I frequently look up at the stars at night because it is a reminder to me that our everyday worries are pretty insignificant. When I think about my life in the big picture in the context of the rest of the universe, I remember that my time on earth must count and I shouldn’t waste a second of it dwelling on situations that I simply cannot control.
One such instance is not focusing on the fact that I am different. My difference is that I am hearing impaired. When I was three years old, I was diagnosed with a profound bilateral hearing loss. This meant that I could not hear mainstream levels of noise without assistive hearing devices. Shortly after my diagnosis, I received hearing aids, and then later in life, a cochlear implant to help me to hear and communicate with those around me. Due to a later start in the hearing world, there was a significant delay in my learning and speaking abilities. As a result, I required years of speech therapy and hours of after school sessions with speech aids to help me learn material at the same level and pace as my peers.
For a large portion of my academic career, I remember feeling embarrassed in school for the demands that I required as a student. Some of these needs included an FM system, which sent sounds directly to my devices from a microphone worn by the teacher, closed captioning on videos shown in lectures, a speech aid to sit in the classroom, extra time on tests, and designated seating in the front of the classroom. Since I attended mainstream schools my whole life, these differences in my learning were noticeable and they drew attention to my disability. My classmates would often ask questions and something as small as wearing my hair up drew attention to my disability even more. During my youth, I tried to blend in with others as best as possible. However, I learned overtime that my difference was a fact, something I needed to own and accept.
This acknowledgement didn’t come to me on my own. What gave me the confidence to accept my identity as a hearing impaired individual was the network of people I had in my life – I had close friendships and was raised in an incredibly supportive family of individuals who not only cherished me and accepted me for who I was, but who challenged me to reach my full potential regardless of stereotyped limitations. Because I felt secure in my home and social life, I became more secure in other areas as well. For example, I was able to pursue and excel to my fullest in areas such as academics, sports, fashion and art. Because I was encouraged by my family and friends to reach my full potential, I stopped trying to mask my impairment to others. When it was time to attend college, I was finally in the mature state of mind to begin embracing my disability openly and confidently. These days, my disability is a source of strength and it motivates me to succeed every day.
Luckily, the hardships I faced as a hearing impaired individual enabled me to develop a strong work ethic and I was fortunate enough to attend Cornell University. It was there that my hard work began to pay off and I discovered my true passion: designing clothes and accessories. While at Cornell, I majored in fashion design and I used my personal experiences with disability to guide my designs and overall messages. For me, dressing is an intellectual act, a means to communicate who I am, how I fit into society and respond to current events. When designing for others, I aim to empower the wearer in designs that are innovative, on-trend and visually alluring. During my years at Cornell, I saw an opportunity in the eyewear sector and started a sunglasses company that is founded on inclusive design – a promising design motive for future designers. This means that designers in fashion must think about individuals with various problems and address them simultaneously in a one product or collection. As someone who wears devices and struggles to wear traditional frames, my eyewear company caters to individuals like me who are hard of hearing as well as those who are not. By thinking from a more critical perspective, more individuals can enjoy the products I create. Although I recently graduated from college, I am pursuing my eye-wear company as a side project and raising awareness about hearing disability to young kids and adults alike. As an aspiring entrepreneur and disability activist, I hope to become a role model to others. The most important biggest message I hope to deliver to others is that the world thrives on people who are different. As my own experiences have taught me, it is our differences, not our ability to blend in, that nourish us and inspire us to create change and make the world a more beautiful place.
The next time I look up and see the stars shining brilliantly in the sky, I will again think about my life in the big picture, I will remember that my difference, though not in my control, is what makes my life worthwhile and a much more dynamic place.
Molly Rose Kestenbaum is an aspiring fashion entrepreneur and disability activist. She recently graduated from the college of Human Ecology at Cornell University in May 2017 with a degree in fiber science & apparel design and is pursuing her own fashion brand – Molly Rose Eyewear – which she started her senior year in college. In addition to her obsession with all things fashion, Molly loves to spend time adventuring in New York City with her two older siblings and friends. In her spare time, she paints, does barre and yoga, and enjoys baking. She commutes regularly between Westchester and NYC, where she spends time with her beloved family and morkie puppy, Levi.