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Hearing loss drives innovation for Peterson Airman

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Rachael McAnallen, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron environmental program manager, right, accepts a position as the 21st Space Wing, Wing Staff Agency key spouse representative from Lt. Col. Christine Millard, 21st Comptroller Squadron commander, during a WSA all call at the Peterson Club on June 14, 2016. McAnallen was born deaf and uses technology to help communicate with peers and other key spouses. (U.S. Air Force photo by Craig Denton)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Rachael McAnallen, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron environmental program manager, right, accepts a position as the 21st Space Wing, Wing Staff Agency key spouse representative from Lt. Col. Christine Millard, 21st Comptroller Squadron commander, during a WSA all call at the Peterson Club on June 14, 2016. McAnallen was born deaf and uses technology to help communicate with peers and other key spouses. (U.S. Air Force photo by Craig Denton)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – An American Sign Language interpreter helps Rachael McAnallen, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron environmental program manager, by signing what the caller says to her using a videophone at her office June 17, 2016. McAnallen was born deaf, but she learned cued speech, received a cochlear implant and uses innovative technology to enhance communication with others. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – An American Sign Language interpreter helps Rachael McAnallen, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron environmental program manager, by signing what the caller says to her using a videophone at her office June 17, 2016. McAnallen was born deaf, but she learned cued speech, received a cochlear implant and uses innovative technology to enhance communication with others. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- People with disabilities sometimes struggle fitting in amongst peers or with feeling accepted because of being differently-abled. Rachael McAnallen didn’t let a hearing impairment stop her from achieving success.

An Environmental Program Manager for the 21st Civil Engineer Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, McAnallen used her disability to drive innovation and blaze a trail for herself and others with hearing loss.

It began when she was born, but McAnallen wasn’t officially diagnosed as deaf until she was 9 months old. Like many other families with hearing-impaired children, her family began to use American Sign Language. She said this didn’t encourage the development of spoken language, so they tried cued speech instead.

Cued speech uses eight hand shapes and four vowel placements that, combined, creates a consonant-vowel pair. McAnallen said this gives the user 100 percent access to spoken language visually.

It’s often assumed deaf people are fantastic lip readers, but she said the best lip reader can only lip read with 30 percent accuracy. Cued speech bridges the gap and helps increase effective communication.

“If you learn this entire system, you can say anything, in any language,” she said.

Cueing helped McAnallen communicate better with her peers, but she said a challenge she still faced in school was feeling isolated and not being understood because her peers didn’t know how to talk to her. She received a cochlear implant at the age of 15, which is an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged middle ear. That increased the hearing in her left ear from 0 percent to about 76 percent speech discrimination and was another step toward better communication.

After high school, McAnallen’s drive for success pushed her both during and after college. Her goal was to find a program that would allow her to make a difference in the world, which she said led to a degree in environmental management and technology. In no way did her disability hold her back.

“To the contrary, I think it’s pushed me forward,” McAnallen said. “Since coming to Peterson, I’ve gotten a lot of visibility and attention because my requests have driven innovation at all leadership levels to make the workplace more inviting for people who are differently abled.”

The requests range from technology to assist her with communication to who is responsible for funding them, she said. Some of the technology includes captioned online video training, and iPad to view cued speech or even her videophone with an ASL interpreter.

“When I call someone, an interpreter signs to me what the caller is saying and I reply back,” McAnallen said. “Because I am vocal, the person I’m talking to thinks they’re just talking to me and doesn’t hear the interpreter or even know.”

The technology itself works well, but the question of funding still remained. Thanks to her dedication to working with leadership at the wing and Air Force level, a new Air Force Instruction is being drafted to provide more guidance on who is responsible for providing technology for those with disabilities. McAnallen said it feels good to pave the way and make things easier for those after her.

“A lot of people view disabilities as a weakness, but accommodating people with disabilities and working with people with disabilities is actually a way to enhance and identify weaknesses in your own communication,” she said. “Building a diverse workforce creates more opportunity for the organization to innovate, where in other situations they could just accept the status quo by having an able-bodied workforce.”

Even with her dedication to creating a diverse and inviting workplace, she said there are occasionally still situations where a lack of understanding causes a block in communication. After receiving feedback from a brief where people said they couldn’t understand her, McAnallen now explains she is deaf to the people she’s briefing and that eradicated most of the issue.

To help someone with hearing loss communicate more efficiently, she said there are some simple tips to follow. First and foremost, she said to face the person with hearing loss to they can see lip movement. In addition, keep an even speaking pace – not too fast or super slow – and enunciate words clearly without mumbling. The volume should not be low, but she said not to shout at a deaf person, either.

Most importantly, McAnallen said, know that not everyone with hearing loss was born that way. Each person’s situation is different and how to communicate with them varies.

“Ask the person with hearing loss, ‘what do you need me to do for you to understand me,’” she said.

McAnallen continues to set the example of overcoming adversity by driving innovation and paving the way for people with disabilities in the Air Force.

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