Student Voices: Incoming Freshman Britney Strong Discusses Overcoming the Challenges of Hearing Loss
Each year, 20,000 deaf and hard of hearing students attend college. And starting this fall, I’ll be one of them. I’ll be attending Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Institute for the Deaf in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences with an emphasis in photography.
Let me start by clarifying that I’m not deaf. I can hear some things, but I spend a lot of time reading lips and putting words together like puzzle pieces.
I was born as a fully hearing person but was told that I had failed my hearing test in kindergarten. At the time, I didn’t really think too much of it. That is until I failed the hearing test again in first grade…this time much worse. From then on, my hearing began to disappear quickly. Today, I’ve lost 60% of my hearing abilities.
For years, no doctor or hearing specialist was able to tell me why I had lost my hearing and why I had lost it so fast. So for a long time, I went on without answers. But a few years ago, I was finally diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, a disorder that causes vertigo, pressure in my ears….and hearing loss.
A few years ago I also began to experience severe migraines. And even to this day, the doctors still haven’t found the cause of them…or if there’s any connection to my hearing loss.
These things have definitely made school a challenge. Taking notes in class has always been a struggle because 90% of how I understand what’s being communicated to me is by reading lips. And looking down to take notes while also reading lips isn’t exactly easy. And it was even harder if the teacher turned around to write something on the board or moved around the classroom.
I almost always ended up asking my friends to repeat what had been said, which my teachers didn’t always love. Sometimes, I would get so frustrated that I would just check out and shut down. I remember feeling like this a few times when teachers didn’t understand my problem or didn’t believe how severe my problem is. If I’m not “deaf”, I should be able to mostly follow along, right?
When I was 14, my parents gave me a camera. And it has been my escape from the frustration hearing loss and migraines have caused ever since. When I’m behind my camera, everything kind of disappears. I zone everything else out and I just focus on what’s on the other side of the lense. I can get so caught up in the moment that sometimes I don’t even realize when I’m moving around or changing positions.
In photography, my hearing loss isn’t a problem. There’s no communication barrier for me to overcome. It doesn’t leave me feeling frustrated and wanting to shut down. Meniere’s disease, hearing loss, migraines…none of this can stop me from doing what I love and capturing a moment.
I can capture a certain moment and a feeling, and someone can look at that picture and understand what I’m telling them without words. I like the emotional impact pictures can have.
When I was looking at schools, RIT didn’t initially come up on my radar. I had never considered going to a deaf school; I just wanted a photography school. And the idea of going to a deaf school at first was a scary idea to me. I felt like I would be out of my element, especially since it’s really far away from my family.
But they say you always know what school you belong to after you visit. I wouldn’t say there was one big moment where I just knew RIT was the right place for me, but I remember having a feeling that something just felt right. I didn’t have to sacrifice photography to finally find a school with the resources to help me learn.
RIT will give me the chance to focus on just learning. The school has great resources like captioning, which is a service where someone takes notes for you. For the first time in my life, I won’t have to worry about listening, writing, and trying to follow along all at once. I don’t have to worry about struggling to keep up. I won’t need to turn to my friends at the end of every single class to find out what I missed. I can just focus on doing my best to listen — and learn.