Faith, Focus and
I was born in Chicago and placed in the Illinois foster care system until adopted at an early age. After my adoption, I was diagnosed with a bilateral profound sensorineural hearing loss. At the time, the doctor informed my parents that my hearing loss would significantly compromise my educational potential. The medical team also shared that I (age four), would be “lucky” to graduate from high school, and that college was not a realistic option. In an effort to provide comfort and support, friends of the family assured my parents that I could have a successful career as a carpenter or plumber even with limited education. Fortunately, Michael and Isabell Wyvill disagreed with those assessments. They believed that my future career options hinged on my ability to learn. In 1970, they had to come up with their own plan.
To provide context, these decisions relating to my education were made prior to the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (i.e., Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). In addition, the option of mainstreaming was rare. While hearing aids were available, cochlear implantation was still about two decades from being widely available. The school for the Deaf was not a viable option, because enrollment there would involve an extremely long commute. Thus, back in the early 1970s, my parents had very few technological and educational options available to them.
My mom and dad had limited information on which to make an informed decision about educational placement and services required for academic success. None of the educational professionals in our part of the state had ever had a Deaf or Hard of Hearing student before, and there was a lack of resources available to explain possible school placements. Most frustratingly, they had to battle the prevailing stereotypes, such as the medical team displayed, about educating students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. Despite these obstacles, their “DIY” plan involved assistive technology, support services, and enrollment in a small mainstream school.
At age four, I tried my first hearing aid in my right ear. At the time, some audiologists recommended introducing one hearing aid at a time. Later, after the child gains listening experience, the second would be introduced in the opposite ear. Despite careful efforts over time, I resisted using one for my left ear.
My parents’ quest for information and resources ultimately put them in contact with Easter Seals. Conversations with them led to a discovery of a number of resources they could draw upon for me. In addition, Easter Seals provided a speech-language pathologist who began working intensively with me in those early years. During these sessions, everyone learned that I had already developed proficiency for lipreading.
After much research, mom and dad decided that their small church school would be the best option for me from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade. This decision was made over strenuous objections by medical personnel who disagreed with any placement in a mainstream school. In addition, the principal of the school was less than excited about the enrolling me in the school.
Lessons Learned: General Challenges
- Lack of knowledge and experience of school administrators and teachers in working with students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
- Lack of awareness of educational resources and assistive technology that could be utilized in the classroom
- Lack of cultural awareness by other students and teachers
- Noisy classrooms and no efforts to improve the acoustic access within the learning environment
- Teachers lecturing with their backs to me or from the rear of the classroom
- Teachers showing movies or slide presentations in a dark classroom without captions
- As a student, trying to take notes and lipread at the same time was not possible
- Lack of troubleshooting when hearing aid issues occurred at school
- Lack of connection or awareness of peers with similar challenges or other students with hearing loss
Working Behind the Scenes
My parents were actively engaged with my teachers and often visited the classroom to ensure that my educational needs were being met. Knowing that I had to rely on my hearing aid extensively, they regularly took me to the audiologist to follow up with hearing, programming, and ensuring that the aid was fully functional. They educated themselves about the importance of reducing extra sound and distractions, and knew intuitively that a small class size would be beneficial, and insisted upon that. My parents wisely made good connections with other parents at school to help them investigate whether I was being picked on, discriminated against, or my needs put to the side in some way. Of course they did everything they could to make sure I didn’t miss school, and were active in supervising my homework. They wanted to make sure I understood what was presented in the classroom. Seeing the speech language pathologist was a fixture of my early years, and she was a resource to my parents and me as well.
The Rest of the Story: Academic Accomplishments
Over time, I went to a variety of public and private schools as I grew up. Seeking new opportunities, my parents moved from the Chicago area to Little Rock, Arkansas between my 9th and 10th grades. I graduated from a small private high school (class of 50) in Little Rock. While in high school, I lettered in baseball and football (earning all-conference honorable mention during my senior year). As a result of a combined ACT score and grade point average, I received a number of academic scholarship offers from colleges and universities. Ultimately, I accepted a Dean’s scholarship to attend Westminster College in Missouri but later transferred to Hendrix College, a much smaller school. After graduation, I went on to receive my Juris Doctorate at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law in 1991.
I was the first person in my family to graduate college, let alone become an attorney. I was happy to earn the Buthman political science prize as a top graduate with distinction from my school.
It’s a Marathon: College Strategies
Understandably, by late high school and college age, the responsibility for strategizing fell more to me than my parents. My playbook looked like this:
- Don’t miss any classes (it’s amazing what you will pick up and retain from going to class)
- Meet and get to know your professors. Make them aware of challenges you may face in class on day one. (This is not to be confused with “sucking up” to the professor.)
- Understand the importance of good notetaking. Consistently compare notes with competent classmates during the semester.
- Sit in the front of the classroom or the best spot for you considering how you hear, use of any assistive listening device, other technology, and/or interpreters. If you are assigned a seat or desk, explain why you may need to move to a different spot.
- Be prepared to work harder than any other student. Complete concentration in classroom requires a great deal of energy and mental focus; with more effort than hearing students generally need to use.
- Obtain clarification from the professor on any issue or assignment immediately after class. If you wait, you may forget or the professor may not be available. Never leave a class without fully understanding what is expected of you.
- Be a member of a productive study group (good for information sharing, comparing notes as well as the relationship building associated with learning in the post-secondary environment).
- Pace yourself. The semester is a marathon and not a sprint. Do not wait to the last minute to complete an assignment, research paper, group project, or preparing for a test. If there are any questions due to communication issues, you may run out of time when trying to seek clarification.
- Plan for technology failures and always have a “Plan B.” You hearing aids will quit, batteries will die, and captions will fail. Your interpreter will be late and your notetaker will be sick. Rest assured, these situations will occur, and you must be prepared to deal with them effectively.
- Plan to participate in class. Remain aware of and understand class discussions that may occur around you.
- Be aware of any distractions in the classroom (noise, lighting, design, etc.) and come up with a plan to work around any potential distractions.
- Have a safety plan. Be aware of how to either be in “lock down” or evacuate the classroom in the event of fire or other emergency.
In stark contrast to the doctor’s predictions when I was young, I have enjoyed an amazing career as an attorney and a leader in state government. I couldn’t stay in the 1970s box labeled “expected future for a Deaf person.” Instead, I worked toward the next goal in front of me. For example, I served as an assistant legal counsel to Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and later became the first Deaf or Hard of Hearing Cabinet member in Arkansas when Huckabee named me to serve as the director of the Arkansas Department of Workforce Education. I also served as the director of the state’s vocational rehabilitation agency/hospital.
In other notable milestones, I served as president of my local county bar association, president of the Council of State Administrators in Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR), was named to the Nebraska Health and Human Services Cabinet, was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Education to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf National Advisory Group, and was appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Access Board. I am currently teaching law and ethics at Bryan College of Health Sciences and work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Editor’s note: Wyvill and K. Todd Houston (see separate article) are long time colleagues who have wanted to collaborate on an article for parents for a long time.