Where will you find yourself, if you let your curiosity and desire to discover new things in the world loose? Where will you land, if you keep going forward, not backwards, for your entire life?
‘To always catch the wind in the sails, that’s my motto’- says Lidia.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Lidia Best, the woman that lives her best life (pun sintended)! Some of you could have heard about her as a Vice President of European Federation of Hard of Hearing People (EFHOH) and Chairman of the National Association of Deafened People (NADP) a passionate advocate on accessibility for hard of hearing people including mentoring, policy development and standardisation.
Sounds very impressive, right? But how did she become the person she is now? Let’s listen to her story, the story that began once upon a time somewhere in Poland but also the story of ICHOHYP before it became IFHOHYP…
When I became a President of Youth Council at Polish Association of The Deaf in autumn 1988, little did I know how important that moment was. At the time, I was already well prepared for board meetings since representing disabled staff where I worked and used to challenging company management. Still, little has prepared me for a chance encounter with Adam Kopera, the individual contact ICHOHYP Committee had over the years in Poland. Adam approached me soon after I won the Youth Council elections and told me about existence of hard of hearing international youth organisation. This was a revelation to me!
Prior to this faithful meeting, together with few colleagues we have managed to persuade local Polish Association of the Deaf management to allow young hard of hearing people to have one evening a week for informal and formal meetings where we could meet with other hard of hearing people. The move created “safe space” for hard of hearing young people in Lodz to develop skills, meet, organise training and simply feel like they “belong”. Those events were very well attended and later we have joined corresponding club of different hard of hearing clubs in Poland. So, when I became new President of Nationwide Youth Council, Adam Kopera noticed me and decided to make an approach. Learning from him about Committee, international summer camps, I became excited. Adam gave me all necessary documents and contacts and I chose to act.
At the time Niklas Wenman (Finland) was a President of ICHOHYP and I decided to contact him first, except there was a little problem….I did not know English! I had good command of German, but this was of no use. I resolved to ask for help from my classroom friend and neighbour. We devised a plan; I will write what I need in Polish and Iwona will translate the letter to be sent. It worked well and I self-educated myself in the process. ?
Niklas wrote back and told us, there is a summer camp in Denmark in 1989 and invited us to join. Fortunately, the organisers were able to sponsor a group from Poland and Danish Embassy has also waived normal visa fees. For our group, it was historic moment as for the first time, an organised group of hard of hearing polish youth attended international summer camp run by ICHOHYP!Halfway through two weeks camp, ICHOHYP management organised the AGM. The meeting was supported with portable hearing loop, something that was a revelation to me. Katja Vis (Pertilla) explained to me how to activate t-coil in my analogue hearing aid, I always wondered what T symbol was for! However, there was second, even more important revelation to me at that meeting, English is the language at international meetings and I only knew German. You can only imagine Niklas face when we finally met face to face and could not communicate. After all he was receiving letters from me written in English! Luckily, some of the board members knew German and we have managed to find the way to communicate.
During the meeting, Niklas mentioned that there is a concern as there was no host for summer camp in 1991. Netherlands were lined up for 1990 and England for 1992. Another unexpected thing happened, I offered to seek agreement from Polish Association of the Deaf to support hosting 1991 camp in Poland. I felt this was an opportunity for Poland to join international community. I managed to persuade PZG to give “green light” to organise the camp and following year another group has joined summer camp, this time in Netherlands. Once again, organisers have been able to support our participation, then following year, international summer camp took place in south Poland with 70 participants from all over Europe.
I was asked to compare ICHOHYP to IFHOHYP and with little knowledge I have, I will try to give my perspective. At the time I was involved with ICHOHYP, it was to me a fraternity, a safe place to meet and not be judged but also a place to learn and develop. We even had a flag which was passed from summer camp to summer camp, we received ours during opening in Szczyrk and then I brought it back to Chatham, England as part of opening of the summer camp 1992. Most of the work done then (I think) was around organising meetings and exchanges.
Apart from accessibility aspect, as important as it was, something else was even more important to me….attitudes to hearing loss from Scandinavians especially. I was shocked to core to see how comfortable they were with their hearing loss, painting hearing aids in country flags, wearing short hair and just having their hearing aids on display. Unheard of in Poland! This made me realise that there is no stigma to being hard of hearing but then again, I never felt stigma as neither my family nor friends from school have allowed me to feel me less because of my hearing loss.
Just as summer camp 1991 concluded I received information from my good friend at work about existence of international scholarship program for active youth at one of London English schools. At the time, I was attending English classes at the evening school. I applied and soon after I was awarded a full time scholarship of International School of English in London, which I took up in October 1991, thanks to support from my friend who helped me find a place to stay near college but having realised that 3 months of learning English is simply not enough, I decided to make the full use of my 6 months student visa and enrolled in an evening courses at another English college.
It was very difficult to find myself in another country but luckily for me, I knew English hard of hearing young people who used to meet once a week in London. They provided me with support and a lifeline when I felt lonely. I continued working part time and, in the evening, attended English Language classes in private colleges, just as many young people continue to do now. In a romantic way, I met my husband through those hard of hearing people get together and settled in London for good.
As I settled down in UK, I also had to establish myself in fashion business scene, so I simply phoned one of fashion houses and asked if they need anyone with my skills, as it turned out they did! I was very lucky to be able to develop myself in the trade I love, and which pays well too. ? Fast forward to 2008 and I started to lose my remaining hearing, within 4 months I have lost all of it. To be honest, I was not prepared for this and took it hard on top of that, getting information on what is available has proven difficult. Despite all the difficulties, I have managed to find out more and soon I was given a new phone which enabled me to use relay services, our house was fitted with more extensive alerting devices and I started the process of assessments for cochlear implant.
A year later I was fitted with a CI and it felt like I have got my life back! However, I have not forgotten how difficult it was to find myself suddenly deafened and decided to get back to advocacy work as my experience made me realise that there is so much to do. Soon after I joined board of National Association of Deafened People and a year later, I stood EFHOH elections for board member. I have been part of the board for 10 years now and have learned great deal. When I was asked to stand for vice president of EFHOH, I had no doubt I will be able to represent hard of hearing people in Europe. As I am leaving EFHOH this summer, I am very proud of the work I did and the legacy I created such as European reports on hard of hearing and deafened people experiences, subtitling, and hearing care services which can be easily used by any national association as part of their lobbying efforts.
Was a hearing loss ever an issue for me prior to settling in London? Never, the thought never entered my mind, perhaps it is the way I have adapted? I even managed to hitchhike across Europe from Netherlands together with my friend. Nothing has ever stopped me from doing what I set my mind to. Once I settled in UK, there was one thing that helped me in improving my language skills….subtitling on TV. As my husband has hearing loss too, he had special set box plugged into TV, which enabled subtitles on TV set. With new digital TV set, subtitling is automatically enabled in our home. ?
Someone once told me….if you start dreaming and thinking in English, then you have mastered new language. I think it took me 5 years before I felt this confidence. For many years I was writing in English in Polish sentence structure, today it is the opposite! I am picking books in both languages without thinking twice. In 10 years of working in international advocacy, I have come across Polish people of all walks of life, notably at the meetings at WHO and ITU in Geneva and guess what? As soon as we realise, we speak Polish….we all revert from English to Polish! What is happening is that despite being confident in English, we just feel comfortable and happy to chat in Polish between ourselves. Quite often, this helped in gaining good opportunities and develop important contacts in international diplomacy.
However, I found lately, that preparing a presentation is now much easier in English than in Polish! One of the reasons is that I know all relevant terminology in English but not in Polish, so it is learning process for me.
Has experience of living in another country changed my perspective both as a person and hard of hearing? Yes. Settling in UK and on top of that getting married to an English man, meant I had to adapt, learn new ways of living and thinking. It has not been easy, but my husband has always been supportive, and this meant a lot to me. Living in UK has allowed me to be myself more than when I was living in Poland, it also allowed me to be more independent as accessibility has already been more advanced than in UK thanks to strong organisations of hard of hearing people operating in UK. Lastly, London is a metropolitan city, where people with different nationalities and faiths live alongside each other. This in no doubt allowed me to learn tolerance and ability to understand different cultural backgrounds.
When we were discussing why hard of hearing people can make amazing things in spite of the obstacles, Lidia simply summarized the core point of the discussion: ‘Curiosity is always stronger than fear. This is very first step’.
There is no better way to sum up this entire article! Therefore we wish you having this inner curiosity and not to hesitate to use it against every kind of fear. May we all stay curious (curious also what next interview will be about?)! 😉