Sharnell Cox-Robinson, C. R. Walker High School’s science subject coordinator and 2019-2021 teacher of the year, is in a unique position where she’s able to insert herself as an example when talking to students about the ear during science lessons. Cox-Robinson as a teenager lost 60 percent of hearing in one ear and 50 percent of hearing in her second ear, before it was discovered she had a hearing impairment and has to wear hearing aids.
She’s found that inserting her situation into lessons intrigues her students when it comes to learning about the ear, because she can use her own hearing issues and tie it into lessons.
Armed with the knowledge that she was able to hold the attention of non-hearing impaired students, Cox-Robinson, at the urging of her hearing specialist Dr. Kim Scriven, the current head of audiology and operations at hearLIFE Clinic, recently visited the Centre for the Deaf to speak with and show hearing-impaired students that their disability does not have to be a roadblock to life.
“At some point in time I know I may lose all my hearing if I don’t contemplate the [cochlear] implant, and I shared this with the students. They were so excited to receive me and some of them were really shocked because they did not know that I have a hearing problem, because they couldn’t see the hearing aid.”
When she removed her hearing aid, some students cried, including a recent female transfer from a junior public school, who Cox-Robinson said is just like her – hearing some, but not hearing all.
“She understood that I understand how she feels. It was really touching to engage in that type of forum with them because I know how they feel,” said the science teacher.
Cox-Robinson’s hearing issues were first noticed in 1997 when she was an 11th grade student. Her mother, Julliann Mortimer, noticed that her daughter was adjusting the volume on the television set louder than normal and took her to Scriven to do a hearing test. It was then that her hearing loss was discovered. A diagnosis as to why was never made. She said she was told it was difficult because she wasn’t being monitored since birth.
She was given hearing aids but refused to wear them. She said she just wasn’t okay with it.
It wasn’t until Cox-Robinson went to college, where she said it was hard for her to hear her professors – with many of them of different nationalities – that she was forced to wear them.
“I was in the United States and I figured who cares, like these people don’t know me, so I could wear a big, bulky hearing aid and be okay, so I started wearing them more and more when I was in college. At first, I wasn’t really as dependent on them, because I could hear to some degree, but because I started wearing them more and more it’s like my brain reprogrammed and I became very dependent on them.”
When she returned to New Providence in 2003, she worked in a lab and would wear her aids on and off, but not consistently. She was afraid of what people would think or that she would be perceived as disabled.
When she finally got her first in-school position at Heritage Christian Academy, she never wore them. It wasn’t until she was employed at St. Andrew’s School as she pursued her master’s degree in teaching with technology – where she said she worked among soft-spoken people and soft-spoken students – that she was again forced to wear them all the time. But at the same time, she said she fit right in because the school has a special unit that caters to the needs of students with special needs. She worked in that department with special education professionals and as such didn’t feel out of place.
“In that environment, everyone is taught to be sensitive to the unique differences of others, so people were very open and accepting of the fact that you are special or you have a special need. I wore it (hearing aid) and never once had an issue.”
While she said there are many understanding students in the public school system, it’s not always the case and she admits to sometimes being teased.
She recalled one incident when she arrived and was walking to her classroom. She saw a group of young men congregated on the stairs as she approached and heard them say to each other to watch what they were going to do when she came. She walked up the stairs and one of the boys covered his mouth as he was talking to her. The boys knew she wore hearing aids and has to read lips to hear as well.
“Even though I have hearing aids, I’m not 100 percent hearing, so I read lips. He covered his mouth while he talked to me, but it sounded muffled, so I said excuse me and he covered his mouth again and the boys started laughing, so I said are you done playing and I just walked away.”
She said the difference between the public and private institution that she taught at is that some students in the public system have to be taught to be sensitive, but she said many of her students are understanding.
“I could laugh about a lot of things now because I’m able to handle it after teaching at St. Andrew’s. It’s kind of made me become one within myself and okay with the fact that I have this disability to the point where I could laugh at it. Some time ago, it used to send me into depression to be quite honest.”
Cox-Robinson, 39, is being encouraged to have a cochlear implant – an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear. Unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder, cochlear implants do the work of the damaged parts of the inner ear (cochlea) to provide sound signals to the brain.
Just like she resisted initially wearing hearing aids, she’s not sure she’s ready for cochlear implants as yet, even though she’s almost to the point where if she walks into a room without her hearing aid and people are talking it’s disorienting.
Scriven, who works a lot with young children, also encouraged Cox-Robinson over the years to share her story with others in the same position, which she resisted for a long time. It wasn’t until recently that she said she was comfortable enough to speak to the children at the Centre for the Deaf.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t ready for what Dr. Scriven wanted me to do. When I was in high school she wanted to use me to let other young children know that they can still be whatever it is they want to be and I wasn’t ready for that, because I wasn’t okay with it myself. I am older now and better able to handle it, especially dealing with the kids at my school. I figured I know how they feel because I was in high school too, so I said let me pay them a visit and tell them that I know how they feel, and to look at me.”
Even though there’s a strong possibility she’s going to lose all of her hearing, Cox-Robinson only knows a few words of sign language which her mother, who taught at the Centre for the Deaf, tried to teach her while she was in high school.
“I was trying to rebel and so I wasn’t interested,” she said. “I was like I don’t want to learn no sign language because I’m not deaf.”
The irony of it, she said, was that this was before they realized she had a hearing issue. In college she said learning sign language was mandatory for education majors, which is why she knows some.
Cox-Robinson did not win teacher of the year at the national level, but she said being named teacher of the year at her school after only being there for three years meant a lot, even though it does not define her.
“All these years I’ve worked hard to build my own brand which is my name, and I kind of used the fact that I have this hearing disability to push me more. I don’t like anyone to pity me or anything, but I will show you that I am a great teacher, despite the fact that I may not hear you all the way. I still do my best. I still [frown] upon mediocrity and still put my best foot forward. So, all of these  years… all of my contributions to education, to get something at this point means that it did not go unnoticed. And the fact that I’ve only been at C. R. Walker for three years, the staff would have thought I would have made contributions that were notable for me to have received that award.”
Cox-Robinson said she never does anything for anyone to give her praise, but that it feels good to receive her “flowers” while she’s alive.
She is married to Traverse Robinson and is a mother of two – a five-year-old and a newborn. Asked whether she sometimes deliberately takes her hearing aid out so that she doesn’t have to hear her children, like all mothers wish they could do from time to time, the educator laughingly said she would take it out for a minute or two so that she doesn’t have to hear her five-year-old, but never with her newborn.
Cox-Robinson said diminished hearing even made dating her husband Traverse Robinson a unique experience.
“You would have to have patience that runs as long as a river because sometimes you don’t hear everything. Sometimes you have to repeat things often and sometimes communicating can be difficult. He would say, ‘Sharnell, I’m talking to you but you’re not listening.’ But I’m listening, I just can’t hear everything, so it’s challenging. But I think he’s doing a very good job of dealing with it, even though he thinks that sometimes I’m tuning him out and he says I have selective hearing.”
The educator said she wants to be a source of encouragement for anyone who has a hearing disability.
“It’s very hard, the struggles are real on a daily basis. I fear about my job. I fear about not being able to hear my children at some point in time, but I believe it’s all going to come together and no matter what, you should always put your best foot forward.”
If she takes her hearing aids out, she can hear, but she says it isn’t clear enough.
“I will hear sounds, but I can’t work out words anymore, because my brain has become so dependent on the hearing aids.”
Like all electronics, sometimes her hearing aids go off, including while she’s in class, but the teacher in her knows she has to have a backup plan, and so she has four sets. She has backup hearing aids to her backups.