DHH students persevere through the pandemic

February 20, 2021

Imagine going to the store and struggling to understand the mumbling cashier. Now fast forward to 2021, where a mask obscures the bottom half of their face. For deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) individuals who rely heavily on lip cues and facial expressions to decipher speech, this situation becomes almost impossible. Fiona Hynes and Sarah Noble are both students in the DHH community; despite their vastly different situations, they have both overcome the obstacles that their hearing caused during the pandemic.


Before COVID-19

“[My husband and I] were trying to have kids for a super long time. It took us almost 10 years. So when [Fiona and her twin, Jack] were born, I was just happy to have babies that were alive,” Jennifer, Fiona’s mom, said.

Fiona, a first-grader attending Laurel Dell Elementary School in San Rafael, was diagnosed with mild to moderate hearing loss during her infant hearing screening. Even though Fiona was already hard-of-hearing when she was born, during the first few years of her life she had several ear infections that made her overall hearing even worse. By the time she was four years old, she had lost practically all of her hearing which, according to Jennifer, was a distressing experience. 

“[When] she lost most of her hearing in her left ear, it was just traumatic. All of a sudden she was totally deaf, and communicating was really hard. She couldn’t go to school. If she did go to school, she was crying,” Jennifer said.

Currently studying at Macalester College, DHH student Sarah Noble independently overcomes any educational barriers. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Noble)

Luckily for Fiona and her family, the Marin County Office of Education (MCOE) Early Start program for kids with special needs was available to help. Through this program, Fiona had home visits from a DHH teacher and a speech therapist for continuous support throughout the process. 

While Fiona was able to get diagnosed immediately after birth, many children born before her did not have the same opportunity. Redwood alumna Sarah Noble was born in New York in 1999, the year before the state started imposing newborn screening requirements. As a result, it was not until she was three years old that Noble was diagnosed with severe to profound hearing loss, preventing her from hearing high pitch noises like fire alarms or microwave beeps. According to Jeannine Blankinship, the Hard of Hearing Specialist for Marin County, Noble was extremely independent and only occasionally needed minor help with hearing aid equipment.

 “Sarah was super, super smart, and it was only because she had hearing loss that I helped her. I mean, she would have still been very successful without me,” Blankinship said.

With teachers’ accommodations, such as seating her in the front of the room or posting the notes online a few days before they were discussed, allowed Noble to thrive at Redwood. Looking back at her experience, Noble greatly appreciates people like Blankinship who have supported her throughout her high school career.

“At Redwood, similar to the rest of my whole life, I felt so much support from the people [around] me and by my teachers. [Teachers] made the environment so that [my hearing loss] did not hinder my learning,” Noble said.

Noble, now a junior at Macalester College, believes DHH students have to put in more effort in order to receive the same level of education as her peers. At the beginning of each semester, she writes letters to her teachers regarding her hearing loss and suggests ways that they can help her succeed. Although professors are generally supportive at Macalester, Noble has run into a few problems with teachers in the past, despite her prior efforts of explaining her necessary accommodations. 

“[Midway through] my freshman year, I had to go to this mandatory presentation for a science class. I went up to my professor and said ‘I know I need to go to this presentation … can you please get in touch with the disability office and get [closed] captions for the event?’ She looked at me weirdly and just said ‘no,’” Noble said. “She had no reason to be ignorant; it is not that hard to understand what hearing loss needs are.”


During COVID-19

Although Fiona had struggled with academics because of her hearing loss before COVID-19, the problems only worsened once her school went online.

“I just don’t think it’s possible for DHH kids to do virtual learning,” Jennifer said. “It was just a nightmare. At that time, [Fiona] couldn’t understand anything that was being said. The [hearing system] was never working. She had to have two computers, one for her interpreter and one for her teacher. We all just hated it.”

Online learning was so ineffective that Jennifer and Fiona’s teachers collectively decided that it would be best if Fiona did not attend school at all. Instead, Fiona was homeschooled for about seven months by Jennifer while her peers remained online. 

“Last year in kindergarten, she was really social. But, for a while during the pandemic, [Fiona] was really isolated and getting upset,” Jennifer said. “[Unlike other kids], she could not do online [school] with her friends and act goofy in class or talk to people during breakout rooms, and it was really heartbreaking.”

Adjusting to a cochlear implant, 6-year-old Fiona Hynes thrives in the pandemic despite her hearing deficit. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hynes)

Jennifer constantly advocated for Fiona to go back to in-person, and, by December, Fiona was able to return to in-person learning three days a week with minimal online instruction. Despite Fiona’s happy ending, Jennifer is worried about the other DHH kids whose situations have not yet improved.  

“For [DHH] students’ parents, especially during this time, they have to do so much more, or else their kids will slip through the cracks,” Jennifer said. “I’m concerned about most DHH kids’ situations. I fought so hard for Fiona [and] now she has three days in person and everything is great, but what about the kids that don’t have parents that fight?”

Because Fiona’s hearing loss is so severe, Fiona decided to switch to a cochlear implant, which is a surgically implanted device that bypasses the normal hearing process by sending an electrical signal directly to the brain. By the end of October, the cochlear implant was activated, but the transition to the new piece of technology was rough. Jennifer had to constantly force Fiona to wear it because all Fiona heard was irritating ringing, and she kept wanting to take it off. However, over time Fiona began to adapt to the new technology and started to thrive.

“[Fiona] was just not [originally] happy, but now she has just been lighting up and is the happiest kid ever,” Blankinship said. “[Fiona’s] life has dramatically changed in the past two months. Now, she loves school and it’s really awesome because a happy Fiona is a happy team.”

While Fiona was able to adapt during COVID-19 with the help of her family, Noble’s struggles affect her on an individual basis. In-person communication has been a major issue for her since the start of social distancing and mask wearing. With masks covering people’s lips and their facial expressions, first time greetings can be extremely difficult.

“I just accept that I’m not going to hear everything that someone says to me,” Noble said. “People might think that I’m being rude, but I just don’t have time to explain to everyone that I encounter that I have hearing loss.”

Conversely, COVID-19 has also presented technology that benefits Noble immensely. With all of her classes moved onto a computer screen, closed captions are easily accessible and effortlessly generated through sites like Otter. Now, Noble can thrive in online classes without the fear of mishearing — or not hearing altogether — the professor.

“I have never had a service like this before. [Otter] has definitely been a huge benefit to COVID-19 and has basically changed my life as a student. I wish I had this ever since I could read,” Noble said.

As new technologies are invented and improved, Blankenship believes the DHH community has progressed significantly over time. 

“[Teaching] deaf kids how to read a hundred years ago didn’t exist …. These kids were never able to explore all of their options because they weren’t given them. So now, when we think of [DHH] kids graduating high school, that would have been insane 100 years ago,” Blankenship said. “It’s cool to know that you can have a person, who has no hearing whatsoever, and they can do the same thing that anybody else does.”

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