Savannah M., a young adult with cochlear implants, reflects on her life growing up deaf and her parents’ decision to get her cochlear implants. Savannah shares her experiences on a myriad of topics, including adjusting to mainstream school, dating, friendships, building confidence as a child who is deaf and learning to be an independent young adult with a budding future ahead of her:
“When I was born in October 1995 in Des Moines, Iowa, my parents decided to not perform a hearing test because I was born right on schedule, and everything went smoothly. They felt it was not necessary since hearing tests were not mandatory at the time. However, as I got a bit older, my mom knew something seemed off about me. She took me back to the pediatrician, but the doctor brushed off her concerns because the doctor felt her worries were exaggerated because she was a first-time mother. I was 6 months old at the time, and my mom’s concerns never went away. At 10 months old, they finally performed a hearing test and my mom’s worries were confirmed. I was deaf.
My parents had no idea what to do or where to start. Our small family started on a very long journey that day. My parents were handed a book called “Choices in Deafness” by an audiologist where it talked about sign language, cued speech, cochlear implants and so on. The first thing they did was get me hearing aids before I was 1 year old, but unfortunately, it did not do much for me since my hearing loss was profound.
After the final results from an auditory brainstem response (ABR) test that confirmed my hearing loss, my family went to the Iowa State Fair. My family met people with hearing loss who used ASL and we communicated with them through an interpreter. My mom clearly remembers thinking that she did not want me to be dependent on an interpreter to communicate.
Considering their options
At the time my parents were still exploring their options. They had someone from the Early Childhood Intervention program to come over to teach me sign language while they signed up to attend sign language classes because that was what they were told to do. My whole family went to the classes, my parents, grandparents and my great grandparents attended. They were told that is was very rare for anyone in the family to learn other than the mother usually. They only went to six classes before they decided that they wanted to try a different method of communication for me. They still didn’t really like the fact I would need an interpreter to be my voice. They knew from there they wanted something different for me.
So instead of sign language, they decided on cued speech. Cued speech is a form of communication that is kind of like sign language, but it focuses on the mouth, so the viewer learns to lip read and learns proper English grammar and structure. In the meantime, I was receiving lots of speech therapy at home twice a week and also at a deaf school called St. Joseph Institution for the Deaf in Kanas City twice a week. In total, I was receiving speech therapy four times a week, and I was only 1 year old. My mom was actually driving me back and forth from Iowa to Kanas City just so I could get extra help.
Around that same time was when they decided they wanted to get me implanted with a cochlear implant, but my mom wasn’t so sure yet. Two separate occasions helped my mom feel more confident in her choice. She spoke to two people, a man on an airplane and a woman from a store. They both knew a child that had a cochlear implant and was doing very well. My mom believes it was God telling her to go ahead with the surgery. So the surgery happened, and I was implanted.
When I was 4 years old, my family along with my new baby brother moved to Kanas City so I could receive help full time at a deaf school that focused on education and speech development. They never used any sort of sign language because their goal was to focus completely on oral speech. I remember my time at the school, speech therapy was a normal thing for me. I had no issues with it at all. To me, speech therapy wasn’t very hard work at all. It was just a part of my normal school routine. Even if it wasn’t speech class time, my teachers were always correcting my speech during other class time if I ever fumbled on it or mispronounced something.
In first grade, my family and I moved again to St. Louis, Missouri where there was another St. Joseph’s, but bigger and had more upper grades to move on to because the one in Kansas only had classes from preschool to kindergarten. There, I also received intense speech therapy to continue to help develop my speaking skills. This was my normal. I didn’t care if my teachers corrected my speech. I didn’t care if my parents did it. For me, it really helped to start speech therapy at a young age and grow into it. Same with cochlear implants; in my opinion, the younger you can get implanted, the better. Because I got my second cochlear implant implanted when I was 13 years old, I had a harder time accepting it because it sounded and felt very foreign.
Starting mainstream school
In fifth grade, my deaf school started doing this program where they would slowly expose us to mainstream school. I would go to my deaf school in the morning then go over to a public school in the afternoon. I remember being excited about it; it was a new experience I was more than ready to face head on. It was my first time being exposed to the ‘hearing world’ in school. At the time I was perfectly fine with it because I still had my deaf friends, and the mainstream kids were also somewhat familiar with the deaf community because there is a sizable deaf community in St. Louis. It went smoothly with a few bumps here and there as I tried to adjust. I continued doing the program until my deaf school said I was ready to mainstreamed fully because I needed to be challenged.
When my parents told me I was ready to be fully mainstreamed, they also told me that we were moving to Tennessee. I remember having mixed feelings. I was excited to move, but I also was sad because I would miss my friends that I’ve known since first grade. I had no idea of the challenges I would face at my new home.
New home, new challenges
I had to repeat sixth grade at my new all hearing school in Tennessee. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart, but my parents thought it would be easier for me since my deaf school went on a really slow pace. I was somewhat behind in the Tennessee education system, so I had to catch up. I remember feeling like an alien on a whole new planet because kids at my new school had NO idea what being deaf was like. Because of that, I felt isolated and lonely for the entire year.
I was too shy to tell people I was deaf. I always had my hair down to cover my cochlear implant sound processors because I was ashamed of them. I was ashamed of being deaf because it was different. It also didn’t help that the teachers barely knew how to help me other than plopping me in a study hall class full of other special needs kids, which made me feel more like a freak. I was only deaf, not slow. That year, I received my very first bad grade on a test. Back at my deaf school, I had always scored very high without studying much. But not only did I receive a bad grade, but it gave a bully an opportunity to say something mean and nasty to me when she caught a glimpse of my test. She said, ‘Oh, I guess its true what they say, deaf people ARE deaf and dumb.’ The teacher didn’t hear, and at the time, I was too shy to even do or say anything. I just shrank into myself and kept my eyes down for the rest of the day until I was able to cry freely in my room once I finally got home.
I never told my parents about any of this, but they knew I was depressed. I was dragged out of a school where I was popular, smart and comfortable to a school where I just felt so out of place because the classes were much bigger, louder, and they taught things in a much faster pace. I struggled to keep up. All I ever looked forward to were the deaf summer camps in Missouri, so I could see my deaf friends again. It was basically the only thing that kept me going.
Persevering and finding support systems
But I adapted. I eventually got used to everything, and in my second year at the school, in seventh grade, I finally made some friends. Or more so they forced themselves on me in a good way. Because of them, I learned to trust hearing people and opened myself up, started making more friends and became less shy. I became more outgoing and was much happier. They taught me that my deafness shouldn’t matter at all, and I shouldn’t let it hold me back. I needed to speak up when I miss something or tell people to slow down or speak louder so I can hear.
In high school, I had my first boyfriend, but he later broke up with me over Facebook, all because of my deafness. I later found out the reason was the fact I wouldn’t be able to ‘appreciate’ his music once he became a ‘famous musician.’ Of course, it upset me, but I know I deserve much better than some jerk who couldn’t look past my deafness. My hearing best friend, Brooke, was basically my guardian in high school against jerks and bullies like that. She would get into arguments with people who said anything bad about me or my deafness because I would just brush it aside like it was nothing; she wouldn’t have it, and I couldn’t be any more grateful to have a best friend like that. She even adjusted to benefit me. When I first met her, she spoke softly and always used to listen to loud music in the car and have it blasting from her laptop. I never told her to stop; I only wanted the volume down, but she eventually actually stopped playing loud music around me overall. She always remembers to put up subtitles for me. She’s also my ears and voice in the public, especially if we order food or if I can’t understand someone. It can take some time, but good friends will come into your life if you are patient enough. True friends won’t care one bit about any of your flaws; they love you for who you are no matter what. We met in seventh grade and almost 10 years later we are still as tight as ever.
Maturing in the working world
After I graduated, I wanted to take a break from school, so with the help of my cousin, I was hooked up with a job at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Branson, Missouri. I worked as a stable hand, taking care of more than 20 horses along with buffaloes, long horns, goats, sheep, ponies, and camels. Since moving and getting a full-time job, I truly believe I grew up and matured some more during my time there. I didn’t have Brooke or my parents to help me with little things; I had to do it all myself and that has helped me learn to be more independent.
Now I can order food with full confidence without having someone order for me. I can make appointments and run to the bank by myself. I was more than capable doing these things before I moved to Branson, but I never liked doing anything like that on my own in fear that I would have to interact and talk to other people. My job has also helped with my communication skills. People would oftentimes come by to look at the horses while I worked, and they would have a chat with me or ask questions about the horses.
Building confidence, independence and a future
Working at Dixie Stampede also opened my eyes to the fact that I was capable of so much more than just scooping horse poop all day every day. I decided to apply for Rochester Institution of Technology in New York where they have an excellent deaf program. I got accepted into NTID, which is basically the deaf college merged with RIT. It wasn’t my first time being exposed to the side of the of deaf community that uses sign language, but it was my first time actually learning sign language because most of my teachers at NTID signed only.
I got a taste of what the deaf with interpreters go through in public schools. I had to request an interpreter that voiced everything my teachers signed. It was so weird. I only knew enough sign to vaguely communicate with the signing deaf kids when I volunteered over the summers at Mike Bush Fantasy Baseball camp. I knew little stuff like ‘snack,’ ‘stop,’ ‘bathroom’ and other things like that. Now I can proudly say I am pretty much fluent in sign language because of the deaf community at RIT. I kind of wish I had learned it as a child, but I understand my parent’s decision to not teach me sign language because they didn’t want me to become dependent on it.
I credit my great grammar skills now to learning to be oral so young. When I started at NTID, I was placed in the third highest English class available, but after the first day the teacher thought my essay was so good that he moved me up to the highest English class. I struggled for a semester trying to understand my teacher who spoke as fast as the speed of light, despite me telling him several times to slow down, but I still passed the class with flying colors. I just gave in the extra effort to stay in after every class to talk to the teacher one on one to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It probably also helped that I absolutely loved reading growing up. My nose would always be stuck in a book no matter what I was doing, I even would get in trouble with my parents for staying up too late reading sometimes. If that doesn’t tell you how much I love to read, then hear this. At St. Joseph’s, every single year since first grade, I always got “most books read” award of the entire school. So, it’s safe to say I also learned proper grammar through all the books I’ve read over the years too.
Being deaf isn’t always easy, but I couldn’t have gotten this far in life without my parent’s decision. They did so much for me to ensure I can have the best life possible. I’m grateful for the choices they have made for me despite all the challenges they faced. They did what they thought was best for me, and that’s all I care about. I truly believe having cochlear implants has made my life so much easier. It’s helped me to easily accomplish my dream and goals. Right now, I am on my third year of college working on getting my bachelor’s degree in graphic design along with working on a comic series called #DeafProblems. With the help of my cochlear implants, I look forward to seeing what life has in store for me. I may be deaf and have some struggles, but because of those struggles, I will come out stronger than ever and more determined to prove to the world that the deaf can do whatever they set their minds to.
Please check out my #DeafProblems comic series at: https://www.webtoons.com/en/challenge/deafproblems/list?title_no=307065.”
If you’re a parent of a child with hearing loss and liked reading this story from a young adult with cochlear implants, check out our website where you can find more stories and resources to help navigate this time for your child.