Feature

Disabled or Enabled? Turning Challenges into an Asset

Johanna Brand

Cheryl MacMillan

When Cheryl MacMillan was 11 years old she and her family discovered she was deaf. The revelation changed her life — not for the better.
“I was playing with a group of kids at the end of the street,” MacMillan explains. “My mother called me. All the kids turned to look at her, except me. That’s when it hit her.”

MacMillan’s hearing loss had not been obvious because, she says, “I had adapted so well: I read lips and body language.” Her family was used to the unusual way she spoke. (She subsequently spent a year with a speech therapist who taught her the mechanics of pronunciation.) She adds: “If you can’t hear you don’t know what you are missing. I sometimes wondered, but not enough to realize something was wrong.” MacMillan had been an accepted part of the group in her Port Colborne neighbourhood and at her school. “Until then nobody harassed me, but then I got that awful hearing aid. Suddenly I was a freak and I endured much bullying – some of it by the same kids who had accepted me before.”

The discrimination was not confined to childhood or to children. Today MacMillan teaches music at McKay Public School in her home town, Port Colborne. She has nothing but praise for her current principal. But she says, she has had colleagues “who ridiculed me” and “ignorant principals” who made negative comments. As she speaks MacMillan counts them off on her fingers. She says at least six out of 14 principals she has dealt or worked with have made negative comments, such as “I can’t have you at my school; you can’t even hear.”

This prejudice has been hurtful, despite a life of accomplishment and success. MacMillan has always been musical.
As a teenager she was so determined to learn to play the piano that she made an agreement with her parents: they would let her take piano lessons if she also continued with the violin. At 18 she won an Ontario-wide violin competition. She turned to teaching after having run her own music studio for many years.

The gift of silence

MacMillan’s first full-time teaching job was as a special education teacher but, she says, “When they found out I had music they made me the music teacher.” MacMillan’s hearing loss – the result of an antibiotic she was given as a newborn – is not total. She can hear sounds, but has difficulty distinguishing words and nuances. As a child she never heard a bird sing, but today intense concentration plus the help of more advanced hearing aids enable her to work with the school choir, which has a long history of success in local festivals.

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