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May 2017 Derby Informer

Casey Combs graduated from the University of Kansas with her doctorate in audiology. Less than two percent of Americans have a doctorate degree. The gruelling extra years of classes, papers and work make many people shudder. Combs, however, is an exception. She reached the highest level of education, and she did it with a disability. Combs became deaf when she was four years old. “As a young child, I knew I had to work hard to be equal to my peers,” Combs said. Because of her perseverance and determination to not let her disability interfere with her dreams, Combs can now help other people with hearing loss.

She was not born deaf. At 2 years old, she lost all hearing out of her left ear and partial hearing out of her right ear due to a virus. Her mother realized something was wrong when Combs wasn’t speaking. She wore hearing aids until she was 4 years old until the virus came back and took the rest of her hearing. Her first language was sign language, and she took speech therapy every day from preschool until second grade. “When you have a deaf child, you don’t realise how much children learn from their environment,” said Combs’ mother Dianna Pyles-Tauer. “A deaf child has to be taught everything.”

She got her first cochlear implant when she was 4, and she was the first child in Kansas to receive one. “Cochlear implants are very different from hearing aids,” Combs said. “People think cochlear implants for hearing loss is like putting on glasses, which is not true.” Combs couldn’t distinguish the sounds she heard. She had to go through auditory therapy and train her brain to recognise and differentiate between sounds. “At first, everything sounded ‘ping-pongy’ like at an arcade,” she said. “Speech didn’t sound like speech because it is such a complex sound. It is harder to distinguish.” When she started to recognise it, all speech sounded high or what she refers to as “Mickey Mouse voices.”

While at Derby Hills Elementary School, she worked with speech language pathologist Jean Fisher and special education teacher Sandy Chichester. “Sandy and Jean are like my second moms,” Combs said. “They had tough love. If I made a mistake or mispronounced a word, they made me fix it and then do it 10 more times perfectly.” Fisher and Chichester both came to Combs’s graduation. They have worked with Combs since she was 3 years old. “It was absolutely the most  overwhelming, incredible experience of my professional life,” Chichester said. “I was just in awe.”

Casey CombsSpecial Education teacher Sandy Chichester left, speech pathologist Jean Fisher with longtime student Casey Coombs at her graduation.

Chichester remembers when Combs told her in sixth grade that she wanted to be an audiologist.

“I kept thinking all along how are you going to do that,” Chichester said. “That is going to be a difficult field for you.” Audiologists have to be able to listen well, converse and understand deaf people who don’t know sign language. Most of the sounds that Combs knows are not from hearing them, but from learning the sounds from her teachers and family. “She was always terrible at understanding men’s voices,” Chichester said.

Combs didn’t have a lot of men to talk to at the elementary school. All of her teachers were female. Her brother would sit down and help her, and current Superintendent Craig Wilford would come to the school and read out loud so Combs could practice hearing a man’s voice. “By the time I was in first grade, I could read at a fifth grade level,” Combs said.

At 17 years old, Combs had the chance to get a cochlear implant for her other ear. Her doctor told her she would never be able to hear out of the other ear even with the implant, but she decided to do it anyway. “I told her you never let other people tell you what you are going to become,” Chichester said. “She learned to persevere.” Fisher remembers when Combs participated in a speech contest in high school, and she won. “She has always been very driven,” Fisher said. “She works very hard for whatever it is she wants.” Throughout her senior year of high school, she shadowed Fisher and Chichester after going to school in the morning. “Had it not been for those two, we would not have had the outcome we have now,” Pyles-Tauer said.

To this day, most people who meet Combs wouldn’t know she was deaf after talking with her.

She graduated from Derby High School in 2009 and went to the University of Kansas for her undergraduate and doctorate degrees. Although she has attained a lot of success, Combs still struggles with different aspects of her hearing and the social stigma that goes with her disability.

She still has trouble determining where sound comes from or distinguishing sound in a noisy environment. Just a couple of years ago she heard the sound of water for the first time. “She is still discovering sounds that she wasn’t aware of,” Fisher said.

Combs will start her dream job as an audiologist in June at a private ear, nose and throat clinic in Tyler, Texas. In the future, she sees herself becoming a specialist in cochlear implants or doing research about hearing loss. “I am thankful that I can use my hearing loss to help other people,” Combs said.

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