Compounded with the endurance and psychological challenges associated with swimming, senior Kayla Fearrin faces another difficulty when she dives into the pool every morning: occasionally not being able to hear her coach or the buzzer. Before practice, Fearrin needs to remove her hearing aids, which she has been using since the first grade to facilitate her trouble with hearing acutely.
“I wear hearing aids, so I’m not completely deaf. I can still hear without them,” she said. “My family noticed that when they yelled my name, I wouldn’t respond, and that was one of the first times they noticed that I might need hearing aids.”
Yet, Fearrin is one of many students who excel in a regular schooling environment despite difficulties with hearing or seeing. While the number of visually and hearing impaired people has decreased in the last half-century, the disabilities continue to be prevalent across the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14.9 percent of children and adolescents have low- or high-frequency hearing loss. Additionally, 1.1 percent of those under the age of 18 have severe vision impairment, defined as blindness in at least one eye, according to Lighthouse International, an organization dedicated to fighting vision loss.
Vicki Johnson, a speech and language pathologist, works with the visually- and hearing-impaired students at CHS to accommodate them into the regular schooling environment. She said the number of students with such disabilities has increased this year.
“We’ve always accommodated students with special needs, as we have to follow the IDEA law and the Individuals with Disabilities federal law,” Johnson said. “They’re in (general education), and you probably wouldn’t recognize them from other students. They’re integrated into our regular classes as long as they’re cognitively able.”
According to Dorothy Lenard, Disabilities Services Coordinator at IU, planning in advance and independence are key factors in overcoming the challenges presented by hearing and visual impairments, especially in preparation for a college learning environment.
“I think the biggest challenge for students is getting used to advocating for themselves,” Lenard said. “The fact is that things work very differently in college, with slightly less individual attention than in some high schools.”
Junior Alec Funke, like Fearrin, is another student who faces challenges brought by impairment. He was born with a torn left retina, making him legally blind at a vision of 20/300. As a result, he utilizes corrective glasses for general sight and telescopes or magnifiers for reading smaller text.
According to Funke, his condition makes it difficult to read boards in classrooms, overhead projections and small text within books. Still, Funke said he has managed to adjust to his disability.
“It can get annoying sometimes when you can’t see the board, and you need to use a telescope to see it,” Funke said. “It gets a little irritating, but I’ve been doing this for 16 years, so it’s become an everyday routine. I’m used to it by now.”
“It’s hard at times because I can’t always hear everything,” she said. “I need to have people tell me things more than once sometimes, and, with the sport that I do, I can’t wear hearing aids when I swim, so it’s also difficult. When I was younger,I used to have to sit in the front of the classroom, but now that I’ve gotten used to it, it’s not much of a problem at school anymore. It’s not really a problem at home because my parents know how I am, so they make sure that I understand them.”
Carmel’s special services program offers help in the form of prepared class notes, preferential seating, interpreter provisions and personalized classes on language concepts to all who qualify, according to Johnson. Johnson emphasized making accommodations for impaired students in advance and notifying teachers and peers as critical to students’ academic and social success. (Edited Feb. 27: “ask” to “qualify”)
According to Lenard, the Disability Services Office at IU also gives extensive aid to those who request services in the form of text enlargement programs and audio or media files of lessons.
She said, “They have to identify themselves to us, which is different than in high school.”
Johnson cited technology as a major beneficial tool for hearing and visually impaired students. With the advent of programs that convert entire textbooks into large text versions, automatic screen readers and electronic closed captioning programs, people who have difficulty hearing and seeing have more methods of excelling in regular schooling environments than ever before.
Fearrin said the support of loved ones and peers had been invaluable to her in adjusting to her hearing impairment.
“My friends and family have been incredibly supportive,” she said. “Some of my good friends now don’t even notice that I wear the hearing aids anymore. They’ve just gotten accustomed to it. My parents were a little upset at the beginning, but they knew living with this hearing problem was something that I had to go through, so they were there to support me through it and assist me.”
According to Lenard, compassion and support from peers can be especially beneficial to impaired students who are attempting to adjust to a normal schooling environment.
“It’s probably good from the peer’s point of view to ask the impaired student about what they need,” Lenard said. “I can tell you some of the things that are probably going to be necessary is to with a hard of hearing student to make sure you’re facing them when speaking to them and not chewing gum or having something in our around your mouth…They each have their own strategies for maximizing their understanding…I think the biggest thing is not being afraid of them because they have a disability but see what they’re like as a person just like you would anybody else.”
Funke said that while his visual condition prevents him from doing a few tasks, such as driving, he has been able to participate in most activities a person with normal vision could do, especially in the classroom.
“I have to sit at the front of the classroom all the time to see the board,” he said. “It makes playing video games and doing some tasks a little bit more difficult, but generally I’ve been able to do everything I’ve wanted to do.” By adjusting to his impairment, Funke has been able to take classes like AP Chemistry that demand visual precision in both experimental procedures and class work.
Both Funke and Fearrin stressed that students with hearing or visual impairments can overcome their disabilities in the school atmosphere as long as they persevere, work diligently and do not succumb to frustration.
“At times, it does bother me, like for swimming, and I get frustrated at times. I just work through it because I know that I’m going to have tough times in the future,” Fearrin said. “I would say, just be yourself. Don’t let other people define who you are as a person based on your limitations.”