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She's a familiar face from BBC NI where she signs the news for deaf people, but few know her own inspiring story ...

Mary Kyle, who has been deaf since infancy, signs the news on BBC Northern Ireland for deaf viewers. She tells Una Brankin how new communication methods have made life easier, but she would love to hear - just once - the sound of her son's voice

She has been a familiar face on BBC Northern Ireland News screens for 21 years, but Mary Kyle has managed to keep under the publicity radar throughout her career.

Indeed, the majority of viewers would be hard-pressed to name her. Yet, the Omagh-born presenter provides an invaluable service to the 3,500 sign language users who tune in for the daytime news at 1.40pm, a popular slot before Doctors.

Mary has been deaf since contracting meningitis as an infant.

"The scripts I had to follow were very different 21 years ago," she recalls. "The news was still dominated by the Troubles and there were lots of updates, on the spot.

"The news was very important then. Many people then, and still, get the news from the radio; the deaf can't. Providing sign language on the news made a big impact."

An engaging, upbeat presence, Mary is talking to me over coffee in Belfast's Clayton Hotel through an interpreter, Tricia McMaster, an expert in capturing the nuance and expression in her client's sign language.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether sign language should be taught in schools, a campaign enthusiastically backed by the BBC See Hear series producer William Mager, who describes it as a language more beautiful than words.

The speed of the flurry of signs passing between Mary and her interpreter is fascinating to an onlooker like me with no knowledge of the language beyond what I picked up while glued to the brilliant deaf actress Marlee Martin every week in The L Word drama series a few years ago.

Mary has never heard of the American Oscar winner, who was deeply upset by reports that Donald Trump described her as "retarded" when she appeared in his Celebrity Apprentice series, calling him a "barrier" for the disabled.

Mary has also found herself the subject of condescendence born out of ignorance.

"Someone actually shouted in my ear once," she says, rolling her eyes. "Somebody else told me all about cochlear implants, which I'm perfectly aware of, and another time, when I was taking my son swimming, someone said to me: 'I'm so sorry you're deaf'.

"I said: 'Well I'm very happy, thank-you!' And I am. I am deaf but I can feel vibrations, if I hold onto this table, for instance. I know when a motorbike's coming on the road."

Now in her early 60s, Mary had been deaf since contracting meningitis as an eight-month-old. The eldest of four, she was brought up on her family's busy farm in Omagh, which was left to her father Orr, who's now 85 and based in Portrush. Her mother Mary, a former nurse, died seven years ago.

"I was in hospital for a long time after I was born," she says. "There were more risks back then with meningitis; it would have been life-threatening.

"So, I grew up deaf but the family never learned to sign - it wasn't the done thing then. We just used gestures and wrote notes; we had our own language.

"Of course, growing up, you go through the 'why me?' phase, and it wasn't easy in Omagh. There were no facilities as such. People didn't understand; you were labelled as disabled.

"The problem is that deafness cannot be immediately detected. But everything's much improved for kids now."

Mary didn't learn sign language properly until she went to boarding school in Belfast at 16. The isolation she had experienced as a teenager without hearing was suddenly alleviated in her new surroundings and in the company of other deaf people.

"I wasn't homesick at all," she remembers. "I was always very independent. I'm a very strong individual - I'm told I'm like my mother in that way.

"I connected with a group of people in Belfast. Omagh didn't have the facilities I needed. I loved the school and I learned to use my voice there but I wasn't prepared for the reaction to it outside of the school when I left. I wasn't as coherent or as clear as I thought I was.

"After all that work I put into speech, it was a struggle for people to understand me. Other people thought it was strange; odd."

After school Mary got a job in an information technology company, looking after its accounts on an early computers system, before going on to work for Sirocco.

She joined a club for deaf people and met the man she was to marry. The couple, now divorced, have a son, Matthew (35), an actor based in London.

"I remember when I got married and had Matthew, Mum being in an awful panic about how I'd manage," Mary remembers. "The technology wasn't as good then. I had this baby alarm with a big light that would flash to alert me, but I didn't trust it.

"I'd keep the baby on my chest until he was asleep and I'd lie with my hand in his cot. Mum was very worried about how Matthew's speech would develop but he went to play school at 18 months and he never had any problems.

"I remember he was only nine months old when he first used sign language at home. He was sitting in his high chair and he used the flashing sign when he saw the light going off to indicate there was someone at the door. And he could always sign to say he wanted a biscuit! He grew up to be a very confident child, and bolted off to university when he was 18."

Mary eventually went back to work, taking up a job under the psychologist Susan Phoenix, in support of her deaf clients. She's also on the social services team of the South Eastern Health Trust in Lisburn when she's not on duty at BBC NI. She landed the job as the broadcaster's first sign language presenter in 1996.

"It's strange seeing yourself on screen in the beginning but I'm very comfortable with it now," she reflects.

"I've always tried to be as natural and as professional as possible when signing the news; there's a certain BBC standard you expect. I don't exaggerate my expressions. You have to be impartial.

"To make it comfortable viewing for the sign language audience I need to wear plain, muted colours. I try to keep it fashionable and professional, but I love patterned clothes off-screen."

Although she isn't a household name, Mary does get recognised by viewers in the street, and is asked for her autograph, occasionally when she's out for coffee or dinner with friends in Belfast.

These days she uses her voice only to "call the dog".

"It's very different now to days gone by - most people in shops and cafes in Belfast can sign, or they'll use a note book and pen," she says. "I'll explain 'I'm deaf, this is what I want', or type on my mobile phone."

Depending on others to help her with everyday tasks, she feels, has been her biggest challenge.

"Before mobile phone texting I felt quite reliant on others to make phone calls on my behalf and not having direct access to people and services felt very limiting," she admits. "Improved technology has enabled me to organise my personal and work life just like everyone else now, but although we now have more sign language interpreters in Northern Ireland, appointments, meetings, direct communication still take some planning.

"These mostly hinge on interpreter availability. It's difficult when the appointments are for health reasons and an interpreter can't be found. We are not yet in the ideal position of having the same access to services as everyone else, and I do find it frustrating if I'm in a room of people talking and no one is signing.

"But I'm delighted my niece Amy is learning sign language - she's staying with me while she's at Queen's."

If she were given the chance to hear anything at all, just for two minutes, Mary would opt for the sound of her son's voice.

As she recalls: "I was away with my sister when my son Matthew was small. When we phoned home my sister was able to talk to him on the phone and I wasn't. That always struck me as one of the times I wished I could hear his voice.

"Thankfully, with the wonderful advances in technology, I no longer have any communication barriers. We can easily talk to each other on FaceTime and keep in touch via messaging or email."

As for her future ambitions, Mary is happy to continue with her work at the BBC.
"I'm at a stage in my life when I am very content," she concludes. "I'm still a bit of a workaholic, and while I'm still in good health I plan to continue to enjoy that aspect of my life. I think I need to make more time to travel, though, especially to see Matthew."

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