Past a Bleak Beginning: Shani Summers

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Architecture student Shani Summers overcame immense hurdles to discover a bright future.

Born with VACTERL Association, a condition that left her without thumbs and radius bones, short forearms and hands bent inward from the wrists, Shani Summers had hurdles to overcome. But when her parents discovered a year later that Shani was deaf, the challenges compounded.

Her condition made sign language difficult, so at age 7, Shani’s parents gave her the choice to get a cochlear implant – and she took it. While hearing aids make sound louder, cochlear implants do what the inner ear would do if it wasn’t damaged, which is to provide sound signals to the brain. These implants don’t restore normal hearing, but give useful representation of sounds so that a person can understand speech and other environmental cues.

Eleven years of mainstream school later, and Shani graduated high school with honors and a 4.148 GPA, and entered Brigham Young University in fall 2016 to pursue a career in architecture. She was just awarded a scholarship by Cochlear Americas in recognition of her perseverance.

We got to ask Shani some questions about her life, which was very inspiring:

Tell us about home life, how your family handled/handles having a deaf member of the family. What stands out from your childhood?

Because I had so many other health problems, my family wasn’t really impacted by my being deaf. In fact, they didn’t find out I was deaf until I was 9 months old. I just had so many other problems, it was just one more for my family to deal with. However, they started learning sign language, taking college sign language classes and teaching me sign language. Many members of my family learned sign language. What really stood out from my childhood was that I had to learn every individual person’s sign language in my family and with my friends. Many of them had their own style of signing that I had to learn. It has been fun and I felt very loved. Everybody cherishes me because I am special. I wasn’t supposed to survive, according to my mom’s doctors. I was a miracle baby.

What are your thoughts on communication in general? In my experience, having to work harder for something often makes us value it more. Is that how you feel about communication?

I think communication is essential for everybody. We need to cherish communication. Some people do not take it seriously. Communication is very important to me. I often felt a little lonely throughout my life because I knew I would never get the full potential of being able to communicate as hearing people do. However, with my Cochlear Implant, I am able to have good one-on-one conversations with some people. In my experience, the person I am talking to and I have to be very patient with each other. But because of our patience and hard work, the conversation is precious and stronger relationships are built as a result.

What do you have to say to people who feel disadvantaged in life?

Many times in my life, I felt frustrated at myself. I wished so much that I could have had a regular life like others I saw every day. I thought it wasn’t fair. However, I finally realized that because of my trials and disability, I can have a different life than others. I can see the love others have for me. They all see me as a special person that they cherish so much. We are just different, so of course we live our lives differently. Being different doesn’t change who we are. We are still wonderful people, full of potential. We just need to find our potential in our own way. We need to find our own way to be successful and have a beautiful life.

What are some things that helped/help you see a bright future?

Some of the things that help me to see a bright future are my family, best friends and God. My family raised me to become an independent woman. Everything they did for me was to teach me to become independent. They knew I had the potential to go out there into the real world someday. And this past year, I did. During the hard times, my best friends help me through my doubts and fears. God has especially helped me throughout my life, especially when I feel alone. With God, I know I’m never alone. I also know God is watching over me as I pursue my future dreams and that He will help me in every possible way. My whole family and my best friends are also cheering for me and help me so much as I live my life.

cochlear implantWhat was the impact of cochlear implants for you?

I underwent a cochlear implant surgery when I was 8 years old. Since then, my cochlear implant has helped me to be able to survive in the hearing world. Because of my hands, I’m not able to sign very clearly so I wouldn’t be able to communicate very efficiently in the deaf world. Because of my cochlear implant, I have learned to also speak pretty efficiently. I love the hearing world and have made so many precious friends. Through hearing people speak, reading lips and being able to speak back, I am able to communicate with hearing people and I am extremely thankful.


What Does It Sound Like to Hear With Cochlear Implants?

Cochlear implants don’t restore perfect hearing, but do allow those with profound hearing loss to be able to recognize speech and hear every day things. They are placed with surgery, and generally therapy is required to help a person learn how to recognize sound.

What Shani and others hear with these implants is a representation of the sounds in their environment. It can be described as tinny or robotic, but sufficient for comprehension. Check out this YouTube video to hear what it sounds like:


We are inspired by your academic achievements. Why architecture? What’s driving you now?

I chose architecture because of my love for math and art and because I am pretty proficient with computers. I also have dreamed of building amazing architecture that many people can admire. Building always intrigued me as I was growing up. I loved putting together furniture, shelves, building tree houses and doing other projects with my father. I have always thought that I want to influence others to be like me. Even though I am deaf and disabled, I am able to dream big and want to be successful. I want to encourage others who have challenges in their lives to never give into their disabilities or limitations. Anyone can be successful if they try hard enough, no matter if they have disabilities or not.

Outside of academics, talk to us about your life now. Are you living in dorms? What challenges do you face now?

I am living in the dorms at BYU. I am pretty busy running around with my fabulous hall mates. We hang out a lot. I also have some cousins here at BYU, so I hang out with them sometimes. On the weekends, sometimes I go to my aunts’ houses to see my family. It’s really nice to have family close by. I also play soccer with any opportunity I find, because I absolutely love soccer. I face many challenges here and there, but with my family and best friends’ help, I am able to push through my challenges. I’m always thankful for all the people who help me. It is sometimes hard to decide between doing many wonderful things, but sometimes decisions must be made.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I hope that I can be a person who inspires many people. It might take longer than 10 years, but I want to be that person someday. I want to help as many people as possible. If I become an architect, in 10 years, I hope my buildings will be able to help people. If it provided inspiration for others, it would make me happy. In 10 years, I’d also love to have a family, where I can teach my children to become strong and independent grown-ups.

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