By Bryan Bloodworth
NORMAL – Illinois State freshman cheerleader Lily Watts remembers the first time she heard the squeaking of basketball shoes on the court, a referee’s whistle and birds chirping.
She was 15 years old – that’s right – 15 years old and a cheerleader from Illini Bluffs High School in Glasford.
“That was a really weird thing for me when I got my implant hearing basketball shoes squeak for the floor for the first time and whistles,” said Watts, who had a cochlear implant in 2015. “It was something I had never heard before. It was unreal. Everything was new to me and I liked it.
“The birds chirping – that was like I could walk outside and hear that. It was like the biggest eye opener for me because I could hear the birds chirping.”
The implant is an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear. Unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder, cochlear implants do the work of damaged parts of the inner ear to provide sound signals to the brain.
Watts wasn’t diagnosed as being deaf until she was 14 as she progressively lost her hearing between the ages of 5 and 10.
“I just noticed things like in class if I wasn’t reading along with the text or the teacher, I had no idea what was being said,” added Watts, who still managed to maintain a 3.2 grade point average. “If the teacher was talking in class, I tended not to listen because I couldn’t understand her if her back was to me and she was faced toward the board and writing.
“I would compensate by just taking notes off the book during class. I never listened to the teacher. If I needed help I would ask a friend. My friend would get frustrated with at me because I was constantly asking.
“I thought maybe I had ADD-ADHD because I could never sit still. I felt like I was stupid. Stupid was a really big word for me. I constantly felt dumb like why am I not catching on to things, why am I constantly having to have people repeat things. Why is this happening, do I need to be in a special education class room, so really this whole time I thought I had a learning disability, not a physical disability.”
She also compensated by lip-reading.
“I lip-read very well and I didn’t even know it,” she continued. “I’m so visual that I just compensated all these years. My parents were oblivious to it. I was oblivious to it; my teachers; my friends. So it was really just a big shock to everybody when I was diagnosed.”
It also caused a period of denial for her.
“I was in shock and I thought it was all a lie,” she added. “I wanted to get an audiogram again. I just thought everything was a lie and there was no way I could be deaf this long and nobody know. I was in denial and frustrated. “I really didn’t want to believe I was deaf.”
While the surgery repaired her hearing, it came with a catch regarding her cheerleading career.
“When I was diagnosed the doctors actually told me I might not ever be able to cheer again,” she said. “You have a piece of technology in your head and there are chances of you getting hit. Do you want to take that chance is what my doctor told me. I said ‘yeah’.
“Cheerleading is something that has always made me very happy. It was always kind of like my escape because when you cheer you have to smile. You can’t look negative. You have to be positive, so when I was diagnosed it felt like cheerleading was my only escape to happiness.”
And it was allowing her to fulfill a dream.
“I’ve always wanted to cheer at Illinois State since I was in middle school,” she added. “It’s always been a dream of mine.”
It’s also led her to work toward a degree in special education specializing in deaf and hard of hearing.
“I’ve realized I could help people like myself be important and feel special,” she said. “I decided to make it a positive situation. It was like in one day my life took a turn for the worse and then it just completely went into a positive direction.
“I really feel like I can do anything I wanted to do and my disability did not define me. It was more of a hearing gain than hearing loss. That was the day I decided I was going to major in special education deaf and hard of hearing. I ended up getting that surgery and ever since then, I am now hearing in the 90 percent range and it is the best thing could have ever happened.”
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.