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Three lessons I learned about attending university with hearing loss

university with hearing loss

Throughout my time at university, I learned a lot about the support a person with hearing loss may need in order to succeed. Spoiler alert, it’s not just about hearing and hearing technology that gets you through classes.

Among Deaf circles, I’m probably better known for my sporting accomplishments than my academic ones, but the latter is what puts bread on the table!

I hold a Bachelor of Social Science in History and Psychology (Double major) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (Intermediate and Senior Phase, specializing in English and Physical Education) from the University of South Africa (UNISA).

Obtaining them, however, was a long, difficult process. I learned more about my limitations and the things I needed to succeed than ever before. See, it was actually more than just not being able to hear and overcoming that set of technical difficulties that needed to be dealt with. I think that’s where a lot of articles dealing with the issue of studying with disabilities fall short.

More than just technology

From a technical standpoint, you’d think the greatest issue would be not hearing the lecturers or tutors. Great gear exists to overcome that. Including Roger Pens, dictaphones, the services of scribes by whose sweat and blood and tears we obtain the favor of the dark gods of aca… (wait, disregard that last one)

Read more: This is how to get FREE hearing technology at your university

I learned an early lesson in that regard, however, with my abortive first attempt at studying. I was accepted to the prestigious Rhodes University in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape. Six months were spent there before bombing out. When I was there I had great support. I was provided with an FM system, had a seat reserved in the front of every lecture, access to transcribed notes if I needed them…But I still didn’t get anywhere. Why?

Lesson One

You need a support system. Remember that humans are social beings. Most of us will have a group of people who support and understand us. By moving away from home to study, going to a place where I knew almost nobody had an impact on me. Also, I was exposed to a new culture that was radically different to what I was used to and I ended up suffering from depression and failing every single one of my courses. Luckily I had the sense to pull out and come home before racking up too large a bill!

Concessions, fancy gear and focusing on technical fixes and the academics alone are not enough. You need a social support system.

“Concessions, fancy gear and focusing on technical fixes and the academics alone are not enough. You need a social support system.”

Following my failure to launch at Rhodes, I got into UKZN back at home in Durban. It still took me four years to obtain a three-year degree. I continued to have a spotty performance in a number of my courses. This time, despite having some of the gear, I ran into the technical problems. I just plain couldn’t hear in lectures, though I don’t think I realized just how much I was missing at the time. My confidence was also badly shot given the Rhodes debacle, and despite having all the best intentions, I don’t think the Disability Department at UKZN really knew how to help me. Especially since I didn’t know how to help myself, even if I’d had the confidence to ask for it!

It was during my time here, however, that South African Deaf Rugby was reborn, and in the process of working on that, I learned…

Lesson two

You have to self-advocate. Others cannot help you if they don’t know what you need- and you have to do so with confidence. In short, help others to help yourself! You have to know what you need, how to get it and ask for it rather than waiting for it to happen.

You have to self-advocate. Others cannot help you if they don’t know what you need- and you have to do so with confidence.

Read more: Is it okay to speak for my deaf or hard of hearing friend?

Towards the end of my undergraduate, I got a job as a teacher intern at a local primary school and was not able to continue with full-time studies at a brick and mortar university. I completed my undergraduate and postgraduate through UNISA, which is correspondence-based, and that allowed me a far greater degree of control over my own learning. It also made it clear how much I’d been missing in more traditional lectures, and this led to the third and last lesson learned in my studies.

Lesson three

Control what you can control, and make sure you put yourself in the most advantageous position you can. If hearing is a problem in typical scenarios, take it out of the equation.

With virtually all of my academic material coming through in text form, I blazed through my remaining studies on time and without further setbacks. It was critical that I be in the driver’s seat for my own destiny, and that made all the difference.

What was your university experience with hearing loss like? Let us know in the comments.

Author Details
Mark was discovered to have severe hearing loss – total loss in his left ear, severe in the right – at the age of 3, owing to a Cytomegalovirus infection. He grew up as part of the mainstream community, and only started regularly wearing hearing aids at the age of 15, when his hearing loss dropped to profound levels. Rugby has always been a passion of his, and he’s never stopped playing since getting his first opportunity in high school. His greatest claim to fame is playing for the South African Deaf Rugby team, a position he also uses to advocate for the Deaf community. However, he is afflicted with an interest in anything and everything, which manifests in limitless Star Wars puns, comments on the things making up the fabric of society, requests for your favourite banana bread recipes, a predilection for painting 28mm sci-fi models and the inability to fit into any of the proverbial descriptive “boxes” society likes to place people in. He currently lives in Durban with his wife, Amy.