Tennessee Alumnus

Touching the Future

By Erin Chesnut  |  Photos by Raffe Lazarian

Ashley Jackson wants to help young people overcome life’s difficulties—something the deaf-blind UT Martin student knows well.

Jackson is a junior in child and family studies and intends to help children find the opportunities and resources they need to succeed in the classroom and in life.

“(A career counselor) told me about a position called an education assistant, and you work with a child who needs special attention in a special-needs classroom. She suggested it might be something I would like to start off with,” says Jackson.

Jackson’s condition is one that developed over time, beginning with the removal of ocular tumors formed by retinoblastoma—a type of eye cancer. Her struggle to hear began with a series of severe ear infections as a young child.

“After my first birthday is when (my hearing) really started getting worse…It wasn’t dramatic, but I still declined,” she says.

In 2012, Jackson, her audiologist and other experts on her medical team began discussing cochlear implants because medical insurance would not cover them after her 21st birthday. Cochlear implants allow an external processing unit to communicate with electrodes in the brain to translate sound waves into discernible noises. But sometimes it doesn’t work, and the person can lose all hearing ability.

“That’s one of the biggest changes in my life and one of the scariest ones, too, because if it didn’t work for me, I would be completely lost,” Jackson says. “I would have no hearing and no vision, so if it didn’t work, that would have been a disaster. I wouldn’t be able to be a part of society the way that I want to be. I’m just glad it turned out the way that it did.”

Surgery to place the cochlear implants was successful. With the implants, she is considered hard of hearing.

She knows that being deaf-blind puts her in a minority group.

“It’s really one of the smallest minorities. We have people all over that are deaf-blind, and some people don’t identify themselves that way because they don’t know that deaf-blind is OK to be,” Jackson says. “There’s nothing wrong with being that way; it’s just a good description of what you have.”

 

Jackson’s experiences as a deaf-blind person have given her unique insight into what children with vision, hearing and related mobility challenges face every day, as well as the advantage when helping parents and families understand the opportunities available for children facing similar struggles.

 

Jackson has found ways to overcome her challenges and says the UT Martin community has supported her goals from the beginning.

“Sometimes the teachers will collaborate together to figure out a plan for how to help me and how I can help them. That’s how we learn from each other, and we know what we can do for future reference…I can’t do pictures and things that are more visual, so we have to talk about modifications that will allow me to do homework along with the other students,” she says.

Jackson uses a system of electronic aids to help her, including special software that reads aloud online documents and Bluetooth braille translators for her iPhone and laptop. All her assignments are done electronically, with the translator changing on-screen text to braille and back again. She completes exams in the Student Success Center, where staff members feed an emailed file into a braille embosser, which then creates a textured surface for Jackson to read.

The Nashville native is on the lookout for internship opportunities and hopes to gain enough work experience before graduation to help her decide on a specific field specialty.

“I want to understand enough (about children) to be able to talk with the parents about how to understand their children better and how to communicate with them. I want to be a mediator between parents and children who have special needs or are at-risk,” she says. “I’m not sure if I would be a counselor or a therapist, but I want to help with showing opportunities for the child…whatever skills they need help with, whether it’s for school or life at home or mobility skills.”

On track to graduate in December 2018, Jackson doesn’t plan to stop with a bachelor’s degree. She wants to earn a master’s degree in either public speaking or communications from Gallaudet University in
Washington, D.C.

“It’s a deaf university, but it also has people who are hearing,” she says. “They get to learn about deaf culture and learn about American Sign Language. So it doesn’t just have to be for deaf people. It can be for anyone who is interested in deaf culture,” she says.

In the year Jackson has left before graduation, she says she is anxiously awaiting the future and what it may bring for her career. In the meantime, she looks forward to finding an internship, moving into an apartment and possibly taking a sculpture course in the coming semester.

“I try to make things accessible for others who may be walking in my shoes later on,” she says.