A member of Fort Lewis College’s staff is trying to raise awareness for people with sensory disorders on the Navajo Nation, as well as the college itself.
FLC Project Support Specialist Ally Gee has faced her own issues with this after losing her hearing in her right ear at 24 years old because of a viral infection in October 2022.
“It was sudden and unexpected. It really like changed my life,” she said. “The first couple of months, I had really bad vertigo, and I couldn’t drive and really leave my apartment.”
Through Gee’s experience, it inspired her to explore options for hearing restoration, ultimately resulting in the successful implantation of a cochlear device from the staff at Flagstaff Medical Center in Arizona.
After her experience, she wanted to make people aware of the difficulties hearing loss can present for people within the FLC community and her tribe.
She currently works as a project support specialist for FLC and All Our Kin Collective to address language loss among Indigenous students in Durango and other places.
Gee is from Low Mountain, Arizona, a small community in northeast Arizona on the Navajo Nation.
She hopes to obtain a master’s degree in public health with an emphasis on uplifting communities like the one she was raised in.
She said that there’s one audiologist who serves the entire Navajo Nation. The nearest Navajo Indian Health Service Clinic is in Shiprock, New Mexico, but she did have a medical chart there. This meant she would have to drive about 3½ hours to the IHS clinic in Chinle, Arizona.
In her case, she was lucky that her parents had their own private insurance plan and were able to find an audiologist in Flagstaff, Arizona, who would be able to help her.
Experiencing hearing loss was a huge part of her inspiration for acquiring her master’s degree. Gee graduated from FLC in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in public health. She had thought little about attending graduate school before experiencing hearing loss.
“After my hearing loss, I realized that navigating the health care system as a 23-year-old was confusing and I can’t imagine how much harder it could be for people who aren’t first-language English speakers (like my grandparents),” she said.
The biggest barrier that impacted her hearing loss journey was that Indian Health Services is underfunded as a whole.
“Unfortunately, my cochlear implant procedure and equipment were not eligible to be covered by IHS, but I am so fortunate that my mom’s insurance was able to cover most of the cost,” she said.
After receiving her cochlear implant, she began to recognize different sounds and it drastically helped her navigate social situations that were previously hard, such as going to the grocery store, restaurants and family gatherings.
“I’m grateful that technology like cochlear implants exists and I hope that one day it will be easily accessible to those who are interested, regardless of socioeconomic or health insurance status,” Gee said.
She doesn’t place blame on anyone in particular, but says her story is an example of how the health care system is not set up to benefit everyone.
She said the Navajo Nation lacks infrastructure, much of which is a byproduct of colonialism.
She added there are many places that don’t have access to clean water, electricity, cellphone service or even health care support.
“I’m really kind of in the mix with a lot of Native communities,” she said. “And I think a lot of us have like shared experiences with like how systemic racism has affected our health care as Native people.”
Still, Gee doesn’t want to focus on the negative and that her identity as an Indigenous person has helped her persevere through hearing loss.
She says that Indigenous people are very resilient, and there are many Indigenous teachings and stories that discuss resilience.
“I don’t want to paint this picture that like we’re this sad, poor tribe that doesn’t have a lot because that’s not the truth,” she said. “We have our culture and language and that makes us rich in other ways.”
For Gee, the first step to any change is raising awareness. She understands that she’s not what people typically think of when they picture someone with hearing loss.
“I’ve talked to my audiologist a lot about how sharing my story about hearing loss as a young person is really important, because it almost normalizes that this can happen to anyone,” she said.
Gee wants to want to promote sensory friendly closed captioning technology at the college’s plays and creating sensory-friendly places on campus.
Sensory-friendly spaces are a designed environment, which is an accommodation for people who have a sensory dysfunction or a sensory processing disorder. Sensory-friendly spaces for people with hearing issues can mean spaces where there’s not much noise. For those with visual impairments, this can also mean creating environments where the lights are kept at a low level.
For now, Gee says her role is to share her story in order to bring attention to the issue.
She will also attend the 2023 International Conference on Indigenous Language Documentation, Education and Revitalization, Oct. 12 to 14 in Bloomington, Indiana.