one single semester. Being able to traverse so many career paths allowed me to explore my own professional interests but also taught me to think about a problem from an interdisciplinary perspective and expand my scope of reasoning.

NYU transformed the way I saw myself in the world and the role I have to play in it.

What led you to work in the field of providing access to people with disabilities? 

New York University has one of the largest accessibility service budgets in the country. From the moment I stepped on campus, I felt a sense of community and support from staff members committed to my success. As a student, I received training on how to self-advocate for accessibility accommodation during internships, engagement opportunities to meet with others who were also receiving accessibility services, and I had access to the latest emerging technologies to facilitate classroom learning.

These experiences, I later learned, were unique to my experience at NYU and outside of the norm for so many other students across the United States with disabilities. This awareness made me realize the responsibility I had to standardize these experiences and create environments and systems where others with disabilities could also exist in a world where they would feel included and where they would receive the support they need to thrive.

Can you tell us about your work at Knowbility, Inc.?

I am the current Director for Marketing and Communications for Knowbility - a nonprofit organization that administers web accessibility and usability audits and holds competitions, conferences, and workshops to help promote digital accessibility. Every day I get to make the internet a more accessible place with the support of a diverse, experienced, and profoundly knowledgeable community of assistive technology professionals.  

I get to define the nonprofit's brand and I have to say it is one of the most fun and rewarding jobs I’ve had in my career! In the past few months, I have built a strategy to engage with our audience by creating content like Reels on Instagram with our Executive Director Sharron Rush teaching the basics of accessibility via a Tik Tok dance! I also get to lead in creating events like the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR), which is an annual six-week competition that partners nonprofit organizations with tech team volunteers to build accessible websites. 

As the nonprofit’s voice, I am able to share a message of accessibility built on my own experience as a person with a disability and really build out a vision of a more inclusive digital world for people with disabilities. 

You are the founder of Project Hearing. Can you tell us about the platform and why you created it? 

I wasn't born with my disability but acquired my disability due to illness. 

When I was seven years old, my mother, sister, and I emigrated to New York City from the Dominican Republic. A few months after arriving in New York City, I contracted acute bacterial meningitis, which left me deaf in both ears. After surviving meningitis, doctors discovered that the antibiotics that saved my life also ended up destroying the cells in my cochlea —the tiny snail-shaped bone in your body that facilitates hearing. Because I already had access to language, sound, and communication, my family decided to implant me with a cochlear implant. More than two decades later, I owe much of my success in life to that decision. Due to the marvel of this technology —the only piece of technology that allows a person to restore a sense, I have been able to do some really remarkable things like launching Project Hearing. 

I began Project Hearing because I experienced a lack of community after leaving the bubble of academia and entering the workplace. Unlike someone with a cane or a wheelchair, hearing loss is often an invisible disability as most people with hearing disabilities speak orally and live and engage with the hearing world. The disability community is also often fragmented, and stigma around hearing disability prevents many of us from identifying our disability and seeking community and support in the workplace. 

My identity as a person with a disability was put into sharp focus in 2014. While living in Washington D.C. I was pulled over by a police officer who interpreted my inability to follow commands as willful noncompliance. As you can imagine, this created a situation that could quickly have escalated! At the end of the ordeal, I asked the officer to offer any advice if I was pulled over in the future. 

His response was, “That’s not my problem. Figure it out.” 

I went on to do my Master's degree in communications to explore how people with hearing disabilities receive and share information. From that thesis, I launched my first product: bumper stickers that say "Deaf Driver," to facilitate communication between deaf drivers and police officers. This is where my journey as a disability advocate began. 

My mission is centered on educating and building partnerships with allies committed to inclusion efforts, engaging with others in the community to learn about tools and resources, and advocating for the full inclusion of people with hearing disabilities in society. I've done speaking engagements for organizations like the United Nations, Harvard University, and the City University of New York. I also finished writing a book with a fellow Latina disability advocate and had the tremendous honor of having the foreword written by none other than fellow NYU alum and the current First All-Agency Chief Accessibility Officer for the MTA: Quemuel Arroyo (CAS '12, WAG '20)

Can you also talk about your work with Latinx In Tech? 

In 2019 I committed to creating content for Project Hearing via Instagram regularly following a 30-day challenge to connect with others with hearing disabilities in the workplace. My work caught the attention of Margaux "Margo" Joffe, an Accessibility Corporate Social Responsibility Manager for Verizon, who then told her friend and former college classmate, Catarina Rivera, about my work. Catarina is an exceptional human being. She became diagnosed with Usher's Syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by hearing loss from birth and progressive vision loss that begins in adolescence. She became diagnosed with her condition at 17, right before starting college.

I don't know anyone who lives life with as much vigor and enthusiasm as Catarina does. She is the founder of the Washington Heights/Inwood Food Council, a food justice organization, co-founder of ExplorEquity, a sustainable travel company committed to supporting locals and amplifying social justice issues, and the founder of Blindish Latina, a platform smashing disability stigmas through storytelling, advocacy, and education.

We had a lot to talk about! We connected over Instagram and met in person last year, right before the global COVID-19 pandemic hit NYC, and immediately bonded over our shared experience as two Latina professionals with disabilities in the workplace. We began speaking via video regularly through Google Meet —Google launched Live Captioning just as we started hosting these conversations! From there, we decided to launch a weekly conversation series called Chicas Talk Disability to have others share in the talks about the intersectionality between disability and other topics related to accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

We began sharing our stories as Latinas with disabilities in ways that both informed and entertained, hosting conversations on complex topics like the intersectionality of race and disability during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 and the emotional, financial, and psychological costs of disability. Our work culminated this past July 2021 with a book we published on the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, "32 Tools for Hearing Accessibility: A Practical Guide for People with Hearing Disabilities and their Allies." In it, we talk about some of the best practices for engaging with a person with a hearing disability and highlight the institutional knowledge coming full circle into our identities and as Latina professionals. 

What advice do you have for current students? 

Don’t self-reject! 

Let me tell you a secret: I lived in New York City for over a decade and had no idea where NYU was, what it looked like, and certainly did not know anyone who had gone there. I actually heard about NYU from a classmates in high school who was the valedictorian when I asked her where she was applying to college.

For our first college planning meeting my high school guidance counselor looked at the NYU logo application and said, “Mariella, NYU is a reach school for you” before I even opened my mouth to tell her about the week-long research I had done for why I wanted to go to NYU. Looking back, I understand her reasoning. She believed I would receive better support as a student with a disability within a smaller school where I would get more specialized attention because of my hearing disability. 

My counselor created limitations for what I could achieve before even giving me a chance to decide that for myself. She perceived me, first and foremost, as a person with a disability. She did not see the drive and determination that allowed me to learn English as a second language after losing my hearing, she ignored how my SAT scores placed me in the 90th nationwide percentile, she overlooked the fact I had been on the honor roll since my first semester in high school in a mainstream school as the only student with hearing loss. She saw the disability and not the person, and she saw the disability as something that limited the person. The rest of the semester she made my life difficult, going as far as refusing to write me a letter of recommendation, but I applied anyway and found support elsewhere. 

And I got in! 

And the four years that followed were the most incredible experiences because the University exposed me to a new world that completely transformed my worldview and my role in it because NYU was designed with people like me in mind, I was included from the beginning and set up to succeed. The rest of the world has not yet caught on, and because of this, long after my graduation, I realize that it’s my responsibility to share the discoveries I made within the halls of the University. 

Dream big and don’t self-reject the possibilities of the future because if you don’t create the things you want, you must endure the things you get!

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