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How to Adjust to College Life With Hearing Loss

When I was diagnosed with a severe-to-profound bilateral hearing loss at 13 months of age, the accommodations I would someday need for my college dorm room were the furthest thing from my parents’ minds.

Written by: Regan Brady

When I was diagnosed with a severe-to-profound bilateral hearing loss at 13 months of age, the accommodations I would someday need for my college dorm room were the furthest thing from my parents’ minds. It was 17 years later, as I ping-ponged emails and submitted the extensive paperwork required by the disability office at Harvard, that I truly began to understand the variety of challenges I would face as a college student with a hearing loss.

Having gone through the process without much guidance, I know how daunting it can be to try to ensure that you have all of the accommodations in place before freshman year begins. My main reassurance is that, while starting college can seem like you are embarking on a journey alone, there is a huge network of support in place to ensure that the transition is smooth. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help from a residential advisor, older student, or administrator. They are all there to help support you and make your college experience as great as possible. 

I had been mainstreamed in a small school for my entire life—from first through twelfth grade—and everyone in my graduating class had known one another for years. The teachers similarly knew all of the students by name, and most were aware of my hearing loss and the accommodations it sometimes entailed. I knew that college was a huge transition for everyone, but it was especially so for me, moving from sleepy, suburban Cleveland to the bustling metropolis of Boston, entering a class almost twenty times larger than my high school’s graduating class. Only a handful of students at Harvard would know about my hearing loss. 

Accommodations: Make it Personal

Every college student adjusts to living with a roommate (or three, in my case). I had heard from my older friends both horror stories of incompatible living styles as well as tales of becoming best friends with freshman roommates. Naturally, I was very anxious as to what I should expect. In the summer before college started, everyone in the freshman class completed a survey detailing sleep schedules, cleanliness, study styles, and how many roommates we wanted. Beyond that, placement with roommates was largely randomized.

Pro tip: even if housing is “randomized,” schools have a legal requirement to ensure that necessary accommodations are provided for, so use this to your advantage to get the best possible housing for you on campus. I can’t stress the importance of engaging with the school’s disability office early on. If you’re entering into a program this fall, the summer is the time to start talking about accommodations. You don’t want to wait until you are on campus to think about your living situation.

When it came to roommates, I knew I wanted two or three roommates so that I could get to know a few other students well. In retrospect, this was a great choice because, in my opinion, having more than one person means there is a larger chance you will be good friends with one of them.

The Perks of Self-Advocacy

Anyone who has a hearing aid or implants knows how important taking good care of your hearing equipment is. This is exactly why I requested an en-suite bathroom for my dorm room. I did not want to have to use a hallway bathroom which is often shared with many other students. I  didn’t want to risk having my implants get lost, stolen, or damaged. En-suite bathrooms are much more convenient and it’s a bonus for the roommates who live with me.

There are a number of things you can request from your school’s disability office. I requested a visual fire alarm for emergencies and a vibrating alarm clock to wake me up in the morning or nap. There are some very technologically advanced versions of accessible alarm clocks now, and since those in the accessible education office might not know which are the best, don’t miss this opportunity to send an email with a link to the one you want–you’ll be helping out the administrators as well as yourself! 

Another nice life hack for hearing loss accommodations has to do with fire drills. As a person with a disability, my school has a response system that, in case of an emergency, drill or even a false alarm, an administrator or first responder will come to my room to make sure that I am awake and out of the room first, since there is always the risk that I would not wake up during an alarm. Knowing that someone will be checking on my safety has given me great peace of mind in case of an emergency. Many fire drills or false alarms occur at times when I may not be able to hear (when I’m sleeping, in the shower, or taking a nap). During a drill, an administrator or first responder will come to my room before a drill happens to let me know that it’s just a drill and that I don’t have to leave the building.

New Roommates, New Expectations

Even though I’d been to camps or other situations where I had to explain my hearing loss to people I was living with, it was never for an extended period. I remember debating the best way to explain to my roommates my hearing loss and how it would affect them without my hearing loss being the first or most important thing they learned about me. Though we created a group chat before school began, I decided to wait until I met them in person.

During move-in day, after knowing one of my roommates for about 15 minutes, my alarm clock which the school had provided (and was for some reason plugged in) began vibrating on the floor, causing a commotion. As we searched for the source of the noise, I explained to her that I had a vibrating alarm clock because I wore hearing aids and couldn’t hear at night.

She was a bit confused and seemed to forget about the episode quickly due to the chaos of move-in day, and when I explained my situation to her later, she understood entirely. She also realized that this meant that she could set her phone alarm as loud as she needed, listen to music at night, or call people without me hearing or caring, which is a pretty valuable feature in a roommate.

During our orientation week, we had a group activity where we were to create a “roommate contract” which gave us the chance to meet with our roommates and agree upon certain standards of conduct and expectations for our room. During this activity, I explained to my suite that I couldn’t hear at night or in the shower, and that they should wake me up in the case of an emergency.

Over the course of the school year, my roommates and I found ways to live well with one another, such as flashing the bathroom light if I’m in the shower and taking too long, waking me up if I oversleep my alarm, or communicating with me before I put my implants on in the morning or after I take them off at night (with gestures or texting). 

I couldn’t be happier with how my roommates and I have gotten along. The key is to be very open about communicating from the beginning and also being very self-aware. For example, my roommate told me that I could be very noisy after I took my implants off at night since I couldn’t hear myself, so I made sure to be quieter in the future. As long as you are respectful and conscientious of others’ needs (which goes for everyone living with a roommate), you will be totally fine in the new living situations that come with college. 

At the end of the day, a transition to college is exciting, challenging, and completely new for everyone, and you are in the same boat as your peers. The only difference is that there are a few extra considerations you will have to think about as someone with a hearing loss. Take advantage of your support system in place on campus, self-advocate, and know that your college years will be some of the best years of your life. Take advantage of every single day and each person you meet to learn something new. It is about the experiences you have and the memories you make. Enjoy it!

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