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Amelia Loken
Amelia Loken

Award-winning speaker and disability rights advocate Amelia Loken will graduated this month with a Master of Public Administration degree. Prior to this, she received her undergraduate degree at UA Little Rock in Interpretation: ASL/English in 2017.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m originally from El Centro, California, and lived in various parts of the United States. I was a stay-at-home mother for 14 years and raised five sons. During high school, I was passionate about becoming an opera singer and participated in numerous productions. However, my aspirations came to a halt in college when I realized that my talent was limited to a small scale and changed my major to fine arts.

Why did you choose UA Little Rock?

We relocated to Little Rock in 2011. After my children were in school, I decided it was time to complete my undergraduate degree and majored in ASL/English because I knew sign language. I also joined the university choir and participated in the annual opera gala.

How did you get interested in sign language and interpretation?

Following the birth of my last child, I experienced postpartum depression. Fortunately, two deaf women at church taught me sign language and interpretation, which led to my appointment as the church interpreter. This role helped ease my depression and prompted me to pursue a degree in this field.

Why did you decide to get a graduate degree in public administration?

As a requirement for their degree program, ASL/English students are required to undergo hearing evaluations. Regrettably, my results indicated that I was hard of hearing because I cannot hear high-frequency sounds. I continued interpreting for a few years, but since interpreters are bound by a strict code of ethics, I recognized when my hearing loss impacted my ability to deliver high-quality interpretation of the messages. As someone who is passionate about disability rights, I made the decision to shift my career focus and pursue a master’s degree in public administration.

Initially, my classes were all online due to COVID. When I returned to class, everyone was wearing masks, and I couldn’t identify who was speaking and missed much of what was said, due to my hearing loss. The cognitive load was too much. I then reached out to the university’s disability services and asked for accommodations, and they immediately assigned interpreters to my class.

What were some of your favorite courses?

In a course instructed by Dr. Kirk Leach, I learned about “wicked problems” – societal issues that are challenging to address due to their complexity. The course was rigorous and stretched me academically. Another course I enjoyed was Dr. Jerry Stevenson’s organizational theory class; I was so fond of it that I purchased the textbook. The most demanding course I took was public policy with Dr. Derek Slagle, which encompassed statistics, public policy, public records, and trends. The knowledge I gained from this course has proven beneficial in my current role at the Department of Energy and Environment.

What accolades have you received for your public speaking abilities?

I have shared my research from a public policy analysis class at two academic conferences, and I also had the opportunity to represent UA Little Rock at the NASPAA (Network of School of Public Affairs, Administration & Policy) student wildfire emergency simulation competition. Our team won first place among all graduate student teams in the south-central region. Additionally, I was honored to receive the Outstanding Delegate award at the Bilateral Chamber Regional Model Arab League Conference and Distinguished Delegate award at the National University Model Arab League while representing UA Little Rock.

Tell us about your presentation at the 2023 Research Expo.

In my presentation, I address the issue of the digital equity gap in the disability community. To bridge this gap, affordable access to internet or phone services needs to be provided, in addition to  interpreter-operator services or speech-to-text features, specialized equipment, and training. In my project, I specifically focused on the provision of specialized telecommunication equipment through state programs. I compared the scope of disability populations served, funding sources, and availability of advanced technology (such as smartphones and tablets). In all areas, my data showed Arkansas met or exceeded offerings available in other states, which was an encouraging find.

You are a published author where the protagonist is a person with a disability.

The title of the novel is “Unravel,” featuring a deaf princess as the main character who possesses magical embroidery powers. Despite the exclusion of the deaf community from her society, the princess learns to stop masking her disability and fully step into her identities. My intention is to showcase disabled individuals (myself and others) as powerful, capable, and heroes of their own stories.

What do you plan to do after graduation?

During this summer, I plan to work on a new fantasy manuscript featuring a legally blind girl who teams up with a hard of hearing boy. They are on a quest to bring back evidence of dragons – recently sighted in their land – before a rogue crew of explorers get there first. The storyline is a bit of Indiana Jones blended with Dragonriders of Pern, with strong disability representation. Also, I’ve recently been asked to join in a role that promotes more volunteering and service in central Arkansas and I am excited to get started with that. After spending several weekends helping with tornado clean-up, I wanted to get more involved with hands-on community service.