Masking requirements during the pandemic presented an extra set of challenges for Megan Howe, who was diagnosed as profoundly deaf at age 2. Lip reading is one of the ways she communicates with others.
Her employer, the certified public accounting firm of Hungerford Nichols, stepped up and provided clear face masks to her co-workers to improve accessibility in the workplace.
The firm had previously arranged for closed captioning of meetings so Howe — and others with auditory disabilities — could follow conversations and participate in discussions in real time.
Howe says she endeavors to be her own best advocate. She doesn’t hesitate to remind people to face her when speaking, or that she’ll need closed captioning for meetings involving multiple people.
“Everybody here wanted to make sure Megan had everything she needed to be successful,” says Heather Halligan, marketing manager at Hungerford Nichols, which has a goal of increasing diversity, equity and inclusion among its workforce. “Too often, disabilities like Megan’s — which are not obvious — are the last to be considered in DEI initiatives. Gender, race, and disabilities that require a wheelchair are more apparent. Hiring qualified staff with hidden disabilities may require intentionality.”
Howe, a Grand Rapids resident, has worked for Hungerford Nichols for four years. The firm employs 140 people in offices in Grand Rapids, Greenville, Holland, Muskegon, and St. Joseph.
Howe, 33, has loved numbers since she was 10 years old and her father, Jim Fuchs, showed her how to do the bookkeeping for his small construction company.
But there has always been more to Howe than spreadsheets. She is vivacious, charismatic, and gregarious. She’d be high on the guest list of someone throwing a party. She’s not a math wizard you only want to see when taxes are due.
Howe has received professional acclaim for raising the bar in her field. Her professional journey is featured in author Michael Kane’s book “Deaf and Hard of Hearing Certified Public Accountants, Vol. 2,” published in 2022.
Deafness is among several chronic conditions that the Center for Disability Rights lists as “invisible disabilities” because it is not obvious to others. Other invisible disabilities include such conditions as autism, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress syndrome, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, arthritis, sleep disorders, epilepsy, cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, fibromyalgia, mental health disabilities, and learning differences.
Many are oblivious to Howe’s hearing loss because she devoted many years to speech therapy. Although well-spoken and articulate, Howe needs to face a speaker to read their lips, even though she has high-tech cochlear implants in both ears.
Diagnosis and action
Howe gives top credit to her mother, Marylee Fuchs, for teaching her from an early age how to advocate to get the help she needs to succeed.
Howe, the youngest of four children adopted by Jim and Marylee Fuchs, was very slow to acquire language as a toddler, a sign that she was not hearing sounds to mimic. By the time she was 2, she was not responding when her mother spoke from across a room. Her father stood behind her as she played with her toys and called her name while banging on pots and pans. No amount of clatter captured the girl’s attention.
An audiologist confirmed a significant hearing loss and outfitted Howe with hearing aids. Nevertheless, a time soon came when the devices were not helpful. Thousands of tiny hair cells in Howe’s ears that make hearing possible all suddenly died. There was no illness to blame. All her doctors could figure was that it is a genetic anomaly.
The Fuchs contemplated moving their family from Dexter to Grand Rapids, where there was a program for the deaf and hard of hearing that their daughter could attend.
Megan Howe (nee' Fuchs) was outfitted with her first cochlear implant at four years old, becoming the youngest person in Washtenaw County to get one.
Before the move happened, doctors suggested a newer procedure that was improving hearing in adults with severe hearing loss from inner-ear damage who were not able to hear well with hearing aids. Over time, the Fuchs agreed to allow the procedure, called a cochlear implant, but on just one of Howe’s ears.
When Howe received the implant at the University of Michigan Hospital the day after her fourth birthday, she became the first child in Washtenaw County to have the device. She had the implant for her other ear 25 years later.
Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sound, cochlear implants bypass the damaged hairs in her ears to deliver electric signals to her auditory nerve.
A cochlear implant features a sound processor that fits behind the ear. The processor captures sound signals and sends them to a receiver implanted under the skin behind the ear. The receiver sends the signals to electrodes implanted in the inner ear (cochlea). The signals stimulate the auditory nerve, which then directs the signals to the brain. The brain interprets those signals as sounds. It usually takes about six months of training to learn to interpret signals received from a cochlear implant and begin understanding speech.
Howe had almost no language skills before receiving her first cochlear implant.
“As a toddler, I was so frustrated because I was unable to express myself,” Howe says. “My teachers recommended that I see a therapist who specializes in working with deaf children. Without any hesitation, he says, ‘Give her language! She’s dying to talk!’ Acquiring language made all the difference for me. I could accomplish things and be happy.”
Learning language was not always easy due to Howe’s significant early language delay, but she and her mother persevered. With the support of other services for the deaf, Howe learned enough to be mainstreamed into a first-grade classroom. A hearing paraprofessional attended class with Howe through the eighth grade to help her understand lessons.
By high school, Howe was sharing an instructional aide with six other students with learning differences. By receiving additional support during one period a day, Howe was able to graduate high school with a near-perfect 3.9 grade point average. Howe also played clarinet in the Dexter High School band. She competed on the basketball and soccer teams.
Launching a career, and life
Because Howe graduated summa cum laude from high school, officials at the college of her choice, Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, had to be convinced that they needed to accommodate her hearing challenges by providing real-time captioning of classroom lectures and, sometimes, a note taker, Howe says.
“I don’t think they had a deaf student before me,” Howe says. “They saw that my high school grades were good and figured I would be fine without much additional support. But good grades were only possible for me because of the support systems I had.”
Once the university better understood her needs, it trained several staff members to provide accommodations, and they were enthusiastic supporters throughout her years there.
One of the other key supports Howe acquired during her college years was her first hearing dog, a golden retriever and yellow Labrador mix named Blarney. Trainers at Paws With a Cause in Wayland taught Blarney to alert Howe to various sounds. This allowed her to become more independent in her own apartment.
When Howe was awarded her bachelor’s degree in accounting at Cornerstone University, she was accompanied by her service dog. Blarney received an honorary degree, too.
Blarney was Howe’s constant companion during the next milestones in her life: studies that eventually culminated in earning a CPA designation, an internship, a first job, and a dating relationship with her future husband, Andrew Howe. Andrew has a visual impairment.
Megan and Andrew Howe incorporated their service dogs into their wedding ceremony.
Truth be told, Howe says, the initial attraction was between Blarney and Andrew Howe’s guide dog, a black Labrador named Dlass. The two — and their service dogs — became friends in a young-adult Bible study at Ada Bible Church. The couple began dating soon after and married six years ago.
A few months before son Quinton, now 2, was born, Blarney died at age 10 after a sudden illness. Howe describes Blarney’s death as “traumatizing.“ With the baby coming, Howe says she realized she would not have enough time to devote to training with a new service dog — at least not for a few years.
Blarney, a yellow lab who became Megan (Fuchs) Howe's service dog while she was a college student, was trained by Paws With a Cause, an organization headquartered in Wayland. Dlass is her husband, Andrew's, service dog.
Wonderful support system
Andrew works remotely as a business analyst for PNC Bank. While Quinton is young, Howe is working three days a week at Hungerford Nichols. Together, they welcomed their second child into the family in April.
Managing a life that includes two careers, a toddler, and a dog is easier for the Howes because they complement each other.
Howe and her husband have managed to accommodate each other in creative ways. For example, the strobe light in their bedroom flashes to alert Howe that the baby is crying. Since Andrew’s hearing is acute, he warns Howe of other sounds that demand attention.
“When we’re together, he’s my ears and I’m his eyes,” Howe says. “My parents and in-laws are a wonderful support system. It’s not that life is perfect. We allow ourselves a lot of grace. But my life is full of blessings, from my husband, to our children, to my family, and to the job that allows me to do the work I love.”
This article is part of a multi-year-long series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.