Ashley Jackson is an inspiration.
At least that is what her classmates say about her. She would probably not refer to herself in such a flattering way. The UTM Child and Family Studies major likes to express herself with her art even though she is blind and hearing impaired.
Her blindness does not keep her from attending class every day like the other students. Neither does her hearing impairment. However, her unique situation does make going to class harder than it is for most of her peers. Despite all her struggles, the friendly, talkative Ashely continues to do well in her classes, attend church regularly and pursue her passion for sculpting.
Before her first birthday, Ashley was diagnosed with a cancerous disease called retinoblastoma, which could have been fatal for her. At just nine months old, her eyes were removed so she could survive and have a chance to experience life. The radiation from chemotherapy that she endured caused numerous severe ear infections. Her hearing began to fade away after doctors tried draining her ears and putting tubes in them. After her first birthday, the hearing loss reached a severe level.
Obviously, she had to learn about the world a little differently from most American school children. She had to go to a special school for the blind.
“When I first started the school for the blind, I had a teacher who specializes in deaf-blindness. She taught me sign language and how to speak. It took me two years to learn to communicate. I had speech therapy three to five times a week,” Ashley said.
Still, communicating was a challenge. She remembers wearing hearing aids from the time that she was five or six years old, noting that they did not always help. People often had to speak into a microphone so she could hear them. Even with that microphone she had a lot of trouble understanding their words.
At the age of seven she found a new way of communicating with the world: sculpting.
She started off by simply playing with Play-Doh like many children do. Then she realized that she could do much more than just have fun with the clay.
“I felt like I was telling a story through my artwork. I didn’t realize that until I entered middle school. I communicate to the world with my sculptures and I like people to create stories through their minds when they look at my work. I think it’s important to be able to express my emotions in a creative manner,” Ashley said.
In 2012, at the age of 21, she endured a risky surgery to get cochlear implants. She calls it the most difficult obstacle of her life because if the surgery did not work she would lose what was left of her ability to hear at all. The risk paid off. The surgery was successful and now she can hear better than before. She is not afraid to meet new people and she looks forward to making new friends in college. Even so, she still loves to let her art do the talking for her sometimes.
Often, the sculptures tell a story. For example, one of her sculptures portrays a student learning how to read braille from a teacher. Another shows people sitting at a table who look like they might be enjoying a meal together. Some are self-portraits.
“I loved and will always love to sculpt people in actions. They are representations of people in my life. I really like to use polymer clay, aluminum foil and paint. I also like to use trays to work on my piece so that it would not stick to the table. I use other small tools to do the faces, arms and legs and hair. I also use wires to support them,” she said.
She believes that her sculpting is a lot like what God is doing in her life. After she graduates from UTM she wants to use her life experiences to help other people with disabilities like her. Specifically, she wants to work with families who have disabled children. She says that God is sculpting her into the person she needs to be.
“I’ve always loved when that one time, someone told me that God created us by sculpturing out our body and mind. He started out with a lump of cells and then had a magic way of stretching that lump of cells in to arms, legs, heads etc. As we grow old, we change shapes, our personality develops, we put on weight or we lose weight. Only God knows how to shape our personalities, I can never come even close to it! I may be able to do something to portray body language, but nothing compared to what our amazing God can do!” she said.
In addition to working with disabled children and their families, she hopes to travel and give speeches about understanding people with disabilities. Ashley says disabled people need to be understood. She wants UTM students to understand her instead of being afraid to talk to her or interact with her. What she wants people to understand more than anything else is how to treat her and other people like her.
“I want people to know that they should not let my disabilities define who I am. They should look past my disabilities and see the real me! I may say that I am a deaf-blind college student, but I’m not letting my deaf-blindness define me! I’m just a normal college girl who wishes school work is not so darn hard, especially tests and eats too much jelly beans, loves to sleep and everything a normal person would. I love when people approach me and say hi and some even make an effort to be my friend. I want to make new friends even if I have some already,” Ashley said.
Ashley is eager to share her story with anyone who wants to hear it because she wants everyone to learn.
If you see her walking around campus, do not be afraid to introduce yourself and ask her about her artwork. You might just make a new friend.
“I like people to respect me and just act like I am 24 years old, or in other words, like the rest of you.” Ashley said.