A severe hearing disability inspired Elana Solomon to channel her personal experience into academic research that will benefit disabled children and their teachers. When Solomon received her Master's degree in Human Rehabilitation Studies at Stellenbosch University on Tuesday (28 March), it was the culmination of a remarkable journey – a testament to her determination and passion for helping others.
Solomon was nine months old when her parents suspected something might be wrong with their baby who did not respond to sounds and voices. Initial tests did not show hearing loss, but as Solomon grew older, she continued to miss developmental milestones. Physiotherapy and speech therapy did not seem to make a difference.
“At the age of five-and-a-half, after many years of seeing various professionals and being told that were was no evidence of a hearing loss, I was finally diagnosed with a profound sensorineural hearing loss in the right ear and a moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear.
“My parents were devastated as they felt that the late diagnosis of my hearing loss had disadvantaged their child. I was then fitted with the hearing aid on my left ear," Solomon explains.
Doctors referred her to the Carel du Toit Centre, situated on the grounds of Tygerberg Hospital where deaf children learn to speak. It was here that the seeds were planted that would later inspire Solomon to study occupational therapy.
“I had vivid and wonderful memories of being in a small class of five learners where I received individualised attention and specialised rehabilitation support with assistive devices. I could see the positive impact it had on my learning and development."
She later attended the Mary Kihn School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, but unfortunately, in her preteens, her hearing deteriorated. She received a cochlear implant in 2002 at age 13 after her family had embarked on a year-long fundraising campaign. “At the time, the cochlear implant was nearly the price of a car!" Solomon remembers. But it was worth it. Before, Solomon had to sit right next to her teacher at her desk to be able to follow what was said. “Post implant I was able to sit at my desk and follow her without assistance. It was life-changing."
The cochlear implant enabled her to enrol in a mainstream school, Wynberg Girls' High School, in Grade 8. It was quite an adjustment to move from a school with 80 learners to a school with 900 learners, Solomon says.
“I worked incredibly hard and had a positive attitude. I developed my own strategies on how to support myself academically. I used to wear an FM system to be able to hear my teachers."
Solomon did not only excel academically, she also became a skilled athlete. In high school, she represented Western Province in cricket and she started playing tennis and soccer. She has completed five Two Oceans half marathons and five Cape Town Cycle Tours.
Having personally experienced the difference a supportive school environment can make, Solomon decided to study occupational therapy. She currently works for the Western Cape Education Department as a school-based occupational therapist at the same school she attended as a child, Mary Kihn School. “I've come full circle. It is such a privilege to be able to work alongside the school's principal who was my Grade 2 teacher. It's wonderful to be able to give back, be a role model and to inspire the learners with hearing impairment and deafness to believe that they can achieve success at school, higher education and employment."
Solomon's Master's thesis looked at the challenges faced by occupational therapists and teachers in the implementation of vocational programmes in special needs schools for learners with severe intellectual disabilities. She is keen to present her research and findings to the relevant stakeholders to highlight problem areas. “I want to contribute to policy revisions and the development of key actions needed for the strengthening of various rehabilitation and disability-related programmes. My hope is to improve the rehabilitation programmes within the South African education system so that learners with disabilities, teachers and the schools as a whole can feel supported."
Solomon plans to tackle a PhD next, focusing on the rehabilitation of children with hearing loss in an educational setting. She is full of praise for the guidance she received at SU. “My lecturers were incredibly supportive and very accommodating. Prof Martha Gieger, the course convenor, and my thesis supervisor, Prof Lieketseng Ned, were always willing to offer their time to give advice and guidance, for which I am incredibly thankful."
But most of all, Solomon is grateful for her parents who made her remarkable journey possible. “My mother Ruth and late father Ruben are my greatest role models. They motivated me to do my best, to believe in myself, to never give up and to always follow my dreams. They taught me compassion, humility and to be kind towards others, which are valuable attributes for my profession. It is through their unwavering support and prayers that I've come this far. Above all, I thank God for giving me the strength to fulfil all my dreams."
PHOTO: Stefan Els