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In the basketball world it's well-known that I was born with a hearing impairment that affects both ears. As a young child, I remember being teased for the way I looked with my big, clunky hearing aids and the speech problems that accompanied the hearing impairment. Every day was a challenge for me. There were plenty of days that I wished I was normal.
That's how sports first came into my life. In the classroom kids could make fun of me for being different. On the soccer field (my first sport) and eventually the basketball court, they couldn't. I outworked them, plain and simple. Eventually, I was better than them.
When I was in third grade, I threw my hearing aids into a field. Needless to say, my parents weren't too happy. They doled out some tough love: They wouldn't replace the hearing aids.
That decision helped spark a work ethic that has shaped me into the person and player I am today. To compensate for not having full hearing, I'd sit in the front row in each of my classes. I'd read ahead in our textbooks so that I'd know what was going on, and I'd stay after class to talk to the teachers about anything I might have missed during class.
Fast-forward to college at Tennessee. One day in the training room at Thompson-Boling Arena, my coach, Pat Summitt, and our trainer, Jenny Moshak, sat me down. Pat said, "Tamika, people wear glasses to help them see. Go to speech therapists to help them talk better. And, wear hearing aids to help them hear. You have big goals in life, and we agree that it'd be best for you to go back to wearing hearing aids and to work with our university speech therapists."
That was another turning point. I started wearing hearing aids again (the smaller in-the-ear models this time) and even made a few visits to a speech therapist. I was so excited about my hearing aids that I actually tried to wear them during practices and games. That didn't last long. I ended up having to send them to the shop all the time to be fixed because I sweat so much!
Now, thanks to new technology and Bill and Tani Austin with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, I have a set of hearing aids to wear in games. It's still an adjustment for me, but not necessarily in a bad way. All sports are really made up of sign language and hand signals. I think I actually have an advantage with or without my hearing aids because I'm very observant on the court. Sometimes it's almost like seeing things before they happen, because I can anticipate them so well. And another little perk: sometimes I really don't hear what's being said. (Though sometimes it's selective hearing!)
Off the court, my impairment really doesn't affect me. I wear my hearing aids for appearances. For day-to-day stuff, I'm fine without them. I do find myself reading lips to make sure I catch everything being said.
When I was a child I was ashamed of being different. I wanted to fit in with everyone else. Now that I'm older, I appreciate the way God has made me, and I love the fact that I'm able to reach out to so many people and be an inspiration.
With all of the things I've been through, I feel like I can connect with just about anybody. I know that we are all "wonderfully and skillfully made," and it's important for those of us who go through impairments, disabilities and issues to reach out and help others. I am all about "helping our youth to catch their dreams one star at a time."
I try not to look at my impairment as a disability, and it gives me a sense of appreciation when I hear stories from parents and kids -- with or without disabilities -- who look up to me for the struggles I've been through.