Hearing Disorder Directs Singer to Speech-Language Pathology
Alyssa Wade knew she wanted to work with music. She sang soprano throughout high school and college, earned a bachelor’s degree in music and planned to become a choir director.
One thing Wade didn’t know was how her diagnosis of otosclerosis would change those plans and lead her to become a graduate student at UT Dallas’ Callier Center for Communication Disorders.
Otosclerosis is a progressive disease in which bone in the middle ear continues to calcify after normal growth has ceased, preventing it from vibrating and passing on sound to the inner ear.
Think of a piano key — pressing the key causes a hammer to hit a string, which then vibrates and creates sound. If moisture or grit builds up where the key connects to the hammer, the hammer won’t move easily or strike the string as hard and the notes will be quieter. Similarly, when the bones in the inner ear do not move well, as in otosclerosis, then what a person hears will be quieter. As the condition progresses, hearing loss typically increases.
“Many people who develop a life-changing disorder like otosclerosis in their teen years would shut down,” said Janice Lougeay, director of clinical education at the Callier Center and faculty member of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “They would think ‘Why me?’ Adjusting and moving on would be impossible. Alyssa’s reaction is the direct opposite.”
The hearing loss was barely noticeable at first for Wade, who was diagnosed at age 14. As the disease progressed, it deeply affected her life.
“The real significant thing about Alyssa is she never really expects anything to be different with her because she’s dealing with these issues. She works really hard, accomplishes a great deal and does everything that everybody else does, and does it really well.”
“It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I felt like this was really affecting my life,” Wade said. “My friends kept saying, ‘You’re not listening to me. You need to listen.’ I’m sitting there going, ‘I am listening. It’s just really hard for me to hear.’”
Between her freshman and sophomore years in college, Wade tried to restore her hearing by having her right stapes — one of the bones in her middle ear — replaced with a prosthetic. Although she regained her low-frequency hearing, Wade lost her high-frequency hearing and developed two new hearing problems — diplacusis and tinnitus.
“Diplacusis affects me in loud environments, like in choir or a church auditorium. Whenever there’s a lot of sound going on, I will feel like I have a blown speaker right in my ear,” Wade said. “I get extra noises that aren’t supposed to be there.”
The constant barrage of hearing difficulties hasn’t deterred Wade from pursuing a career dealing with sound. It just redirected her.
“I was wearing an earplug in choir just to be able to get through it,” Wade said. “I thought to myself I probably shouldn’t be a choir director if I can only really stand to listen with one ear. So I finished that, and, because of my experience, I started to pursue audiology.”
Wade researched topics in audiology and sought opportunities to work in related environments. After presenting her honors thesis on noise-induced hearing loss in musicians to the music department at Texas State University, she found work in a speech and hearing clinic. She drew inspiration from the connections she saw between clinicians and parents working together to improve their children’s communication skills.
Still, it was not easy breaking into speech language-pathology with a music major’s background. One of Wade’s biggest hurdles was persuading faculty whom she had known only a few weeks to write recommendations for scholarships. Yet Callier Center faculty said Wade immediately made a favorable impression.
“The real significant thing about Alyssa is she never really expects anything to be different with her because she’s dealing with these issues,” Lougeay said. “She works really hard, accomplishes a great deal and does everything that everybody else does, and does it really well.”
Wade has secured enough scholarship money to cover the remainder of her graduate education.
“I really felt drawn to helping people with such a basic thing as communicating,” Wade said. “Knowing what it’s like to have a difficulty on the hearing end really helps me to do that.”
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].