Today’s blog is written by Jessica Chaikof. Jessica was born profoundly deaf and received her first cochlear implant in May of 1996 at fifteen months. At the time, she was the youngest child in the country to receive a cochlear implant. In May of 2004, Jessica went bilateral and was diagnosed with Usher syndrome type 1F about two years later. Despite the Usher diagnosis, Jessica has refused to let anything stop her from pursuing her dreams. She has recently graduated from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology with a minor in chemistry. Jessica hopes to attend graduate school in sociology and to pursue her research interest in accessibility and disability.
Throughout my life, my parents have always told me to never let my disability define me. As the youngest of three and a deaf person who hears and speaks well with cochlear implants and attended mainstream schools, I will not lie and say that it has been easy or that my disability does not get in my way. When I entered my freshman year of high school, my teacher of the deaf (TOD), said that I should learn American Sign Language so that I could benefit from an interpreter in college. I remember being confused and shocked because I have never needed nor utilized sign language. After my IEP meeting in late August 2010, the battle to prove not only my worth but for my rights began.
In high school, I lacked confidence because I chose to pay attention to my weaknesses rather than my strengths. Every minute and second of the day, I was always second-guessing myself. In sophomore year of high school, I had an amazing chemistry teacher who believed that anything was possible regardless of one’s capabilities. In my chemistry teacher’s classroom, I fell in love with chemistry and fully intended to continue studying it in college. Eventually, I learned that college was not a straight-forward path to success, especially at a small liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere.
At Wheaton, I had two phenomenal chemistry professors who not only took me under their wing but also played an active role as my mentors. I loved chemistry but secretly hated being in lab for more than three hours once a week. I was still set on majoring in chemistry; therefore, I denied the fact I disliked lab. In my third year, I had to take a sociology course for a requirement. During the first office hour with my sociology professor, I told her, “I will hate sociology.” As I became more exposed to the sociology field, I discovered many different topics of interest, such as accessibility and disability. Despite my interest and desire to explore the sociology field further, I told myself I should stick with chemistry since I was so close to finishing.
A semester later, I took an upper-level chemistry course that focused on teaching me to think and how to be a chemist. Unfortunately, I despised every second of the class and grew to hate chemistry. Eventually, my mom said, “If you are planning to do sociology in graduate school, then you should switch your major. You have just enough time to switch.” I returned to my sociology professor’s office begging her to let me change my major to sociology, despite taking only one class.
In my senior year, all sociology majors have the privilege of taking on an independent research project on a topic of interest as part of their capstone. At school, I was heavily involved in accessibility and disability issues. Additionally, I was co-founder and president of WheAccess, the first club on campus for students with disabilities. There are numerous studies on the experiences of students with disabilities within the classroom but limited data on the faculty experience with accessibility. Therefore, I chose to focus my research project on understanding how accessibility shapes the faculty experience within the classroom. It is essential that we understand the faculty perspective because it will allow us to solve many issues with accessibility in the college classroom.
My research project helped to identify significant barriers between students with disabilities and faculty such as lack of access to the appropriate testing for documentation, students not disclosing their disability, or faculty attempting to determine the suitable strategy for making their classroom more accessible. Faculty desire more information on working with students with disabilities but need more support. Faculty want help not only the ability to predict the potential barriers in advance, but also in how they can overcome these barriers. Consequently, there is a need for faculty to have a way to as much information on accessibility as possible.
In March 2019, I had the opportunity to present my undergraduate research poster at the Eastern Sociological Society Conference in Boston. My poster session had students from Harvard University, Tufts University, and Boston University. Without a doubt, I was nervous and did not expect to win anything. After the judges made their rounds, they returned to my poster to inform me that I had won best undergraduate research poster! I could not believe it! The moment not only felt surreal but impossible. I came from a small liberal arts school and had less experience in sociology than the rest of my peers.
Recently, I graduated from Wheaton College majoring in sociology with a minor in chemistry. About five years ago, I did not think it was possible that I would change my major or discover a new passion. At graduation, I proved not only my capabilities but demonstrated to every person that sign language is not needed to be successful. The advice I would give to anyone is to always fight for your rights and to never give up. It is no one’s job to decide whether you should sign or speak. About thirty years ago, my parents took the risk of getting my older sister, Rachel, a cochlear implant through the early pediatric clinical trials in the 1980s. Several years later in May of 1996, I received my first cochlear implant at fifteen months and became the youngest child in the country at the time. Additionally, I graduated from Auditory-Verbal therapy at age six. I am forever grateful for my parents’ choice to not only get me a cochlear implant but to raise me utilizing listening and spoken language.