Sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing—all five of Will Parker’s senses worked properly the moment he was born 20 years ago at Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, Nebraska.
The fluorescent lights illuminate the room. The smell of latex gloves. The voices of the mother and the father as they welcome their new child into the world. It’s what happens in the delivery room.
The hospital is where Parker discovered his senses, and it was the hospital where one would be taken away.
After he was born, Parker was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, which causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes.
“The doctors told my family I was going to have some type of repercussion,” Parker said. “I was either going to be deaf, blind, disabled or mentally and physically handicapped. Two weeks later, my fevers were so high. I lost all my hearing, and everything went silent.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are over 2,000 total cases of bacterial meningitis each year. The diagnosis is rare and in most cases deadly.
After he went deaf, Parker’s parents Julie and Bob decided it was time for their son to hear their voices again.
When Parker was just over a year old, he underwent cochlear implant surgery at the Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha.
Parker, now 20, doesn’t get tired of explaining the hearing device visibly hooked up to his head. It is a topic that comes up frequently when he starts a new job or enrolls in a new class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Parker’s hair barely covers the hearing contraption. A black clip rests on Parker’s ear, and an implant is attached to the clip that inserts into his head. It acts as a microphone, receiver and speech processor.
He says the implant transforms sound into electrical pulses that vibrate the auditory nerve. The brain picks up those signals, and reads them as sounds. Parker says he is thankful his parents made the decision to restore his ability to hear, and he can’t imagine going through life today not being able to hear.
Speech Therapy and Sign Language
The cochlear implants gave Parker his hearing back, but the next challenge was learning to speak.
People who use cochlear implants hear sounds differently, Parker said. He says it can be challenging to talk, and almost everyone needs assistance.
Parker attended speech therapy sessions from his time as a toddler all the way up to his senior year in high school. Each session consisted of exercises tailored toward improving his speech and mobile and visual stability. Parker’s therapists presented him with pictures, and he described what was happening.
He also has found comfort in sign language.
“I know sign language, but this world doesn’t know sign language,” he said. “That’s just how it is. “I’m so grateful I’m able to communicate every day, and not have an interpreter with me at all times.”
An Italian Experience
Parker graduated from high school in 2017.
Unlike most of his senior class, Parker decided to venture away from the United States, and study abroad in Sicily, Italy.
Parker enrolled as a college freshman at a university, and took classes that counted for credit.
“When I got there, they were obsessed with me,” he said. “I was a foreigner, I had white skin and I was deaf.”
The Sicilians’ fascination intrigued Parker, but the lack of resources on the island for people like him was bothersome.
“I told one of my professors I was deaf, and she asked me what I was doing there,” he said. “She said I couldn’t be at school, and that I needed special services. I needed to be learning at home.”
It’s a place where deaf people try to hide, Parker said. He described the island as being “behind and not progressive.”
And for Parker, that needed to change.
“When I was there, it was my goal to help change the stigma,” he said. “That’s what I was there to do. “I would make it known that I was deaf, make it known that I was American, make it known that I was a foreigner. By the time I left, everyone knew who I was. It opened up people’s eyes.”
Making a Difference
Parker’s next adventure came 5,564 miles away in a place where the roars of a crowd on a football Saturday can set one’s ears ringing.
After spending one year receiving college credit in Spain, it was time for Parker to go back to his roots in Nebraska. He finished his freshman year in Spain, but would begin his sophomore year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Parker, a hospitality major, says the resources the university offers are far better than what he witnessed in Italy.
UNL follows multiple guidelines to ensure students with disabilities are adequately equipped for college.
Kim Davis, an advocacy specialist at the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, says there are laws that protect disabled students.
Davis says Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protects college students.
“A college receives funding or federal grants for disabled students,” she said. “It’s federal money that will pay for tutors. Colleges receive that funding, so they are required to comply with that accommodation.”
Parker has also found resources in the UNL Disability Club.
The group consists of disabled and non-disabled students, all offering support. Members of the club also advocate for improvements to campus facilities and classrooms.
Adam Hubrig, a graduate assistant in the English department, joined the UNL Disability Club in 2015. He now helps run and oversee the registered student organization.
“The club tries to educate people without disabilities about what the disabled experience is and what it looks like,” Hubrig said.
He described it as “a place for people who have jumped the same hoop.”
Parker also speaks and signs at conferences for deaf students, helps run the Nebraska Regional Programs for Students Who Are Deaf and Hard at Hearing and assists with programs at his high school alma mater.
“I’ve gone through all of it, so I know the challenges they’re facing,” he said. “It’s a lot of self-advocacy and that’s what being deaf has taught me. I have to self-advocate. I tell them it may not seem possible right now, but it is possible. Look where I’m at.”