Editor's Note: In the time since this article was written, Nan Asher has been promoted to Executive Director of Michigan Association of Deaf and Hard of Hearing (formerly MADHS). Congratulations Nan!
Interview by Julie Eckhardt
This is part II of an interview with Nan Asher, Program Manager at Michigan Association for Deaf, Hearing, and Speech (MADHS). Nan has a Master’s Degree from the Eastern Michigan University in Interdisciplinary Technology. She is the owner of Hear–Tech, a business providing hearing assistive technology products and services. In this interview she describes some college experiences and her work at MADHS.
Julie: Nan, can you talk a bit about your hearing loss? Do you consider yourself hard of hearing or deaf?
Nan: My hearing loss is in the severe range. It is a progressive loss, on the border of a profound loss. When I was younger, I lost an average of about 1 decibel per year. In the past 15 years, my loss has only dropped 1 decibel!
As a child and young adult, I had tinnitus constantly! (For a description of Tinnitus click here.) Certain tones and bells, like the phone or school bell, would set it off. Luckily, I learned that caffeine intake greatly influences my level of tinnitus. During my first pregnancy, I stopped all caffeine. The tinnitus almost disappeared. After the baby, when I started increasing caffeine intake, the tinnitus came back full force. I can tolerate small amounts, but as soon as the tinnitus starts, I know to immediately stop the caffeine! I am very happy to have found out what the trigger is, not everyone is as fortunate.
As for my identity as deaf or hard of hearing, I am not that particular. Clinically, I am deaf. But with hearing aids and hearing assistive technology, I function more like a person who is hard of hearing. For most of my life, I called myself hearing impaired. When I got involved with SHHH (Self Help for Hard of Hearing People) I learned the distinction between deaf and hard of hearing. The term ‘hard of hearing’ does not always convey the seriousness of a hearing loss. Most people assume hard of hearing refers to a mild or moderate loss.
Julie: How did hearing loss impact your college experience?
Nan: I began my college career at Michigan State University (MSU), before ADA (American with Disabilities Act) I dropped out of college after 7 terms. I quit primarily because of the lack of accommodations for my hearing loss. For the most part, the only support I received was carbon–less paper for note taking. I was required to find my own note takers. In some courses, there were several hundred students and an instructor behind a far–away podium with a microphone blocking the face. Even though I was proficient at speech reading, I found it impossible to speech read in these large classrooms. It was particularly challenging trying to understand the foreign–born teaching assistants and instructors in my math and science classes. An unfamiliar accent can make speech reading very difficult. Words are formed differently, and sound differently, than usual.
A few years later, I attended Eastern Michigan University and majored in Health Administration. Class sizes were much more manageable. I was in the honors program, which guaranteed smaller classes and helped dramatically. The FM system was essential in math classes! (See Part 1 article.) I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1995 after 9 years of off again, on again, classes. I completed a master’s in Interdisciplinary Technology in two years, graduating in 1998. Since I could pick any technology for specialization, of course, I chose Hearing Assistive Technology!
I had some very positive experiences in college. While these were not the norm, they really emphasize the value of accessible learning. For example:
One sociology professor at MSU was fabulous! He always made sure I was hearing him. He would turn to face me (and the class) instead of talking to the chalk board. Eventually, he noticed that in my class the grade point average for all students was a whole point higher than his other (identical) class. For the next term, he “pretended” I was in both classes. The other class average also improved a whole point! By the time I took my last class with him, he taught ALL of his classes facing the students as if I was there. He said I made him a better professor!
In an EMU economic class, the instructor asked if anyone had any issues he needed to be aware of before class started. I raised my hand and explained I was hearing–impaired and was unable to find a volunteer note taker for the class. He looked around and asked for a volunteer. NOT ONE PERSON raised a hand! The instructor pulled out a chair, sat down, closed all his notes, crossed his arms, and said, “Class will NOT begin until we have a volunteer to take notes!” I about dropped my teeth! Eight hands shot into the air! I didn’t dare ask for handwriting samples at that point.
One more story! A history professor made sure everyone in class had an outline of the topics he was going over during the first day of class. On the second day, there was no outline. I asked if he could provide an outline for every class as I found it so helpful. The outline really helped me to stay on track. If something was on the outline, but I didn’t hear it, I knew what to ask about. He did not want to provide an outline only for me, so he gave it to all the students. We all grew to depend on it! If a student had to miss class, they would ask another student for the outline instead of notes!
Julie: These are great examples of universal design. Sounds like we would all do better in college with you in the class!
I know you have other family members who are deaf or hard of hearing. Can you tell me more?
Nan: My brother was born with a profound hearing loss, and calls himself deaf or perhaps Deaf! I have never clarified that specific point with him! He is the rare individual who is both a fluent signer and an oral communicator.
We have other deaf ancestors as well. The one we know best is my great–great grandfather. He worked in the coal mines. According to family history, a bucket of coal (about 2 tons) fell on him as it was being hoisted out of the mine. He didn’t hear the bucket falling, nor was he able to hear his co–workers yelling for him to move out of the way. I wonder sometimes if we would know he was deaf had he not died under those circumstances.
Julie: Between your personal, professional, and family experience, you have a great deal of expertise to bring to your job at MADHS. Please tell me more about your job.
Nan: I am responsible for many of the MADHS programs. The day I started at MADHS, there was already a long to–do list! I hit the ground running, that’s for sure! I am grateful that Jennifer Mora, my predecessor left things very well organized. And the entire staff here has been tremendously helpful! Everyone I’m working with is awesome.
Currently, we are working on Camp Chris, Youth Leadership Training, and substance abuse prevention programs in the schools. (See the MADHS web site for more on these programs.) The agency and board are involved in strategic planning to determine which programs we should maintain and new directions to consider. Most recently, we added a speech reading component. We offer a class in the Ann Arbor Senior Center. We are also hoping to do more technology demonstrations in some of the underserved areas. I am very excited about the work we are doing!
Julie: What is happening to your business, Hear–Tech, now that you are at MADHS full time?
Nan: I am no longer taking new customers, but my current customers still contact me for services. Obviously, working full–time at MADHS severely restricts involvement with the business. On the plus side, many of the services I provided through Hear–Tech, I can now offer under the MADHS umbrella. For example, I now do equipment demonstrations and teach speech reading for MADHS.
Julie: With your wide range of experience, you are certainly an asset to MADHS, and to the people served by that agency. We are also fortunate that you are on the E–Michigan Deaf and Hard of Hearing web site committee! (See About Us)
For more information about Michigan Association for Deaf and Hard of Hearing (MADHH) (http://www.madhh.org),
e–mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 1–800–YOUR EAR.