The Amazing Blind Interpreter: Jamey Cook

Snapshot of Jamey and Abner. 
In late April, Judy flew to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to give a  presentation at the annual conference of CATI (Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters). It was a wonderful event,  and  her main highlight was meeting Jamey Cook, an awe-inspiring blind  interpreter who always has her adorable Seeing Eye dog, Abner, by her side. Jamey is an accomplished scholar and interpreter, attends conferences on her own, and is the first-ever blind certified medical interpreter (CMI). You read correctly: Jamey is a top-notch Spanish medical interpreter who who also happens to be blind.

Read on to learn more about Jamey's story. It's quite inspirational, and it reminded us that our fellow linguists are capable of overcoming enormous challenges. Jamey grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and now lives in Carrboro, North Carolina (a suburb of Chapel Hill), where she is a Spanish medical and telephone interpreter. She holds a master's degree in Spanish from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It is truly amazing how Jamey can navigate a world that's not designed for the blind. We hate to admit this, but we were quite ignorant about how non-sighted linguists navigate computers (which we seem to use every  minute of every day), and it was fascinating to learn more about the tools  that Jamey so successfully uses. What's even more embarrassing is that we didn't even know if we had to say "visually impaired" or if "blind" was fine. Jamey put as at ease and told us that all the political correctness is overkill. Using the term "blind" is perfectly acceptable. So here's our interview with the amazing blind interpreter, Jamey Cook. 

 Q: What was early childhood like for you?
Jamey: After being born three months prematurely, and quite literally fighting for  my life, I was diagnosed with Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP).  I lost  sight in both eyes by the time I was six months old, and underwent a total of eleven eye surgeries by the time I was three. Doctors couldn't save my physical sight, but my parents were determined that I be given every  opportunity to live a full life.

What was school like?
Jamey: I attended classes with sighted students from preschool through high  school, and spent a small part of my day in the vision room, where an itinerant teacher worked with me on everything from Braille to adaptive technology.

How did you learn Spanish?
Jamey: My mother, who grew up in East Texas, taught me a few words, and I was fascinated.  She checked out tapes from the National Library Service For the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and I studied these dutifully for years until I could get into high school Spanish courses.  I now have a  bachelor's and a master's degree in Spanish.

 How did you become interested in interpreting?
 Jamey: I began volunteering once in a while as a patient visitor at the local  hospital when still in high school, and then was called on to interpret as  a substitute occasionally.  Then, during and after completion of my  undergraduate work at Maryville College, I interpreted both on site and by telephone.

How do you get around on the computer?
Jamey: First of all, I neither use a monitor nor a mouse, and I perform all  functions with keystrokes, and a program which reads the screen aloud to me. My screen reader doesn't get along with every website, nor can it read  images, but this would be a long digression if I told you all about that. When I graduated high school, I could barely type, and I had only a  rudimentary concept of formatting.  By God's grace, I met a private  adaptive technology teacher who came out to my college campus, and I was soon flying through Windows and Internet concepts.  Again, how the screen reading and  other technology has evolved since the point when I had to read each entire  webpage would be a long discussion.

How did you manage before you owned a PC?
Jamey: I utilized a small, portable device called a note taker.  I still remember  my mother counting spaces and measuring indentations with a ruler to format  my first resume accurately in high school.  I still use a note taker today,  but it is much more sophisticated, and is still far more portable than a  laptop computer, though it can't handle Excel and PowerPoint yet. The ability to carry hundreds of Braille volumes in electronic files is just incredible. I am a proud Braille reader, and literally ripped backpacks carrying home bulky volumes during my school years before all this technology evolved.

What was grad school like?
Jamey: Challenging.  I had a great deal of difficulty getting university  departments to collaborate with each other when I needed specific help.  Romance Languages faculty and staff bent over backwards to help me adjust  to teaching, and Disability Services would Braille my tests and scan my  textbooks, but if I wanted a sighted reader to help me speed through  research far faster than I could using scanned texts, I ended up having to  find my own.  I experienced many challenges when it came to finding all of  the required reading for my comprehensive exams, and thesis research was  slow, but I finished and graduated, thank goodness. In fact, grad school  helped me grow up in many ways, and I have developed strategies to overcome  those same problems, should I decide to get another degree.

What made you decide to return to interpreting?
Jamey: I had difficulty with the practical aspects of foreign language teaching: preparing visual aids, being able to work my way through  electronic resources fast enough to plan lessons and complete my own coursework at the same time, etc.  I love teaching, and my students  asserted that my enthusiasm for Spanish was contagious, but I was under a lot of stress because of the extra time I needed for preparation.  I attended a  lecture by a local medical interpreter, and it hit me slap in the face that  interpreting was my calling.  It is a richly rewarding and sometimes tough job, bridging communication gaps, and adjusting to new developments in this diverse field.  I really enjoy it! I understand that if I become an  interpreter trainer or manager, I will take on more responsibilities, and maybe even have an opportunity to return to teaching.  Grad school taught  me about research, and I am eager to write some book reviews, perhaps some  articles, and maybe even present at a conference sometime.  I am thrilled  to have received training and certification as a medical interpreter, as well as to have obtained work, and I look forward to what lies ahead.

Can you tell us more about Abner? How does he help you in your daily life?
Jamey: Two weeks after graduation, I flew up to The Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ, where I met this easy-going Lab and Golden Retriever cross named Abner. Matching a dog to a person is a bit of an art and a science all at once, and it was so wonderful to participate in that process for the first time!  Training was intense, but so totally worth bonding with this handsome fellow.  He helps me to be more active and independent, and definitely to travel farther and faster than I ever have before.

CATI board members look on as Jamey and Abner handle the raffle.
I have attended conferences in other cities on my own, we are expert Amtrak travelers, and he makes me more visible, which really helps when I need assistance.  Instead of walking fixed routes with my cane, I can take my talking GPS and my dog with me and have the "big picture."  My spatial orientation has grown far more sophisticated, and I can actually walk to places in my neighborhood just about as fast as the bus can get me there.  Not to mention that I can now give decent driving directions to locations in my area if I have been there a few times before. And yes, he is a loyal and faithful friend who helps me network, and sometimes even unexpectedly calms others down.

He had the distinction of snoozing quietly through my certification exams last year, and as I understand it, I am the first totally blind interpreter to have the CMI credential.  I work night shift now, and having him beside me when I'm on the job is special.

I feel so very blessed in many ways, and thanks so much for this opportunity!


Jennifer Bikkál Horne on July 11, 2012 at 9:57 AM said...

Thank you so much for sharing her story! It was truly an inspirational read.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 11, 2012 at 10:26 AM said...

@Jen: our pleasure. We are proud to have Jamey as a colleague. And now, if we could only train Luna, who, unlike Abner, has no special skills...

Charlie on July 17, 2012 at 3:23 PM said...

This is an incredible story. As someone who is just starting toward a career as a translator, this makes me feel like I can concur any challenge.

Anonymous said...

What a story! Thanks for sharing.

Cassy on August 6, 2012 at 5:53 AM said...

Jayme is an inspiration. Thanks for sharing!

Cross-Cultural Communications said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful article/interview which we re-posted on our FB page. What an inspiration for the rest of us!

Cross-Cultural Communications on November 8, 2012 at 6:49 AM said...

Thank you so much for publishing this article/interview which we have re-posted on our FB page. What an inspiration for the rest of us!

Ang's on May 22, 2013 at 8:21 PM said...

I am a Spanish professor who is advising a blind very talented student of mine, she is majoring in Spanish. I loved the Jamie Cook story. Would it be oaky to share Jamie's contact information with me? It would be great if I can ask Jamie to share some her experience with my student. Thank very much.


Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 23, 2013 at 1:29 PM said...

@Ang: Thanks for your comment. How wonderful that you are inspired as well -- Jamey is a remarkable person indeed. She's also very generous with her knowledge, but we don't want to speak for her, so why don't you e-mail your request to us (judy(dot)jenner(at)twintranslations(dot)com) and we will forward your request to her and let her take it from there. How does that sound? Looking forward to hearing from you!

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