Volta Voices Interview: Up Front on the Back Page Danielle Paquin, M.E.D., LSLS Cert. AVEd
Teacher of the deaf with hearing loss on wanting to hear, getting two cohlear implants, and not missing a beat
Interview by Anna Karkovska McGlew, M.A.
Tell us about your hearing loss.
Danielle (right), her partner Tammy and son Oliver
enjoying a gorgeous fall day at the Hondo cornfield maize in Texas.
I was born with a moderate to severe sloping hearing loss that was identified at the age of 2 years 9 months. I was immediately fitted with hearing aids and began attending a preschool program focused on listening and spoken language. The loss was progressive and by the time I was in middle school it had progressed to a severe to profound loss.
I was dependent on speechreading and wore two hearing aids until age 13. Around that age during the summer months at the beach, I received a blow to my head from a windsurfing board while playing with a group of friends in the water. From that point on, my hearing in my left ear deteriorated rapidly to where the hearing aid only amplified static. I stopped wearing a hearing aid on my left ear and continued through high school and the first few years of college with just one hearing aid.
In early high school my hearing had dropped significantly to a profound loss. I attended AG Bell’s Leadership Enrichment Adventure Program (LEAP) program after my freshman year of college and met a number of people with cochlear implants. The seed had been planted, but I was still resistant. I believed I could hear just fine. I rarely ran into communication issues. I rarely missed a beat, or so I thought. The following year, in 2000, I attended my first AG Bell convention in Philadelphia and was introduced to frequency transposition hearing aids.
Just six months later I decided that hearing all the high frequencies (doorbells, water running, car engines, phones ringing, fricative speech sounds /s/, “sh”, “ch”, /f/, etc.) as low frequency sounds, all squashed up and slushy was for the birds. I suddenly was hearing so much “noise”, noise that made no sense. Noise that I knew had meaning, but it all sounded the same to me. Yet when I put my old hearing aids on, the apparent silence was back. The low frequency bass of vowel sounds and that frequency spectrum was there, but silence surrounded me. These new hearing aids had lifted the veil a bit, yet I still couldn’t see through it. I finally understood what I was missing and the most powerful hearing aids couldn’t give me what I needed, what I wanted.
I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear the sound of my pencil writing on paper, the sounds of spring awakening, the din of a classroom full of children. I wanted to hear. I wanted to be able to understand young children, hear their conversations and engage. I knew I wanted to teach and understanding tiny voices was challenging. I had done so well for so long, but after discovering there was more, I was finally ready. After many months and years of thinking about it in the back of my mind, I decided as a college junior in 2001 to take the plunge and get my first cochlear implant.
Wow is all I can say. We live in a noisy world, but what joy there is in hearing. I received intense weekly auditory therapy for almost two years at NECHEAR in Connecticut learning to make sense of sounds and speech. I worked on using the cochlear implant independently without my trusted hearing aid. This newfound way of hearing certainly didn’t come with a manual! NECHEAR gave me many tools to train my brain to process the multitudes of sounds I was confronted with. I eventually learned to switch between active and passive listening, very useful in the classroom setting in college and out and about on the campus. Soon, I forgot what it was to just hear with a hearing aid alone. After I was certain my brain had adjusted to hearing with the cochlear implant, I began wearing my hearing aid on my right ear for localization and to maintain a sense of hearing balance, but as time went on, I needed more power and experienced significant feedback. We all know the love/hate relationship one can have with hearing aids when feedback decides to join in! I knew I wanted to hear out of two ears, but my hearing aid was no longer cutting it.
In 2007, I jumped on the bilateral bandwagon and got my second cochlear implant. I was teaching pre-kindergarten at the time and decided that in order to get my second ear up and running, I was going to take off the first cochlear implant. I didn’t have NECHEAR to help with the brain training of my second cochlear implant, so I opted to train it myself. I put myself through the rigors of hearing with a brand new ear all the while teaching a classroom of children with and without hearing loss who never stopped talking. Within several months, my new ear was up to snuff and I had started understanding spoken language without speechreading, using the telephone and was able to complete the many listening tasks I could do with my first implanted ear. I had achieved success, but not without giving myself a major auditory workout. Several months after receiving my second implant I put the first one back on. Now I was truly a bilateral listener, something I hadn’t experienced in years.
Tell us about your experience growing up with hearing loss. Share some vivid childhood memories and experiences that influenced the course of your life.
Hearing loss was never an issue for me or my family. It was part of who I was and my family made it work for us. I was included, I was encouraged, and I was pushed to become whatever I wanted. I can remember as a young child dreaming of being the first female baseball player. I loved baseball, I dreamed about it and I lived it. The Boston Red Sox and little league baseball season were the highlights of my year. I wasn’t going to be the first deaf baseball player, I was going to be the first female baseball player and I had decided I was going to be on the Red Sox. The deafness was secondary. It was what it was and didn’t impact my dreams. Today, I’ve taken a bit of a different route and decided that being an educator was just as good as being a pro baseball player, if not better.
I have fond memories of my summers growing up. My siblings and I grew up going to the beach and taking swim lessons at the local pool. I remember the many years of swim lessons and hanging out at by pool for
Sharing some laughs in the yard while
enjoying the spring weather with family
hours every day. Maybe I was lucky, or maybe my parents did an awesome job of advocating for me and teaching me to be independent and asking for what I needed, but looking back, swim lessons rocked. I had awesome instructors who always made sure to face me, and gave me plenty of opportunities to watch others before having me attempt new strokes or activities. I knew as a young child (4 or 5 years old) to ask for repetition and for adults to face me if I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids due to the nature of the activity. My parents modeled advocacy to me and I followed suit. I was expected to go after what I needed and ask for help.
In addition to my parents and family being my number one cheerleaders, my coaches were instrumental in helping to shape me and my determination to succeed. Coaches wore FMs for me and always ensured I knew exactly what was expected of me by allowing me the opportunity to watch my teammates complete drills before it was my turn. Signals and codes were generated and during high school I was the catcher. Despite being so close to the umpire, I couldn’t hear the calls. It was my third base woman who decided after every pitch she was going to signal the call to me. This became our team’s normal, saving me from having to turn around and ask the ump for the count. My volleyball coaches in high school loved having a direct link to the court, especially during exciting moments of the game when it was impossible to hear, well for everyone but me.
Aside from the pitch black nights hiding in the woods, all I can remember is how much my family and friends would giggle while shushing me, because I would always loudly (how was I supposed to know everyone else could hear everything?!) ask questions while we were hiding in the dark, oblivious that there was someone seeking us just a few short yards away. It’s a miracle I was allowed to continue playing considering how many times I gave up our hiding spots since I had no idea my clothes rustled when I moved, or how loud I was truly whispering, or the fact that walking on leaves in the woods made noise. Oops!
I have a younger sister and a younger male cousin who lived with my family, so I essentially had two great language models growing up. I was kept up on all the slang in elementary school from my siblings and was fortunate to have great friends with typical hearing growing up. After leaving the listening and spoken language preschool program, I no longer had constant contact with other children who were deaf or hard of hearing. My peers all had typical hearing; everyone else in my family had typical hearing. Although I was the only one, my parents made sure it didn’t impact my ability to participate in family conversations making sure I understood the missed jokes, the conversations happening around me and tirelessly repeated everything I missed. When spending time with my sister Elissa and our friends, she always knew when to repeat conversations and questions I missed without me ever having to ask her, even though she was three and a half years younger than me. She just got it and tuned in. I can remember playing ball in the yard with my cousin Sam and any time he wanted to tell me something, he wouldn’t shout across the yard, but took the time to run over to me and tell me what he wanted to say. I was blessed growing up.
Tell us about attending mainstream school (elementary through high school) with hearing loss. What accommodations did you use/receive? What strategies/tips do you have for students with hearing loss and their parents to succeed in a mainstream classroom?
As soon as my hearing loss was identified, I attended CREC in Wethersfield, Connecticut, now known as Soundbridge. At 5 years of age, I was mainstreamed successfully alongside my peers with typical hearing in my hometown public school district from kindergarten through high school. I was married to my personal FM and used it all day long. Any time it wasn’t functioning properly, I was fortunate to have an audiologist at my school who could fix it within a day and get me back up to speed. As long as I was able to speechread I was fine using just an FM system.
As I got older and my hearing got worse, I discovered in high school that note taking was next to impossible, so I was given note takers for my major lecture classes. In sixth grade I had a fabulous Social Studies teacher who took a vested interest in my education and recognized that I could not understand educational media (movies, performances) and fought for me to get a personal closed captions decoder to keep at my school. She herself called the TV and captioning companies and made it happen.
As for strategies, it really is up to educators to include advocacy skills/training in Individualized Education Programs (IEP) and 504 plans. If parents and teachers always do everything for the child, the child will never truly understand what his/her needs are unless he/she is put in charge of asking for it. Teaching the child to recognize his/her needs in the moment is teaching the child to take charge of his/her education, something that is essential for success in college and therafter. In addition to that, it’s imperative that educating the child is a joint effort between parents/caregivers and schools. Parents need to do their part in pre-teaching, yet the teachers need to have clear and consistent communication with families about upcoming vocabulary, language and academic content. Children need to be given the opportunity to take charge of their learning and to do that, parents must realize it is their job to instill a love of learning, a desire to want to know more and the confidence to ask for help and clarification when needed, not just in the comfort of their classroom, but in the real world.
Enjoying a fall day in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
As important as self-advocacy is for success in the classroom, so is helping your child develop socially. I remember after volunteering to emcee the pep rally at our high school being told by a teammate I couldn’t do it because no one would understand me and my speech. I was in high school yet this comment broke my heart, but I’ll never forget my volleyball teammate and great friend Bethany taking me aside and basically telling me that the teammate was ridiculous and everyone could understand me just fine. In reality I knew she was right, but words can and do have an impact people. Bethany even took the time to write me an encouraging note on a postcard and gave it to me the next day at school. I still have it and refer to it from time to time whenever I need a pick-me-up and to remind myself why I do my job, to instill in the minds of young deaf children that the world is their oyster. Looking back, I’m grateful that she was able to see past the fact that I couldn’t hear well, and that her heart was so big and understanding at a time in our lives when teenagers can be cruel.
Tell us about your post-secondary education experiences? Please touch upon accommodations, academics, social life, successes and challenges.
College was nothing short of being a huge challenge, one I gratefully took and clobbered outta the park. I attended Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. I started out double majoring in Elementary Education and Marine Biology and as much as I loved Marine Biology it didn’t seem to be the right fit for me. For some reason unknown at that time, I decided to venture into psychology and ended up double majoring in Elementary Education and Psychology. Looking back it was the perfect field for me, especially working with so many families as they go through the process of internalizing and accepting their child’s hearing loss and later guiding parents and their children through the process of conquering the fears a hearing loss diagnosis brings and helping parents rediscover dreams for their children and making them happen.
As a freshman I was given an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and an FM which inconsistently worked due to interference at the university. It was a rather unfortunate situation given that I had only learned ASL the year before for a lead role in a high school play (“Children of a Lesser God”) and certainly did not have the language internalized to the point of acquiring new and unfamiliar academic subjects such as Marine Science, Organic Chemistry, Calculus etc. Really and truly I felt like I was sitting in a Japanese calculus class. As much as I loved science, those courses were no better.
Fortunately in my freshman year, I was blessed with phenomenal professors for my Education classes and they took me under their wing. They were educators, true educators teaching upcoming educators and they understood the importance of meeting the needs of all their students. My success in my education courses and the encouragement I received from that department gave me the incentive to not give up on college.
It was a horrible feeling going from an honor roll student to being a C student my first year of college. I knew it wasn’t because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t access the information and ASL wasn’t my first language. A majority of my professors my freshman year didn’t face the student when they lectured, never repeated student comments, and just didn’t understand what I needed despite the many meetings and the frequent reminders. Some days I felt like my hand was raised for a majority of my classes, asking for repetition or clarification because of missed information.
After my freshman year (and after attending LEAP and gaining additional advocacy tools and meeting cued speech users), I went to the disability services office and requested Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) and/or Cued Speech, dependent upon the class and the nature of the instructional setting. Initially, my requests were met with resistance. I was eventually told by the vice president of the school that it wasn’t their job to provide these services for me to receive my education; it wasn’t their responsibility. My family’s response was to tell the school that our lawyer was about to contact them… Shortly after that, I was contacted by the disability service office asking what type of services I would like to receive and in what classes.
The rest of my college academic career was successful, all because I had access to the same information my peers did. Socially I was outgoing, yet an observer. I joined many campus activities and became a Resident Assistant after my freshman year. I enjoyed the challenges that were presented and eventually took a Head Resident Assistant position. Leading comes naturally to me and maybe it’s because of all the sports I played and the numerous opportunities my parents gave me to interact with my peers with typical hearing. In addition, I also played division III volleyball, basketball and softball throughout my four years at university. I was as social as I could be and teammates included me as often as they could, as much as they knew how.
Why did you decide to become a teacher of the deaf? What attracted you to this setting?
I was a Resident Assistant my sophomore, junior and senior years of college. The last year I was a Head Resident Assistant with a team of approximately 20 resident assistants. One night, while “on duty”, I had a long talk with one of them, Zach, about the future and I just started talking about wanting to explore teaching children who are deaf and that I had heard about this graduate program at Smith College from some AG Bell friends (Paul and Sarah Sommer).
Looking back at my early educational years, I knew how many people it took to get me to where I am now; I wanted to give that back to others. My friend basically got on the computer that night with me and we found the application. While I cannot remember the exact conversation, I do remember how positive and encouraging he was. Zach was an old soul and I just remember how excited he was for me to apply to the Masters in Deaf Education program. He was very encouraging and really supported the whole idea and at that point I decided I was going to give it a shot, I mean, what could it hurt?
Does being a teacher of the deaf with hearing loss help students with hearing loss relate to you? How does your hearing loss influence how you practice as a teacher of the deaf and a certified Listening and Spoken Language Specialist (LSLS®)?
I can say for certain that my kids are positively influenced by having a teacher with hearing loss. They really recognize there are no excuses for not giving 100 percent at everything they do, yet at the same time I recognize when emotional and social development support is needed as they figure out their identity as a kid with hearing loss in today’s world. I feel they trust me and buy into what I say.
All smiles after finishing the Graffiti Run in San Antonio, Texas.
There is an unspoken understanding that I share with these kids: "Yes, I get it! It’s not easy, I know that, but I’m still going to make you work your tail off." The students I've been blessed to work with hopefully have come to internalize the self-advocacy skills I try to instill in them. As a certified LSLS I feel my hearing loss has been a huge asset. I've lived and experienced what many LSLS have had to learn from extensive training. The uncharted territory the families have to navigate is my “normal” and the gift my own parents have given me is the ability to embrace "my normal" which I can then share with families I coach.
I can tell parents: “I get it, I acknowledge it isn’t easy,” yet I’m able to stand before them as living proof that it’s possible! The dreams they had for their child before they were born are within reach, even though the path they may take is different. Robert Frosts’ poem comes to mind as I watch my students and their families truly taking the road less traveled as they strive to teach their children listening and spoken language. I can relate to the stress, the angst and the wonder families come to me with—“Will my kid be able to go to college? How will my son know if there is a fire when he's asleep?"—and I'm able to bring my experiences to the table and offer honest responses.
Tell us about your mentors. Who and what inspires you?
First and foremost my parents have inspired me to reach for the stars. Without them I know I wouldn’t be where I am. They were dedicated to ensuring I had access to excellent school systems, and the best technology available at the time. They were always there 100 percent of the time supporting me, encouraging me and picking me up when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore.
Growing up I can say for certain my parents were my inspiration. Today as I walk into my classroom every morning, I find inspiration in my students and their families, seeing firsthand the experiences my parents went through. I find inspiration to continue working towards change and general accessibility in the country, making things better for today’s children who have hearing loss because of the children I teach and their parents who put their faith in me to educate their child. I can honestly say I have many mentors, from those at Sunshine Cottage School for the Deaf who guided me as a new teacher fresh out of graduate school back in 2003, to Diane Brackett and the late Toni Maxon of NECHEAR who helped me achieve my listening potential with my cochlear implants.
What is your advice to students of all ages (especially tweens and teens) in navigating the social scene of (middle and high) school?
Get involved whether it is school extracurricular activities, music, church youth groups or athletics. Find what makes you happy and do it. Don’t be afraid to stand up and ask questions.
Most importantly, don’t fake it. Be honest about your hearing loss and this will gain you respect. Pretending you know what is going on and what people are talking about doesn’t help in the long run. It will take time to figure out who to trust and who to go to for help, but those people exist. Be patient.
In addition, do your school work. Be diligent about it, study and explore what you’re learning. Without knowledge, there is no power. Anything is possible, but you need to be prepared so educate yourself, learn and discover all there is to know and possibilities will unveil themselves.
I mustn’t forget the single most important thing that has helped me cope with frustrating situations: humor. It is okay to laugh at yourself, especially when you have completely misconstrued an entire conversation because what you heard and what you thought you heard were two completely different things!
How has your career choice influenced how you communicate with your loved ones?
I have always been grateful for the communication choices my parents made for me and appreciate that they understand my desires to not only support other families opting to communicate with their children using listening and spoken language, but also to support me in using Cued Speech as well as sign when needed. In addition to that, I know that while I do listen and speak, when my cochlear implants are off, I’m deaf.
My partner Tammy and I have chosen to teach our typical hearing son Oliver sign language, so whether he needs to wake me in the middle of the night or when we are at the pool and I don’t my processors aren’t on, he can still communicate with me. At 2 ½ he has figured out when Mommy can and can’t hear and often uses the signs he knows or hands me my processor. I have also started introducing Cued Speech to him, hopeful that he will catch on to that as well. Essentially I figure, the more he knows, the more individuals he can successfully communicate with.
Tell us about your love of travel, the outdoors, being a tri-athlete, marathoner and cyclist. Tell us about your involvement with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
I grew up in a time where unstructured outdoor play was something we lived for. Hearing the bell ring at 3 p.m. meant the rest of the day was spent playing outside until the sun went down or your parents called you in for dinner. My family regularly took camping trips and allowed us to explore, build forts in the woods, create haphazard dams in the creek and climb trees.
Video games were allowed, but only when it was thundering and lightening. Otherwise we were expected to be outside. We were in every sport imaginable, running from one game to the next, yet we couldn’t get enough of it. From the time I could walk I was playing a sport and my love for the outdoors hasn’t waned. Thankfully my family loves the outdoors so you’ll often find us playing ball in the backyard, looking for bugs with our son and tending to our large garden.
After moving to San Antonio, I played on several softball and volleyball teams, but I was still searching for a way to get involved in my community and help others in a meaningful way. In 2008 I received a mailing from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to check out Team In Training (TNT), a fundraising program dedicated to training you for a long distance event (century rides, full and half marathons, triathlons and Ironmans) while you raise money to help fund a cure for blood cancers. I got online and read up on TNT and its mission struck a chord with me having lost my grandfather to Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It didn’t take much to convince me to join and go out and buy my first road bike.
The idea of cycling 100 miles was foreign to me, but I was up for the challenge. The fundraising and the training in 90+ degree Texas heat was worth it to see our Honored Heroes healthy and cheering us on during our practices. After my first event, riding 100 miles in one day, I was hooked. Over the course of the next few years I raised over $16,000 and participated in a number of half marathons, century rides and triathlons. While I have hung up my bike, wetsuit and shoes for the time being, I look forward to the day I can get back out there and continue to train and push myself beyond what I think I’m capable of.
Given that my parents, siblings and other relatives are still back in New England, I have grown to love traveling. I think nothing of hopping on a plane, taking a trip for a week or two, then coming home and waking up the next day to go to work. Although I have to admit, having a 2.5 year-old who has easily taken 15 plane trips has made the “going to work the next day part” rather challenging.
Tammy and I have been to England and are now thinking about our next international trip that we will take with our son. Where that will be remains to be seen!