Undettered by her deafness and so determined was she to become a teacher Ashley Hodgekinson attended a mainstream university. Over the four-year course – while studying at the Embury Institute for Teacher Education – she did all the research, assignments, tests, and examinations entirely on her own, just like the other students are expected to do. Unlike the other students, however, Ashley was born profoundly deaf so she had to work extra hard to make her mark.
“The biggest misperception about deaf people is that we are intellectually handicapped as well, whereas we can in fact do anything except hear,” says Ashley, an inspiring young lady who is has never allowed her disability to negatively affect her life. “Learning sign language at a young age gave me the tools I needed to cope in a hearing world and I hope I can encourage other young people to also learn how to sign to communicate.”
Ashley’s hearing was affected while in the womb after her mother Mary-Anne contracted cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common virus that can affect almost anyone. Most babies who are infected before they’re born appear healthy at birth, but a few develop signs over time – sometimes not for months or years after birth. The most common of these late-occurring signs is hearing loss. A small number may develop vision impairment as well.
“My husband Gordon and I were married for four years before Ashley was born,” says Mary-Anne. “During my pregnancy I contracted CMV but was not aware of this until Ashley was born via emergency Caesarean. She was premature and small for dates and tests were run which showed that both Ashley and myself tested positive for the virus. A sister at the baby clinic we went to suspected Ashley may not be hearing but we could only do a brainstem test to give us confirmation of this when she was six months. It confirmed Ashley had bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. The whole family was devastated by the diagnosis. No one in my nor my husband’s family even knew of anyone who was deaf so it was just too overwhelming for us as young parents of a baby we had waited for and simply adored. Fears of what the future might hold for her were paramount and the only thing that made any sense and gave a glimmer of hope at the time was something a dear uncle of mine said to us – ‘Before anything else she is a baby and all she needs is love’ – that she already had and to love her was something we knew we could do well. From there we could only take one day (sometimes one hour) at a time. Those first years were very sad and very tough for us as Gordon worked hard and long hours so that I could be with Ashley constantly and take her to the best doctors in the country for the best advice, fit her with best auditory aiding equipment and leave no stone unturned in researching the very best options in trying to make informed decisions for her as a child, for her future and for our family.”
From the age of six months Mary-Ann would spend two weeks of every three months in Cape Town with Ashley on a programme encouraging speech through the use of usable residual hearing amplified by hearing aids. “Ashley had very little usable residual hearing so could not hear spoken words so a year later we introduced sign language which opened up a whole new world for her and ourselves. Signing helped our relationship with Ashley enormously as we could communicate on a profound level and have deep conversations so she was never a frustrated child. We introduced British and American sign to her South African sign to extend her vocab and language which assisted greatly. Ashley’s brother Aaron was born when we had already been signing for a few years and because we signed always to be sure that Ash was a part of everything, he was exposed to sign from the day he was born and he in fact started signing before he spoke as he had all the knowledge so could sign before he was able to say the words and his speech was not in any way delayed.”
Growing up, Ashley was extremely bright. From a very young age she wanted to move from the school for the deaf which she attended to a mainstream school but her parents were concerned she wouldn’t cope socially and emotionally.
“One day in high school Ashley arrived home and informed us she was concerned about her future. She wanted a degree and a life of autonomy and felt the only way to start this was to move into a mainstream school,” says Mary-Anne. “We saw she meant business and realised that we could no longer let our concerns limit her so we made application at a mainstream school and after many assessments Ashley was accepted at St Benedict School where she matriculated. The next challenge was overcome by the incredible team at the Embury Institute of Teacher Education who also opened their arms to Ashley accepting her into their four-year B Ed programme giving her every opportunity but without special treatment which was exactly what she wanted. Here she qualified as a teacher last year.”
Throughout both her high-school and higher education career, Ashley’s mom attended each and every class and lecture with her daughter in order to act as a signing interpreter so her child could understand the classes. “I was only ever a vessel,” says Mary-Anne modestly. ” Initially I began interpreting for Ashley because we were unable to find and interpreter and we were mindful that for Ash, her teachers and the other pupils it might not be the best thing to have a parent in the classroom but by half term we had still not found an interpreter for Ash and it was working well and all concerned agreed that it would be best for me to continue as Ashley’s interpreter. For her final year at university Ashley stayed in Res in Durban and drove herself to and from lectures where I would meet her to interpret or in the case of a presentation I would voice over what Ashley was signing.”
Ashley didn’t always want to be a teacher, but enjoyed being around children. In Grade 11, she had to do work experience for Life Orientation at school. She knew a woman who worked at an underprivileged school and she used Cued Speech (a visual mode of communication that uses handshapes and placements in combination with the mouth movements of speech to make the phonemes of a spoken language look different from each other), which was of interest to Ashley.
“At this school there was a deaf girl with autism,” explains Ashley, with the help of her mom. “We could communicate only via gestures and I assisted her. I found a way for her to give a correct answer back to me. When she did this, I said, ‘Yay, yes you got it right!’ using a thumbs up and clapping. When I saw her face brighten, I fell in love with the feeling. It was rewarding to make a difference. During my gap year, I worked as a teacher’s assistant and that clinched it for me. I wanted to do something in deaf education said. And here I am, a qualified teacher, and hoping to make a difference in my class.”
Ashley and her mother are an inspiration to others. Ashley feels that the best thing for a person with disabilities to do is to see themselves as ‘normal’. “Do not let your disability limit you at all. Never give up, go after your dreams,” she says. “Of course, you will experience a few challenges -I have struggled with a few things but I got through them. Only the sky is the limit so don’t let anything stop you! With hard work anyone can reach their goal. ”
Pay It Forward
Instead of asking for donations, Ashley is urging readers to learn sign language so they can better communicate with the deaf community. Learning to sign is easier than ever, thanks to the Internet. The visual language, designed to aid the deaf or hard of hearing, is a set of gesticulations and hand movements that correspond to the spoken word. There are numerous ways to learn how to sign and a number of apps you can download. For more information on the Basic Sign Language Alphabet, log onto this Website