HLM Cover Feature: Emma Faye Rudkin

3 11 2016

Late last year my friend James Williams texted me to tell me about Emma Faye Rudkin, who was the newly-crowned Miss San Antonio 2015 and has hearing loss. James interviewed veteran Shilo Harris and I photographed him at his home outside San Antonio for our July/August 2016 issue, which focused on veterans with hearing loss. You can read James’ interview with Shilo here.

He knows I’m always on the lookout to feature people with hearing loss for Hearing Loss Magazine. I design and photograph for this bimonthly publication of the Hearing Loss Association of American (HLAA). The November/December 2016 issue focuses on young adults with hearing loss.

James saw her featured on a local news channel and told me about her. I contacted Kathy Rudkin, Emma’s mother, and set up a photo shoot this past April when I would be visiting my family in San Antonio. Emma wrote the cover feature and I photographed her on a beautiful spring day in her hometown of Boerne, Texas. It was such a treat getting to know Emma and Kathy.

In the middle of production of this issue, we learned that Emma was crowned Miss San Antonio again for 2017. Congratulations, Emma!

Special thanks to James Williams for keeping his eyes (and ears!) open for new stories for the magazine.

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Hearing Loss Can Be a Beautiful Thing

by Emma Faye Rudkin

I was very young when I lost the majority of my hearing. I became sick and developed a high fever associated with an infection, which resulted in my hearing loss. Even though there were signs, my parents had never been around anyone who had a hearing loss so they didn’t connect the dots right away. It wasn’t until I was three years old that they decided to have me tested and I was diagnosed.

As I said there were signs. For instance, in ballet I would dance in a corner by myself. I was also behind in speech and reading comprehension. Instead of saying “puppy dogs,” I would say things like “happy dogs.” Finally, a preschool teacher suggested I get a hearing test, and everything clicked. My mother describes the whole experience as “out-of-body.” But there were no resources for hearing loss in our small town, so she and my dad
were on their own.

A year after my diagnosis, my hearing declined even further, suddenly and significantly, to a profound level. Doctors said I would eventually go completely deaf, that I needed to go to a school for deaf children and learn sign language, and that I would never function “normally” in the hearing world.

My parents would not accept that. In fact, they chose a very different route for me, one that was essentially the opposite of what doctors suggested. I was immediately placed in intensive speech therapy, fitted for hearing aids, and enrolled in the most challenging private school in our area.

When I was young I did not want to wear my hearing aids and would always take them out. My parents talk about those early days as a struggle to get me to keep them in. But eventually it became a part of my everyday life and normal morning routine.

I knew only one other girl in our town with hearing loss. She wore hearing aids and was an oralist (communicated through speechreading) like I was. As I grew older, I became profoundly deaf. Nonetheless, it was never an option in my house to use my hearing loss as any sort of crutch. If I was having a really hard day and feeling left out or alone, my mama would always say, “Today, you are allowed one pity party, but tomorrow you are going to pick yourself up and carry on.”

Hearing loss has made me who I am but does not define me, so I never looked at the world as “hearing” but as a place full of the same opportunities and life to live as everybody else.

Today, speechreading is my main means of communication. My brain is constantly in overdrive trying to understand what is being said or why we’re laughing. I’m a great pretender. There are many sounds and letters I don’t hear, like F, G, H, K and S, but my hearing aids are programmed to fill in some of the sounds I miss. In a classroom or large group setting I try to arrange for the speaker to wear an FM assistive listening device, which transfers sound directly into my hearing aids. However, technology is man-made and cannot substitute for the God-given sense of hearing I just don’t have.

Dealing With the Insecurities
When I was young I didn’t see myself as different. But as I grew older the differences started to become more apparent and were pointed out by those around me. One of my major insecurities growing up was my hearing aids. They were the only visible sign of my hidden disability, and it separated me from my peers. The wind blowing was the bane of my existence in middle school because that meant people could catch a glimpse of my aids when my hair blew. Having to wear my hair up almost kept me from trying out for the cheer team.

When I was a freshman in high school, the language requirement was to take Spanish. It took me 10 years to properly speak the English language, and now I had to learn Spanish! It was a devastating yet eye-opening year of growth for me.

I felt embarrassed and humiliated much of the year because of the many times I was called to stand up in front of my classmates and speak the language I could not hear. The teacher did not understand how profound my hearing loss was and would play audiotapes in Spanish expecting me to repeat what was being said. On one test in particular, I failed the oral part of the exam. With tears streaming down my face I explained to the teacher how horribly unfair this was. She looked at me and said, “I thought you didn’t want to be labeled as different.” That was the final straw. I was not going to allow myself to be treated that way.

Taking the “Dis” out of “Disability”
There is a misconception that people with hearing loss require special treatment. The only “special treatment” I need is for someone to face me and speak clearly, and I can do the rest.

The most common experience I have is people yelling at me or over-enunciating, which only makes it harder to communicate. I always tell people to talk to me like anybody else because exaggerating makes me feel inadequate or that I am not capable of carrying on a conversation. As long as the person speaking is facing me and talking at a normal pace and volume, we are going to be fast friends.

I might need some modifications and accommodations to communicate, but that doesn’t mean my brain isn’t working. This is the most hurtful misconception of all: when people think I cannot talk or think for myself. People will communicate with me through a friend or family member, thinking what they said will be translated back to me. When people talk to me as if I am mentally impaired or incapable of speaking for myself, my typical response is, “My ears don’t work, but my brain works just fine.”

I used to truly believe I was disabled, but now I know my lack of hearing is my means to help others be free of that label. What I once believed was a disability has become my greatest ability. I know most people don’t know much about deafness and hearing loss and perhaps are curious to learn more. So now I take people’s questions and curiosity as an opportunity to share my story and dispel those misconceptions.

At the end of that freshman year in high school, I went before the school administration with a formal petition to offer American Sign Language (ASL) to any student who had a hearing loss.

The following year, my “foreign language” was ASL. I had to submit a proposal explaining how I would meet the four required language credits through ASL. My proposal was accepted, and I was allowed to take the classes through an online college. Not only was I able to learn ASL, but I got college credit for the classes as well! That experience is how
I learned about Deaf culture. Understanding my deafness was true freedom. I am part of the hearing world but I have a profound hearing loss which makes me deaf, and I know my purpose is to bridge the two worlds to close the gap.

The Faith That Sees You Through
I had become the great pretender of being “OK.” I would bluff and try to be part of conversations but I was in my own little world without anyone knowing the hurt I was experiencing.

Even though I was raised in a Christian home and went to a Christian school, I went into a darkness and had great anger toward God. I couldn’t understand that if God was supposed to love me, why couldn’t He make me normal?

If He was the big God of miracles, why couldn’t He heal me?

I wanted so desperately to be normal and to fit in. I became angry, depressed, horribly insecure and so lonely I could hardly stand it.

I knew I needed to change, for this life of sadness was not worth living. At 14, I signed myself up for a local Christian camp. Something clicked at camp and I started to undergo a transformation. It was the beginning of a beautiful journey.

When I got home from camp I wanted to find answers and try to begin healing. Inspired from what I learned at camp, I felt that healing for me would come from my faith in God.

I discovered two Bible passages that proved to be a turning point for me. The first one is Psalm 46:1 which says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” This shows God has a greater purpose for us than our hardships in this world, way beyond our human reasoning.

The second is James 1:2-4, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” My life is a constant struggle, but I wouldn’t be the person I am without these hardships.

Young Life
During the summer before my junior year I became involved with Young Life, a non-denominational Christian ministry that reaches out to middle school, high school and college-age kids in all 50 states and more than 90 countries around the world. Young Life stood out to me because they did not beat the Bible over your head or force doctrines and beliefs on you. They just gradually warmed people’s hearts to understand.

Young Life takes the pure roots of Christianity and makes it uncomplicated again. There are no religious rules imposed upon people, just the unadorned belief that can take someone who feels helpless and hopeless and turn them into a beautiful, transformed creation.

Young Life has taught me how to live life to the fullest. Through it I have come to understand that I am not alone in my personal struggles; that everyone has a battle to fight. Young Life has had a tremendous impact on my life. It changed the way I look at people and has really molded me into who I am today.

From Young Life to New Life
I have become a new person since those dark days in high school. The relationship with my hearing aids changed because of the life-altering experience at the Young Life camp when I was 16 years old. I learned who I really am and that I could use my hearing loss story to proclaim freedom for others.

One of the first things I did after this massive shift within was wear my hair up. Before that I would keep my hair down by my face so no one could see my hearing aids and make comments. It was a debilitating period in my life. But what the world thought of me no longer mattered and my insecurities started to slowly vanish. I started seeing my hearing loss as part of who I am and as the most beautiful thing about me.

My hearing aids have become a badge of honor to tell others what I’ve been through and what hearing loss is about. I now educate others instead of shutting down. Hurtful comments come because people are ignorant and naïve, so I take the opportunity to help them understand.

Joy can never escape me now. I discovered a new way of living and have an entirely new outlook. What others saw as broken—my ears—is what has allowed me to become my true self.

I think this applies to everyone. What is thought to be beyond repair can be redeemed and restored. Hardship can be turned into good. Our disabilities, whatever holds us back, can be transformed into our greatest ability.

In the early stages of my life I felt my hearing loss was the most tragic thing that could ever happen to me. Looking back, I now see the bigger picture. Not only is my hearing
loss not tragic, it is my greatest blessing. As I said, having profound hearing loss has made me who I am, but it does not define me. My label is not the “deaf girl” or someone with a “disability,” just wonderfully made Emma.

If you have a hearing aid or cochlear implant, you are wearing your story. People can be inconsiderate and make comments, but it is only because they don’t understand. However, the choice is yours whether or not to accept that as your identity. You can educate and correct mistreatment. Always be ready to forgive those who hurt you, because that frees you from resentment and the hold that people have on you.

Miss San Antonio
In 2010 I began to intensely study piano and music theory. I started playing the guitar and ukulele, took singing lessons, and eventually started performing in my community. In 2015, I added the kick drum to my list of instruments.

Developing my musical ability was in preparation to compete in the pageant circuit. I wanted to use that to establish a national platform for the deaf and those with hearing loss. In February 2015, I won the title of Miss San Antonio. I am proud to be the first Miss San Antonio who is deaf. I was honored to win individual awards for Overall Talent, Overall Interview and Miss Congeniality. In July 2015, I competed in the Miss Texas Scholarship Pageant.

I placed in the top 10 and also received the Inspiration Award, Quality of Life Award, Academic Interview Award and Spirit of Texas (Congeniality).

I chose this particular pageant circuit of the Miss America organization for a reason. I truly believe in the Miss Texas and Miss America organizations and all they stand for. They empower women and provide scholarships for women to achieve their dreams and make a difference.

Winning the Miss San Antonio pageant has allowed me to travel extensively and make many appearances. I have spoken on television, met some very important people in our city and speak at conferences on a regular basis. My platform is “Aid the Silent: Turning a Disability into an Ability.” The Miss Texas organization has been an invaluable partner. They helped jumpstart my cause and have allowed me to bring my message to larger and wider audiences than I could have on my own.

I have grown as a person in unexpected ways. My role has required me to face the insecurities of my past head-on about my appearance and speaking. The beautiful part is that I am living in the redemption of my story. The things I used to let prohibit me from fully living are now propelling me into success. I am extremely honored to be part of such
a great organization.

Aid the Silent—My Miss San Antonio Platform
In January 2015 I started my own nonprofit, Aid the Silent. It has been a dream of mine for years to be able to give back to the community, especially the deaf and hard of hearing communities. Aid the Silent is dedicated to raising funds to provide children and teens who have a hearing loss with the resources and tools they need to find personal success.

Growing up I had access to many resources in order to succeed and not be held back by what was seen as a disability. I was inspired to start Aid the Silent after coming across statistics about hearing loss and deafness. Studies have shown a correlation between education level and people who are deaf or have a hearing loss. In addition, those individuals face severe underemployment.

I am currently enrolled in the University of Texas San Antonio Honors College majoring in Communications. In addition to being a full-time student and overseeing Aid the Silent, I make appearances at dozens of companies, schools and events each month speaking to both children and adults and telling my story.

I am also a Young Life staff member, and in the summer of 2016 I started the first Deaf Young Life to reach teens who have a hearing loss. For the inaugural Deaf Young Life event we took four middle school students who are deaf—with captioners and interpreters—to a Young Life camp. It was a huge success! I am now continuing my outreach and building relationships with students in the San Antonio area who have a hearing loss, and looking forward to holding our first Deaf Young Life club meeting in January 2017. HLM

For more information about Emma and her work visit AidTheSilent.com or EmmaFayeRudkin.com.

Editor’s Note: Emma was crowned Miss San Antonio 2017 in September.

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