What inspired me to become an intermediary – Maija’s story

In the latest post in our ‘What Inspired Me’ series, Maija tells us about her career path and how she became an intermediary.

I recall being a young Finnish girl, aged perhaps five, and feeling immensely puzzled. I had been in a scuffle and had explained to a kindergarten teacher (in what I thought was great detail) why it was that a friend and I had got into that fight. I thought my explanation was as clear as day, but when the story was relayed back to my parents by that same teacher, the message sounded nothing like what I had said.

Oh, the feeling of frustration and the injustice of it all; how could she not have understood what I had tried to explain? This was all the more strange to me. as I was used to keeping my communication simple. My big sister had a learning disability – mild but significant enough for her not to be able to express herself clearly or understand when people used complicated language. That was the first inkling in my little girl’s brain that the ‘biggest problems in the world’ seemed to stem from misunderstandings.

Over time, this issue of understanding kept raising its head and I wondered why some of us understand things easier than others. Why was it that I struggled to understand what the mathematics teacher was saying, but my friend soaked it all in and got straight As? However, that same friend could not get the rules of English language, try as she might, whereas I had absorbed those with very little difficulty. In fact, I loved learning English (and other languages, for that matter). It made me feel powerful to be able to communicate in a wholly different language system; it was like decoding secret messages.

Finding the right path

Playing to my strengths, I decided that languages would be the path for me. I enrolled on course in University in London to study English and Russian, got my degree and worked as a freelance translator for some time. But I soon found that it was a lonely existence and I got a job in the music industry while, again, deciding ‘what to do when I grow up’.

Five years went by in a blink of an eye, and it dawned on me that I was still very drawn to the issues of communication and understanding. So, I enrolled on a sociolinguistics Masters course. Some of the issues I covered included, if men and women really do communicate very differently, is it nature or nurture? Is it even so clear-cut? Can it be so clear-cut? (It can’t, by the way.) It was exciting and interesting, but when it was all over I found myself with yet another degree and no idea what to do with it.

I then got offered a job in a well-known London art gallery quite by accident. I was blinded by the glamour and found myself on different career path once more. Another six years later, having risen from a temp to a role of a consultant within the arts sector, the glamour was all but gone. I now found myself sitting at a desk in an art centre, in trendy Shoreditch at 9pm on a Friday night, in charge of the operations and pressing numbers on a spreadsheet in time for payroll.

I had become stressed, cynical and deeply unhappy, working in an industry which lacked empathy and left me feeling cold and meaningless. It dawned on me that I was still not where I was supposed to be and it was time to make yet another change; to do something meaningful with my life. Something that made a difference, and even more – I wanted to see the difference that I was making.

Going back to study

In my spare time, I had started volunteering with an elderly (fellow) Finnish woman with significant communication difficulties due to vascular dementia. Every fortnight we spent a few hours talking. I supported her to understand the world as she was experiencing it, and to recall moments of her past by talking about old photos or singing old Finnish popular songs. In those few hours I felt I was doing something more real, more immediate and tangible than in any of my work as a consultant in arts and culture. Perhaps there was something in that; helping another person communicate – giving someone an experience of being heard.

After that night sitting alone in the empty arts centre finishing work, I went home with a mission; find out what I can do with my existing degrees, knowledge and how to go about getting it. After doing extensive research, I found that my profile matched point by point with that of a Speech and Language Therapist. Eureka! I had learned about how we speak differently (languages), why we speak differently (sociolinguistics), and now it was time to learn about what could go wrong in language use and how that could be compensated. I applied on a postgraduate course and got accepted as a full time student at the grand old age of 40.

During the application process I quickly realised that I possessed many qualities that suited the role already. Of course, I had already supported the communication needs of my older sister since I had learned to speak (although as we know, not always entirely successfully!) and I had worked with that lovely elderly lady for some time. But there were other factors that had cropped up over the years.

My mother had problems with her hearing and I was used to adjusting my communication style for her. Further diagnoses of progressive conditions for both of my parents (Parkinson’s for mum and Alzheimer’s for dad) meant that further adjusting would be required in the future. The course was hard, much harder than I had expected, yet I knew that this was it. This was the right path; I was finally finding out how to tackle this uncomfortable idea of misunderstandings.  

Working in a forensic setting

As a Speech and Language Therapy student, having various practical work experience on a placement is a vital part of the learning process. I had found working with children in a primary school lovely, although I did not envisage working with children full time. But when I was offered another school placement at the beginning of the second year, my heart sank; I wanted experience working in an adult setting too. By chance, I heard another student complain that she had been given a placement in a forensic mental health unit but had wanted a placement in a school instead. I jumped at the chance and suggested that we swap, despite not having a clue what ‘forensic mental health unit’ might actually mean in practice.

It meant working with offenders with various mental health difficulties in a medium security setting. That placement was incredibly challenging, but also life changing. It was hard work, unpredictable, often quite depressing, but also rewarding beyond my expectations. I had my first taste of what it was like working with men and women who had gone through the justice system, many of whom, I suspect, had not had the benefit of an intermediary in court to support their understanding and processing of the proceedings or to tell their side (although I did not at the time know what an ‘intermediary’ was).

During the first year after graduating, I came across a job advert for Communicourt working with defendants who have problems with communication. What a curve ball! Reading the job advert, I got goosebumps. They wanted resilient people, who felt passionately about justice and language. The role was about ensuring people with significant communication difficulties, who were defendants or respondents in criminal and family courts, could understand what was happening to them. It was about giving people a voice, and being someone who was able to decode what they wanted to say. Reading that job application, I knew I had to become an intermediary.

“As an intermediary, I stand on the side of justice. The person I am in court with must have a chance to fully understand why they are there, and to give their best possible evidence without fear of not being understood or misunderstood.”

I can truly say that my role fulfils all of the areas that I so desperately wanted to work on in my career. The need for empathy is a prerequisite – I would argue that it can be very difficult to understand another person’s point of view unless you are, at least in part, able to put yourself in their shoes. And almost every day, I get to try to untangle some form of misunderstanding; if not one that has already occurred, then attempting to prevent one from happening in the first place.

The vulnerable people I have worked with often feel grateful for the help they receive from an intermediary. But I do not take this for granted. Some feel resentful and some do not care. The best situations have been when the person has felt they have had their say with full understanding, knowing that I helped facilitate this feeling of agency.

As an intermediary, I stand on the side of justice. The person I am in court with must have a chance to fully understand why they are there, and to give their best possible evidence without fear of not being understood or misunderstood. And vice versa, to ensure that justice has been served, the officers must feel confident that they have been able to express (with help) what the accusations are, and equally importantly, that they themselves have understood as much as possible what the defendant’s point of view is.

So my dream job of “taking on misunderstandings” is not always easy. Some days are sad, some days are tiring, particularly when supporting someone give evidence over several days. But I do my job with the knowledge that I am doing my little bit. With empathy and objectivity, and with the knowledge that the vulnerable people get the justice they are entitled to. I wish I could go back and explain that to my kindergarten teacher now.

Are you interested in becoming an intermediary? We are looking for people to join our team. Find out more and how to apply.