What makes reaching a goal truly fulfilling? Is it accomplishing something swiftly and without obstacles? Or is it jumping obstacle after obstacle to triumph? To be honest, I think it’s neither. But here’s what I do know: If we yield ourselves to the process, something about facing the insurmountable will change us to our core. And with a little hope–the world around us. Here’s my case in point.
I graduated from high school in 1984, with big dreams of going to college, working up the career ladder, and leading an organization. However, things didn’t go according to plan. In 1986, I learned that I was born with a progressive sensorineural hearing loss. What does that mean? Well, my inner ear nerve cells are damaged, and I will progressively lose hearing decibels for the rest of my life. “Sensorineural hearing loss often occurs as a consequence of damaged or deficient cochlear hair cells. Hair cells may be abnormal at birth, or damaged during the lifetime of an individual.” In my case, my hairs cells are damaged for my lifetime.
When I was told the type of hearing loss I have, I was not aware of having any hearing loss.
In fact, the doctor told me that I had been reading lips my entire life. This immediately helped me to understand why I missed out on so much in school, and why my academic grades were not the best. Before any of this, I was a stage performer and won many oracle and dance competitions in talent shows. So though after learning that I needed hearing aids I was flabbergasted—I was not shattered— but decided that hearing loss would not define who I am or my ability.
To be clear, I can hear but don’t always fully understand what people are saying. A sensorineural hearing loss is often confused with nerve deafness when it’s really due to problems with the inner ear. In my case, sensorineural hearing loss gradually deteriorates where hearing thresholds occur over the years to decades. For some, the damage may eventually affect large portions of the frequency range. Currently, my decibel level is low.
I prayed and kept asking God to give me the strength and courage to push through my challenges.
God has given me an insatiable thirst to learn and surrounded me with a supportive and loving group of family and friends. My grandmother was hard-of-hearing, so was her sister, and my dad too. I remember clearly how they wore their hearing aids proudly. It was important to them to hear and that others would understand and communicate with them on their terms.
Fast forward to my relocation from Ohio to New Jersey in 1986 where I learned about my hearing loss. With a desire to finish my undergraduate studies I applied to Rutgers University and was accepted. But I backed out because I thought about how I would struggle to try to hear the professor, read lips and take notes.
Truth is, I didn’t go because I was afraid. I was embarrassed that I didn’t hear like most people. I wanted to fit in and be like everyone else. As a defense mechanism, I was sensitive and in many cases thought I was being attacked. I didn’t want a pity party either, yet, wanted people to be more sensitive to my struggle with adjusting to hearing loss. So to feel included, I formed the habit of saying I heard something when I didn’t. I would smile to make a person think I understood them when I didn’t. People always knew from my response that I didn’t know what they said.
For the longest, I tried communicating by telephone but later stopped because it frustrated me not to understand what the sender was saying. I used to cry all the time and prayed to God to restore my hearing. Again, my family and friends were there to catch me when I would fall and push me when I wanted to stop.
After dropping out of college in 86, 1987, 1988, and 1989 would pass me by, and I still thought I couldn’t attend college due to my hearing loss. However, the dream stayed with me. I wanted more knowledge of the world, culture, people, history, and whatever I could learn. So, in 1990, as faith would have it I landed a job at a private university. I was excited to take the position due to their tuition remission benefit, and a dear friend said she’d take classes with me and take my notes. I was floored.
My girlfriends and I enrolled in the same courses immediately. She took my notes, I studied and got my first A. This would mark the beginning of I can’t hear well, but I can learn!! I was excited about each class I took, and the A’s kept piling up. I reached the 18 credits before matriculation. But as luck would have it my co-worker left the job, and I was left with no one to take notes. I stayed in school and at that time learned that disability support services offered note-takers. Unfortunately, students didn’t sign up for that task at all. So I dropped out. It would be nine years before I would return to school.
After having my son in 2003, I knew I had to be a role model for him. With new technological advances and many new services to help me fully engage and participate in school– I decided to take the plunge. I chose an online distance education program at the University of Maryland, and enrolled as a full-time student and took nine credits per semester. I did this with the help of my husband while being a first-time parent. I balanced my family and study time by staying up until 2 am most nights. Imagine taking pre-algebra, intermediate algebra, and college algebra, all online!
The journey was sometimes trying and difficult. I didn’t develop courage by being happy every day but by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity. I graduated in 2008 with a 3.84 GPA from the University of Maryland. And while this was by far the most challenging experience of my life to date, it was also the most fulfilling. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Latisha Porter-Vaughn is a third-year student at the University of the Rockies Organizational Development and Leadership doctoral program. She has a passion for understanding the principles, theories, and models for how individuals work and how organizations affect behavior. She is Vice President of the Hearing Loss Association of America –New Jersey State Chapter, Trustee, and Chair. HLAA- NJ Scholarship Committee and is past President and co-founder of HLAA Essex County Chapter. She resides in Newark, New Jersey alongside her teenage son and husband of 22 years.