by Mark McGowan
During a weeklong summer internship at the Illinois School for the Deaf, it was the eyes of NIU doctoral student Shawna Jackson that were opened.
Jackson, who will graduate from the College of Health and Human Sciences in the spring of 2009 as a doctor of audiology, served as the first-ever (and only) audiology intern during the school’s Institute for Parents of Preschool Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.
Parents with children ages birth to 3 who recently were diagnosed with severe or profound hearing loss come to learn about the new lives they must lead while their children receive complete multi-disciplinary diagnostics.
Jackson conducted hearing tests on the children, met with parents and attended and assisted at evening seminars.
She saw that her chosen profession deals with much more than ears: It requires good counseling skills. Many of the parents are working their way through the stages of grief, coping with denial, anger, bargaining and depression on their way to acceptance. Most are confused. Some blame themselves. They all need education and moral support.
“The emotionality of a child’s diagnosis with severe to profound hearing impairment is itself profound,” says Danica Billingsly, audiology clinical faculty member with NIU’s School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders. “We hold a lot of expectations of what life will be like with a new child, and most of those expectations presume that we’re able to communicate orally with our children. Discovering a hearing loss that will significantly impact communication is shocking.”
Jackson also realized that pediatric audiologists are desperately needed – and that she truly loves the comforting-shoulder aspect of the job.
“I’ve always wanted to work with kids. Now I know I love working with parents,” Jackson says. “It really reinforced to me the need to work with parents – to be someone who sits down to answer their questions and calm their fears. They really told us about their complaints and their problems. They were so new to the idea of deafness and hearing loss.”
A variety of professionals from across Illinois, some of them the heads of state agencies, attend the institute in Jacksonville. Teams include audiologists, deafness educators, ear-nose-throat doctors, early intervention specialists, parent educators, psychologists, social workers and speech therapists.
The families, meanwhile, came from various economic and cultural backgrounds. The institute has no criteria for income.
Jackson hails from near Omaha, Neb. It’s the home of Boys Town, America’s largest privately funded organization serving severely at-risk, abused, abandoned and neglected children. Boys Town National Research Hospital provides research programs focusing on childhood deafness, visual impairment and related communication disorders.
She also grew up with plenty of siblings, she says, “and incorporating an entire family has always been impressed on me.”
“Most of the parents said there are just not enough audiologists who specialize in children. I heard it over and over,” she says. “Some of it was challenging. There were parents who were angry. We talked with parents who were crying. You have to have empathy, not sympathy.”
Jackson, who earned her bachelor’s degree in communicative disorders from Truman State University, says the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders provides “a stellar clinical experience” through its hearing clinical facilities.
The experience offered in pediatric audiology “sets our college apart,” she adds.
“NIU has a strong program in pediatrics, from newborn hearing screenings at the hospital to follow-up diagnostics and rehabilitation,” Billingsly says.
“Shawna got a first-person, hands-on experience with a deeper level of counseling than we’re typically able to see during our appointments at the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic. She was able to see parents working through that from start to finish in some cases,” she adds. “Shawna is energetic in everything she does, and she came back from the internship completely energized – and very confirmed in her choice of career and in her choice of direction.”