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She appeared just like every other student at Radford University. By most, she looked ordinary with her hair braided back into a ponytail, a colorful dress on with a knitted blouse and sandals. If you looked up to her face, the hearing aids were noticeable, but weren’t a detail to keep the eye focused on for long.
“In high school, I never wore my hair up, never,” said Kayla Whedbee, a graduate student at RU, who developed hearing loss at a young age. “And today, I am just like I don’t care; I am throwing my hair up. If people see my hearing aid, its whatever.”
Whedbee grew up in a very close knit family. The diagnosis of hearing loss when she was just 12-years-old never prevented her from living a busy childhood. Most of her cousins are like siblings, and she has a younger brother, separated by only a year and a half. Raised going to church, and playing sports all throughout high school, she was lucky to have parents who were both super supportive and involved.
The full diagnosis of her hearing loss was described by Whedbeee as “a little fuzzy.” As a baby, she had many ear infections, and throughout her young life has already had seven surgeries in hopes of sprouting a healthy ear. She got her first pair of hearing aids in middle school.
The first four surgeries were tubes, which Whedbee considered as nothing out of the ordinary since many babies get tubes. Tubes are surgically inserted into the eardrum to ventilate the middle ear and prevent fluid build-up. Her fifth surgery was an eardrum reconstruction to the right ear. For the sixth, it was panning out to be another tube until the doctors found a Cholesteatoma, which is skin growth in the middle ear, and had proven to be leftover from the surgery of a new
eardrum. The doctors ended up taking a skin graft and removed the excess skin. The most recent surgery, which was almost three years ago, was another eardrum reconstruction on the same ear. After the surgery, Whedbee wasn’t able to wear her hearing aids for a month, and had to experience the world in a much more difficult light.
“I had to drive back and forth to New York every weekend for post-op appointments, since my doctor was there,” said Whedbee. “It was awful, but we were just hoping for a healthy ear at that point.”
In the world of hearing loss, there are three types: conductive, sensorineural and a mixture of the two. In Whedbee’s case, it is pure conductive. Her problem is in the middle ear, so nothing is wrong with brain processing and nothing sounds distorted, it is just not loud enough. Whedbee is lucky, in a sense, that all she has really had to have are hearing aids. She didn’t have an IEP in school, which is a legally binding document that spells out the special education services a child will receive and why, but instead had a 504 plan. This ensured Whedbee would receive accommodations where needed to give the best opportunity for academic success.
In high school, development of self-advocacy skills was essential.
“Making sure I am looking at you when you are talking to me, not trying to turn your back to me and talk, not rustling papers while trying to talk, talking loud enough, and if I ask you to repeat yourself just repeating it normally,” Whedbee said were methods to help her school and everyday life run more smoothly.
Her undergraduate degree was done at JMU where she studied audiology. While there, one of her professors introduced something called an FM system, in which the professor wears a microphone and the student wears a loop around the neck and is able to hear everything the teacher says as it goes right to the ears. After being introduced to the technology, Whedbee’s grades shot up from average to mostly A’s.
“It shows how lack of information can hurt, and how getting information can help so much,” said Whedbee, who expressed that although it helped, the spotlight cannot solely be placed on the FM system for the grades shooting upwards.
At JMU, Whedbee also learned sign language. The summer before she graduated, an internship with three deaf students and two deaf teachers, acting as a student sign language interpreter, really helped her to improve her skills.
Studying deaf education now at Radford, Whedbee attributes her career choice to the experiences she dealt with at a younger age.
“There were a lot of students mostly in middle school that would make these comments here and there, and I am a very sensitive person,” said Whedbee. “Looking back, there were a lot of aids I should have gotten, that I didn’t.”
Her push to study this program, in specifics, sprouted from the changes she wanted to make for others in the same shoes. Whedbee feels she should have gotten the FM system way before college. She believes that special treatment and one on one interaction with the teachers would have helped her to better succeed.
Currently, Whedbee makes it through class with the help of her ASL interpreters. Just like everyone else, she probably watches too much reality TV in the spare time she finds. She may even watch some volleyball or softball, two sports she used to play competitively.
Recently, she has started to use TV captioning because growing up Whedbee refused to tell people to turn up the volume; the times she did people complained it was too loud.
“I would watch a movie with friends, and something would happen and they would laugh, and I’d sit there wondering what was so funny,” said Whedbee. “Now with captioning, I get it immediately.”
Until she came to Radford, Whedbee felt like she didn’t fit in anywhere. Now there are other girls in the program who have hearing loss. She feels a closer relationship to them than anyone else, and doesn’t feel the need to be shy anymore.
She hopes to soon be a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing, once school is finished. In terms of grade level, it’s up in the air still, but consideration in early intervention has also factored into her future plans. As of now, Whedbee is finishing up her student teaching at a public school with fourth graders.
When asked about hearing loss, Whedbee could only describe it as a beauty. She loves how everyone will have a different type of loss, a different severity of loss, a different age of onset and all of those things can have different impacts on the person with the loss.
At the moment, Whedbee is right where she wants to be. She is happy being a part of the Highlander clan. She is a model for what everyone should strive to be; accepting of who you are and free to live a life like every other person in the world. Hearing aids or no hearing aids, she is someone to look up to. Life struggles are no easy feat and Whedbee is climbing over those hurdles effortlessly.