Path to Harvard – My Journey as Young Adult with Hearing Loss

By Jason Lee

I am honoured to have been accepted to Harvard Law School for this coming Fall 2022 semester. Yet I did not reach where I am today all by myself. Instead, I have benefitted tremendously throughout the years from the guidance and support of my friends, family, and advocacy groups like the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association.

My journey with hearing loss began shortly after birth when I was diagnosed with bilateral sensorineural moderate-severe hearing loss around the age of ten months. Ever since then, I have worn hearing aids all day, every day, and will wear them for the rest of my life. They are often the first thing people notice about me, and while my hearing loss is not the whole of who I am, it has shaped my life.

As a child, I attended audio verbal therapy for several years. Thus, it may be surprising to hear that I was then enrolled in a French Immersion program, where I would be taught almost entirely in French from Grades 1 through 12. Since I had no prior exposure to French, this was an enormous risk, one that could have hurt my English skills. Yet it is also a decision for which I will be forever grateful, as I credit learning French for making me into who I am today.

Learning French was not easy. Early on, I felt embarrassed and frustrated as I often had to ask others to repeat themselves, and I struggled to make out the nuances of the sounds that seemed to come easily to my classmates. However, I was soon given the tools to succeed. I received priority seating near the front of the class and the use of an FM system, a small radio-like device that transmitted my teacher’s voice directly to my hearing aids. These were essential in helping me learn French as well as I did. With perseverance and much practice, I am happy to say that I overcame my initial challenges. By studying this language, I gained trust in my abilities. I also learned the importance of pushing through difficult times and studying hard. These were some of the lessons I shared when I was later invited to speak at events for language therapists, children with hearing loss and their parents.

By the time I was preparing to enter university, I had kept up to date on my rights to accommodation. In university, I knew I had to take responsibility for my future. No one was going to do the work for me; nor did I want them to. After deciding which university to attend, I gathered all the necessary documentation to make it clear why I needed them to achieve my full potential. Ultimately, I secured priority seating and permission to use my FM system before ever stepping foot on campus.

Although my experience with acquiring accommodations may have been successful, I am under no illusions that this is the case for everyone, and I recognize that I am privileged. Among my friends with disabilities, especially invisible ones, I have seen deep frustrations with the slow pace and barriers to accessing these essential supports. This is unfortunate and defeats their purpose. If they are not timely and readily available, are they truly there at all? I would say they are not. My desire to learn more about these obstacles led me to work at CHHA as a summer student over the summer of 2021. There, I met a wonderful group of staff and volunteers all working towards enabling greater accessibility and awareness for Canadians with hearing loss of all ages and backgrounds.

At CHHA, alongside writing guides to increase access to assistive devices, I also created and hosted a podcast on hearing loss issues alongside my fellow students. During these discussions, I realized that many of my poor experiences with accommodations, like shoddy closed captioning, were far from unique and will continue to occur if no action is taken. It is not enough to just grant accommodations. Instead, they must also truly increase accessibility. It is at CHHA that I realized that though we have come a long way, there is always more that can be done and progress to be made. I had been thinking about pursuing the legal profession for a while, but my work that summer motivated me to pursue it with ever more determination and renewed focus.

As a lawyer, I knew I would be equipped with the tools to be part of that change for the better. I want to build upon the lessons I learned at CHHA and harness my lived experience with hearing loss into being an empathetic advocate. I am very excited to do so at Harvard Law School, which hosts leading experts on disability and education law, and offers a rare opportunity to work in the field while still in law school. Knowing that Haben Girma, a past Harvard Law graduate who is deafblind, has achieved great success in her career after her studies, I hope to have a similarly positive experience. I am also looking forward to spreading awareness of hearing loss and accessibility issues on campus, meeting like-minded people, and exploring my many legal interests, particularly in disability law and immigration law.

While I am not sure exactly where my legal studies will take me after graduation, my experience with hearing loss has made me realize the great impact that even a small change can make in improving someone’s life, and I want to be part of that change for others. Overall, though making a difference through the law will not always be easy, I am confident that as with navigating hearing loss, perseverance and hard work will help me succeed.