Student finds community at Western

Johanna Urbach isn’t sure when she lost the ability to hear in her right ear. One possible explanation is when she was 15 months old and received shots, she couldn’t sit up straight afterwards and got an ear infection. While this could explain Urbach’s hearing loss, it still remains a mystery.

However, her parents didn’t find out that she had single-sided deafness until first grade. Before that, clues of Urbach’s impaired hearing were apparent when her mom would read to her at night. Urbach would ask her to not read next to her right ear.

“I told her that I couldn’t hear on that side,” says Urbach, a freshman at Western Washington University.

During her junior year of high school, Urbach received a bone-conduction (cochlear) implant called the Baja System. She describes the system as a bone-anchored hearing aid that transmits sound vibrations to the ear.

When Urbach was first testing out the Baja System, she remembers the first sounds she heard in her previously deaf ear. She heard her mom say, “I love you” into her right ear for the first time.

“And then I was like, ‘When can I book this surgery?” Urbach says.

Urbach turns to show the right side of her head and pulls off a small metal object from behind her ear. The object is the outside of the Baja System, which magnetizes to the inner part of the system. Urbach snaps the Baja System back into place and the whole process seems easy to handle and simple to use.

This February, Urbach was one of eight winners of scholarships given by Cochlear Americas. Scholarships are given to a student who demonstrates leadership, humanity and solid academics, and Urbach fit all the qualifications.

From more than 175 applications, just eight students were picked to receive the Graeme Clark Scholarship or the Anders Tjellström scholarship. Three students received the Anders Tjellström scholarship, one of them Urbach.

As part of the scholarship program, Urbach got to fly to Florida to receive her award. It was eye-opening to find others like her there, she said. Nearly everyone at the celebration had a hearing disability, a community she was happy to find.

“As you walked around everyone had an implant,” Urbach says. “It was amazing.”

When Urbach was touring colleges, she visited 10 universities. Some were closer to her home in California, a few were in Oregon and Colorado. But she looked at only one school in western Washington. She liked how the Western Washington University campus was so friendly and how accommodating the disabilities program was. For example, the program gives extra time on tests and implements Typewell, a speech-to-text communication access software program, and Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART), or real-time captioning.

Today, Urbach is nearing the end of her first year at Western. She lives on campus in one of the many Western dormitories. Whether it’s watching movies with friends or playing card games, she has found her own sense of community.


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"She heard her mom say, “I love you” into her right ear for the first time."