Having hearing loss used to be an obstacle, then it became my superpower.
Mom of 3 kids, law school grad, suburban housewife, serial entrepreneur and oh, yeah, I'm deaf. The one thing that was never really a big deal while growing up, suddenly became a central focus during adulthood. Out of necessity, I used what many would consider a disadvantage and turned it into an asset. Coupled with my "there's always a silver lining" outlook of positivity, my deafness propelled me into a world where I have helped thousands of people deal with issues related to theirs or their child's hearing loss.
I never set out to be a role model but life is funny that way. The universe sent out strong smoke signals that were simply too big for me to ignore.
Read on for the story of how I got there, where I am today and what this means for you.
Back in 1992 I graduated from law school, one of only two people admitted with a physical disability my year. The other person was completely blind and I had a profound, bilateral hearing loss. We used to debate who had the "better" disability to have, each claiming our own. I didn't realize it then, but it was a testament to how our families had raised us, to always keep moving forward and not let our disabilities define us or what we could achieve.
Truthfully, growing up had been easy for me. I was talking and reading ahead of my diagnosis at three years old and was immediately fitted with hearing aids. For a long time my powerful hearing aids and expert speech-reading skills kept me afloat and I sailed my way to my first-choice college, far from home, unaware of the troubled waters ahead. While college had a lot of ups and downs, (largely due to my lack of self-advocacy skills) I managed to finish on a high note. I spent a few semesters on the Dean's List, rebooting my self-confidence after a rocky freshman year when I had been placed on academic probation and nearly flunked out of school.
While in law school I married Howard, a terrific guy who, like me, was entrepreneurial and just happened to have hearing loss too. Soon after my graduation we moved to Long Island, New York, started a family and began to develop a string of businesses.
Life seemed idyllic but the blissful bubble was about to burst.
The month we had our second child, our firstborn was diagnosed with hearing loss. She was 23 months old and we learned she also had significant speech and language delays as a result of the late diagnosis. Thus began a super stressful chapter in my life that was filled with anxiety, fear and uncertainty - not exactly the way I expected married life or motherhood to go.
Navigating the world as a parent of a child with special needs is, in a word, difficult. Researching special education programs, learning about Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), understanding parental rights in the special education process, honing much needed negotiation skills, along with finding qualified medical, therapeutic and educational professionals suddenly occupied most of my time. Coupled with the all too common cycle of grief, anger, guilt and sadness that comes with a diagnosis of a disability, not to mention a newborn baby, it was an incredibly overwhelming period.
I resolved to learn everything I could and began participating in a parent support group, attending workshops and joined a global organization supporting parents whom I thought were like me.
At my first convention I came face to face with another parent who expressed utter disbelief that I had graduated from college
despite my hearing loss.
Upon learning that more than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, I realized that I was not quite like most of the other parents. It dawned on me that I was in a unique position where I could help others to better serve their children through awareness and education.
With two young children to care for and newly settled in the Midwest for a school that would help teach my child to listen and speak, I embarked on a brand new journey.
I designed and founded a community website called HearingExchange.
There I hosted live chats and message boards, wrote syndicated articles and newsletters and quickly connected people with valuable resources and services.
HearingExchange led to numerous speaking engagements all over the United States. I have spoken on a variety of topics before parents and hearing loss support groups, educational institutions and non-profit organizations. My child and I were two of four people featured in a public service video about cochlear implants directed by Academy Award nominee, Josh Aaronson of Sound and Fury fame. The video was widely distributed to thousands of people worldwide, shown to hundreds of convention attendees and, for many years, ran in a continuous loop at EPCOT in Disney World.
Today, I use cochlear implants to hear, as does one of my children and my husband. We have five cochlear implants among us and are grateful to have a remarkable quality of life. My children are grown and almost flown and I'm back to share more lessons I've learned over the years.
I am committed to empowering families who are facing the challenges of
raising children with disabilities.
You are not alone. Join me and learn how I found the strength to become the parent and advocate that my child needed and how you can too.
Paula Rosenthal, J.D. (she/her) is deaf and uses cochlear implants to hear. Her husband and one of her three children also use cochlear implants. Paula is an award-winning advocate for people with hearing loss and their families. She blogs at PaulaRosenthal.com and is available for speaking engagements. To contact her, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.