John Horsley comes to class each week at IWU’s education center in Lexington, Kentucky knowing that he might be the only deaf person his teachers and classmates have ever met.
“I’m trying to be a good reflection,” he said. “If I was hateful, despising, [the] next person you met that was deaf, you’d think to yourself, ‘wow. Are they all like this?’”
Being an ambassador for a whole community of people is never an easy or enviable position, but Horsley, who has fought negative stereotypes of deafness all his life, has embraced the role. He appreciates the chance to open a window into the life and culture of the deaf community for those who may never have experienced it.
Horsley was born with Ménière’s disease, a hereditary condition that has gradually taken his hearing over the years. Today, he is profoundly deaf in one ear and severely deaf in another. He uses a hearing aid, but it does not help much—he describes it as trying to hear someone talking to him while sitting underwater at the bottom of a swimming pool.
He tried college multiple times over the years, but always found it frustrating and discouraging. Reading lips can be fatiguing for Horsley, especially in public when a lot of people are talking at once—and when teachers with low voices turned their backs to Horsley, they did not seem to realize that they had suddenly exiled him from the conversation.
After getting his associate’s degree from IWU, he tried to start classes for his bachelor’s in business management, but soon walked out of class in frustration, not feeling up to starting the same struggle all over again.
“I was always scared of failing,” he said, “And that basically was not having enough faith in God.”
A professor took him aside and told him how the school could help. Now, with a system called Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART), Horsley can participate more fully in the classroom.
Horsley, a project manger for Lexmark International, had used the system at work but had not known that he had the right to request it free of charge at IWU through the Disability Services Office.
“Let me tell you, my grade point average has gotten a lot better. Because I don’t find myself lost and getting frustrated,” Horsley said. “Speak to my wife, she’ll tell you. I don’t struggle, I don’t get home and say, ‘I don’t know what he said, I don’t want to look stupid.’”
When Horsley goes to class, he sets up an audio connection with Lisa Schwarze, a CART facilitator. Schwarze, an experienced transcriptionist who also works as a court reporter for federal judges, takes down what is said in the classroom and sends Horsley the notes in real-time. After class, she sends him the full transcript in case he missed anything.
“What she does is basically allow me to have equal access to the classroom,” Horsley said.
Schwarze, who also runs a company that does captions for athletic events in the Lexington area, said that she tries to get other court reporters involved in the CART program.
“You have a reward that you don’t get doing anything else in life,” Schwarze said. “I have ears that work, and I take it for granted. And to think that somebody else doesn’t have something that I take for granted, and I can give it to them, that makes me feel good.”
Growing up with Ménière’s disease, Horsley said, he often had to fight the negative stereotypes that society confers on deaf and hard of hearing people.
“There’s this perception that deaf people are still in the deaf-and-dumb era. And it’s an old adage, ‘deaf and dumb,’” Horsley said. “I have to try, personally, and a lot of deaf people I know have to try extra hard, and that’s just the way it is, because we’re always perceived as ‘deaf and dumb’…so every day’s a struggle.”
Horsley, whose aunt and grandmother were also deaf, is the first member of his family to go to college.
“My aunt, she was deaf, and she didn’t have this kind of access when she was growing up,” Horsley said. “She was almost like a hermit, to an extent. And it was sad, because she was just so afraid of getting out there and mingling. I think that’s a motivation for me right there, is just to get out and let people see me.”
The best way to deal with his own struggles, he learned, was to keep in touch with God and immerse himself in serving others. He’s done volunteer work for most of his life. Working at a place like a homeless shelter, he said, reminds him that many people in the world have it much harder than he does.
In addition to things like river cleanups and multiple sclerosis bike rides, Horsley is also a commissioner for the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Horsley’s deafness allows him to be a part of a unique community in deaf culture, and he spends a lot of time serving that culture—and, he hopes, being a reflection of Christ to people in the deaf community.
Horsley feels strongly that he could not have had such a positive classroom experience anywhere but IWU, thanks to the prayer and support he receives from the people at Lexington’s education center.
“Sometimes I do still have doubts, but that’s when I go back to my fellow students and the faculty,” Horsley said. “When you have a positive person in front of you that can motivate, it gives you the will to success…A teacher will take you to the side, because classes are small, and take time to get to know you on a personal level.”
“It’s hard here sometimes with the courses and the requirements and stuff like that, but…it would just be so much different if I didn’t have the Christian grounding. It’s a well-grounded school.”
Now Horsley wants to open the way for more deaf and hard of hearing students to have the same positive classroom experience. He wants all IWU students and potential students who might benefit from the CART technology to be aware that they have the opportunity—which will give him a chance to be an ambassador for IWU within the deaf community.
“It has been a real blessing to have John enroll in the Bachelor of Science in management program at IWU-Lexington,” said Dr. Mary Ann Searle, regional dean for Kentucky and Southern Indiana. “John doesn’t let obstacles get in his way, and we should not let them get in our way either!”
“I just want to be a good reflection, not only of Christ, but the University, when I meet people,” Horsley said. “The more I continue with school, the more confidence and assurance I have.”