August 1, 2016
Emma Conn, who is representing Tennessee in the Miss United States Pageant, was born with sensorineural hearing loss. It inspired her pageant platform: Hearing Matters.
The lowest tones troubled her the most.
The voice of an older woman.
Most any man’s, including her teachers.
Emma Conn never quite heard them clearly. She had to concentrate on every word. She processed slowly based on context, filling in the blanks of sentences that sounded incomplete in her ears.
She assumed, for a long time, that everyone heard the way she did.
Oh, she knew she had hearing loss — congenital and genetic. Her mother had it. So did her grandfather.
But she never realized to what extent until the day she didn’t have to struggle anymore.
It took 16 years.
Now, with the miracle of ear technology, this Page High School senior can hear more fully.
She can understand the lectures from her teachers in the summer school composition and history classes she takes at Columbia State Community College.
And, just as exciting for her, this pageant queen — who will represent Tennessee in this week’s Miss United States Pageant in Las Vegas — can fully hear the questions being asked by judges.
It all happened just a couple weeks ago.
This week, Conn carries a message of her struggles in her pageant platform: Hearing Matters.
The ‘party in their heads’
The rustling of the leaves. The air conditioner turning on in their house. All the sounds Emma and her mom, Shannon Conn, couldn’t hear before.
“You don’t realize what you don’t know,” Shannon Conn said. “What you miss.”
Emma Conn’s hearing impairment became apparent at age 5. An audiology test confirmed that she had sensorineural hearing loss, which occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain.
Most of the time, this type of hearing loss cannot be medically or surgically corrected.
“I got the bad trait,” Emma Conn jokes.
At the time, more than a decade ago, technology couldn’t compensate for what she lacked. No hearing aids existed to help Conn collect the low-decibel sounds she lacked.
So she learned to accommodate. She sat in the front of class. She focused on people’s mouths, trying to read lips.
She got by. Just like when you see a sentence with missing words, you can still fill in the context. Conn did that with conversations.
And she excelled, taking Advanced Placement classes at school and carrying a 4.0 GPA. Pursuing summer classes for college credit as she applies for admission to Northwestern and Vanderbilt.
But she still got lost sometimes. Even if someone spoke loud enough to hear, it could still be sound unclear or muffled. It became difficult, sometimes, to pick out words against background noise. If someone tapped a pencil against the desk in the seat next to hear, Conn couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
“In the classroom, I knew I was missing things I was going to need,” she said.
And when Conn started competing in pageants, she faced other challenges. Often, judges sat six or seven feet away when they asked interview questions, making it difficult to make out what they said.
She has a video of a judge asking her the best thing about high school. She rambled on about her school’s history, not fulling comprehending what was asked.
Another time, she had to ask a judge to repeat the question three times from her spot several feet away. Finally, she just walked right up to the judges table and asked again.
She left embarrassed.
No one ever labeled her. But she knows other kids, whose hearing loss is more significant than her own, do face bullying and isolation. About two to three out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
That’s why she made hearing matters her pageant platform.
“I want kids not to feel like they are apart from others,” Conn said.
But it’s not simple. Hearing is so expensive.
A survey published by the Hearing Review, suggests the average price of a mid-level pair of aids hovers between $4,400 and $4,500. Medicare and many private insurance agencies do not cover hearing aids, leaving many families without the assistance they need.
For years, Conn’s mother tried one type of hearing aid after another, spending up to $6,000 on each. None really helped her. She knew it wouldn’t help her daughter either.
Finally, technology caught up.
The family’s audiologist introduced Shannon Conn to Oticon’s new Opn hearing device, and suddenly she could hear new sounds. The hearing aid cost $8,000. Insurance, Shannon Conn said, covers $2,500.
But they were lucky.
The hearing aid company wanted to sponsor Conn, the Miss Junior Teen Tennessee United States, as part of her pageant run. Free hearing aids and a whole new world of understanding.
The first time she put in the hearing aids, Emma Conn cried.
“It was just powerful,” she said. “I spent my whole life being frustrated. In that moment, I felt one step up.”
If Conn wins the Miss United States Pageant in Las Vegas, she wants to travel the country talking to school boards and state officials, convincing them to prioritize the issue of hearing loss in students and provide the technology tools they need to learn.
“People look on the outside of Emma and not on the inside,” Shannon Conn said, “and they miss a lot of that disability, because they don’t realize.
“Now, she doesn’t have to be insecure, so she can perform at the best of her abilities.”