Ahh, September, the air starts getting cooler, the leaves start changing colors, and of course, back to school! It can be exciting to transition from elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, and high school to college. In my experience, the transition to college was the most frightening and exhilarating at the same time. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is a big, 4 year university with a lot of school spirit. My free time was spent going to football games, hockey games, and hanging out at the Union Terrace by the lake. 

girls at University of Wisconsin Football game

Having large lecture halls and limited one-on-one time with the professor was different. Initially, I jumped for joy that I didn’t have to attend IEP meetings and get pulled out of class to talk about my hearing aids anymore. At last, I could be just like every other student in the classroom and blend right in. That was cool until I sat in my calculus class freshman year and I learned just how fast we were going to be moving in college. I took a deep breath and decided I would check out what resources are available for me with my hearing aids. 

Science Hall at University of Wisconsin

At UW-Madison, there is an entire support system for disabled students called, McBurney Disability Resource Center. When I met with the staff there, I was able to acquire an official document to give to my professors stating that I have a hearing loss. I was given access to equipment and resources that might help me be successful in class. One of the pieces of equipment I got was an FM system, where the professor wears a device that connects their microphone to the FM speaker that you keep near you so you can hear their voice better. As for resources, I was given the option to request a “note-taker,” which is a peer in the same class as me who gets paid to give me their notes in addition to my own notes, so that I don’t miss any information. I put the FM in my backpack and never took it out because I was too scared to talk to my professors and there was no way I was going to ask someone in my class to take notes for me. Frankly, I was tired of doing something different from everyone else in school. Going to college felt to me like it was time to spread my wings without any assistance.

Maybe I am fortunate that I could be successful in my courses without using special aids. However, just because I acted like every other “normal” student in class, didn’t mean I finally felt comfortable with my hearing aids. In fact, that was far from the truth. I continued to avoid wearing my hair up during class, a trend I started when I was 12, because I still didn’t want anyone to know about my hearing aids. One day I was describing my dilemma to my friend.

“I feel like I struggle to feel good about myself because of my hearing aids. Ever since 6th grade, I’ve worn my hair down all the time because I don’t want people to see my hearing aids and ask me about them. It always embarrassed me when people did that, but I also need to find a way to get past my fears so I can feel more confident in myself ya know?” I explained.

“Here’s an idea. You should wear your hair up every single day during the first week of classes and see what happens. Maybe you will prove to yourself that people don’t care about it as much as you think they do,” he suggested.

Well, the first week of classes came and I tied my hair up in a ponytail that morning. It felt refreshing to lift my long hair off of my shoulders, but I also felt a twinge of vulnerability. Is someone going to see them and say something to me about it? 7 days passed and I excitedly tried out all the hairstyles I wanted to rock at school. Guess how many people asked me about my hearing aids? Zero. Not a single person noticed, or if they did, they didn’t mention it. It wasn’t a fancy piece of technology or any extra help that changed my life… it was overcoming my own mental block that changed everything for me.

Upon experiencing this revelation, I felt compelled to do something about it. 4 years later, I found myself scrolling through my emails and I came across an email regarding the McBurney Disability Resource Center. Usually I ignored the emails, as I was no longer using the resources provided, but this email caught my attention. 

“Looking for two new ways to get involved on campus or scholarship opportunities?” it said. “Check out the following: McBurney Speakers Bureau

The Speakers Bureau is an extension of the McBurney Center that focuses on disability education, advocacy, and empowerment. Speakers are primarily UW students who have the desire to share their personal experience of disability with others, and learn from the stories of their peers. As a speaker, you would attend and speak at engagements… as requested by an organization within the UW or larger Madison Community that has identified a need for disability education and awareness.”

That’s it! That’s what I want to do! I thought. I hurriedly filled out the survey form to get involved, and soon after, I was arranging to meet with the head of the organization.

The first and most exciting thing I did with the McBurney Speakers Bureau was being on a panel of speakers that had the chance to talk to local elementary school teachers. I kept telling myself not to be nervous, but my heart was racing. When it was my turn to speak, my voice shook and it was hard for me to look at anyone. I told them about my experience with having a hearing loss at a young age. About how my classmates and aids made me feel singled out, even if they didn’t mean to. About how it made me feel like I had a learning disability, not a hearing disability. They were quiet and they listened. They heard me and they sympathized with me. When I finished speaking, I felt proud that I finally used my disability to potentially help other young students with disabilities. I felt proud that in a small way, I was contributing to changing hearing people’s perspectives on hard-of-hearing people. 

University of Wisconsin Student at library

My newfound confidence in myself led me to take on more challenges, such as studying abroad, chatting with all kinds of recruiters at career fairs, joining clubs I never thought I’d try, and trying courses I’d previously thought would be too difficult for me. Being in college with a hearing loss was challenging, but I learned that it is possible to find success, find your people, and find yourself!

Check out Ashley’s blog: https://canyouhearmenow.home.blog/

Learn more about hearOclub, the hearing aid battery subscription service here: https://www.hearoclub.com/how-it-works/