Born and raised in Albuquerque, Heidi Disbrow was first diagnosed with progressive hearing loss, cause unknown, at the age of 12. She went to Sandia Preparatory School, then a small liberal arts college in California where she got her first bachelor’s degree in 2005, community college, worked for the federal government for some years and finally arrived at The University of New Mexico to pursue a nursing degree. 

The non-traditional meandering path to education is common in the deaf or hard-of-hearing community as loss of language understanding impacts learning, she noted. When Disbrow went completely deaf during her nursing studies, she had to switch to plan B, a path other than nursing.

“I was helped by multiple members of the UNM College of Nursing and Education to get back into the Nutrition program I had started in 2005 and complete my second bachelor's degree. This support and success allowed me to work toward pursuing a Ph.D. I want to push past these perceived limitations, and show my 14-year-old daughter, who is also hard of hearing, that all avenues of higher education are within reach for her and anyone else with an 'invisible disability.'”

“I felt isolated and alone for a long time in academia,” Disbrow recalled. “Professors would get frustrated when I asked questions that had been covered, my peers would ignore me during study sessions, and access to resources was limited, at best, in my early days of hearing loss. Through my experience, I try to do my best to be an example for my daughter and what her potential is. It is important as a disabled woman to share my experience, and help my daughter navigate her own way.”

This week, Disbrow, who has a blended family of four with her husband, will walk across the commencement stage to receive her post-baccalaureate bachelor of science degree in Nutrition. 

She is, fortunately, no longer deaf. Disbrow received a cochlear implant in 2022, a technology that brought her hearing back to a normal range and will receive another in August before she starts graduate studies at UNM in Exercise Science.

“I cannot put adequately into words how much my life has changed due to my cochlear implant. I was told for decades that school wasn’t a good option for me, I would struggle forever, and it was best to just avoid it. I love learning, and this has opened so many doors that I never thought I had access to.” 

“Don’t be embarrassed to get hearing aids,” Disbrow urged anyone with hearing difficulties but hesitates to get help, as she displays the white button-like cochlear implant behind her ear and hidden under her hair. To UNM students with special needs, she advised, “Look for the resources! UNM has an incredible array of resources to make your education the best it can be. They will meet you where you are in life or academics and help you plan the best route for your individual education goals. Sometimes slow and steady is the only way you can move, and that's OK too. It's a marathon, not a sprint.”

Through the ups and downs of hearing and changes in her educational path, Disbrow said, “I still managed to keep my GPA over a 3.4.”

Disbrow credits the staff of the UNM Accommodations Resource Center (ARC) for easing her journey toward her degree.

“Before I started attending UNM, I had zero accommodations to help me in the classroom. Large classes became anxiety-inducing as I had no idea if I would be able to hear the professor, my peers, or ever keep up with the information,” Disbrow said. “When I first began attending UNM in 2005 I was notified of accommodations for students with disabilities… Tommi Tejeda has been the best accommodations specialist I could have ever dreamed of, always keeping me up to speed on what options I have available to earn my degree… I use a lot of adaptations.  

The new technology is a massive improvement over the old. The cochlear implant allows her to stream lectures directly to the brainstem and note-takers in her classes to help fill in any gaps she might miss. Zoom captioning was critical during COVID.

With plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Exercise Science with an emphasis on performance nutrition, Disbrow has aspirations to become a certified sport specialist dietician and work with mountaineering and high altitude athletes.

“Having faculty at UNM that believed in my abilities and saw past my limitations has played a huge part in being able to complete my secondary degree despite multiple setbacks, and a long-term disability… I am proud of my home state, and glad that there are services available to our students to help them succeed and feel confident in their education goals. I’m excited to continue my education right here as a Lobo!”

Disbrow continued: “I’m just over the moon to be graduating again. Being a disabled student comes with a lot of challenges that many don’t ever see or understand. Just because my disability isn’t as visible, doesn’t make it any less challenging. UNM made it clear that I could go at the pace that worked best for me, a non-traditional student. With support and assistance, I slowly chipped away at the requirements for another bachelor’s degree. I could carve my own path and accomplish what seemed like an impossible feat one class at a time. I am now going further than I ever imagined in the academic world, and I have only just begun my journey.”