Heather’s responses to our questions shine a light on the frustration that arises from having physical impairments in a world that can often seem inaccessible, and at the same time, speak volumes about her tenacity for life. Her answers give credence to what may seem absurd to those that do not jump—skydiving can offer a return to normalcy.
I’m from Raleigh – at least right now. I was born in Virginia and moved to Northeastern NC in 2003 and have lived mostly in this state since.
I’m fine talking about my disabilities, especially since I know a lot of people don’t like to do that. I would need genetic testing to confirm, but it’s actually suspected that I have one of the types of Usher Syndrome, which affects hearing, vision, and balance. I do have a diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa in my eyes, along with lazy eye and currently have cataracts forming. My hearing loss is sensorineural and I don’t think they ever figured out WHY I lost it, but I was completely deaf before I was 15 (2005). I had always had slight hearing loss but it didn’t become problematic until my age reached double digits and especially through puberty. My eyes were also always pretty bad. I didn’t receive the legally blind diagnosis to my knowledge until I was 18, but at age 10 my parents were informed I would never pass a driving test, so I suspect I got the hill earlier than 18. My balance has also worsened as I’ve gotten older, but it’s not yet a really significant problem.
Being deafblind, especially in a degenerative fashion, has an effect on every second of my life. I received a cochlear implant when I was 15 (2005) in my right ear after a lot of testing, and have since been re-implanted and had my left ear implanted also. This has been a major help because as I couldn’t hear to begin with and when I lost my vision, my life would have been exponentially harder. I don’t use sign language. I started to learn a little bit, but my family didn’t use it or learn it so I fell out of practice. Hearing with the implants still makes me legally deaf, I can’t hear without the external audio processors on, and lots of everyday situations are extremely difficult for me to hear effectively. I have to use a bed shaker alarm clock because I sleep deaf. Vision wise, I still currently wear glasses and use an iPhone because I am extremely partial to their accessibility software to be able to read my phone, since I don’t like listening to voice over and screen readers – that’s something still very difficult for me. I’ve never been able to drive so that’s a huge pain. And I work in a factory for Blind Industries and Services of Maryland – Raleigh Division. It’s incredibly noisy and can get cluttered in places, so I’ve had to slow down a lot and be more careful. I’ve also had to learn to accept and ask for more and more help and assistance with everyday tasks. This can be so damn FRUSTRATING. Not just because I have to accept I can no longer do these things myself, but because not everyone understands what my impairments and what my individually specific needs are. I miss reading real books and just wandering around the mall. Now shopping mostly gives me a ‘banging my head into a wall’ kind of feeling. Luckily, there are also moments where people are not only helpful because they want to help, but because they actually care. I’m always grateful for those moments because I am so easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by everything these days that it becomes very stressful.
I couldn’t even really tell you at this point how I first found out about skydiving. I think I saw it on a television show or in a movie or something like that, just like any other person would.
I also couldn’t exactly put my finger on what made me decide to want to go skydiving. I just remember really wanting to after a certain point. I think I did some research on it when I was in high school and I can clearly remember one time being outside waiting for my bus talking to someone about it. At some point, I had just decided “I’m going to do that one day.”
I didn’t actually talk to my family too much about my choice to finally go skydiving. It was a decision made by myself and some friends to go, after my friend Shawnna had mentioned something about it and my other friend and coworker Pearl said, “Hey, do you want to go skydiving?” and I was like, “Hell yeah! We can do that around here? When? How much will it cost? I have ALWAYS wanted to do that!” I kind of surprised them all with it. I texted one of my aunts about an hour before the jump saying, “Hey, just so someone knows, I’m jumping out of a plane at 5!” She was actually a little jealous because she once tried to go but the conditions were too windy to jump. They all seem to be thrilled about it and I’ve gotten a few remarks about being braver than they would be and them living vicariously through me for that.
My experience at the drop zone was great! They were expecting us to come in and were informed of our disabilities ahead of time, so they knew a little bit of what to expect. My instructor, Robbie, told us about all his experience at jumping and taking people jumping with different types of disabilities, so it was very reassuring for both myself and Shawnna. Given that I wouldn’t be able to wear my audio processors for the actual jump, we worked out everything we had to do and a few simple hand signals before the jump, but it seemed to be pretty standard to a regular tandem. Soon we had what we needed to know down pat and everyone was joking and laughing and getting excited. I even got bored waiting to get to the actual jump! I surprised myself by getting calmer and calmer as we got higher and higher in the plane. I was so ready to do this! The jump itself was AMAZING! I was yelling with joy for the entire freefall part of it and was kind of sad we didn’t fall longer. It really did feel just like falling but I felt so comfortable and safe and exhilarated. I remember having a moment when we stopped doing spirals after pulling the chute – also awesome – where I was still high enough up that I couldn’t quite tell we were descending, and it was like time froze in that moment. I was just suspended in the air, floating up in the sky above everything, completely content and at peace. I remember thinking I never wanted to come down and I BELONGED in the sky. When we landed I even asked if we could just go again right then, and I was only half joking.
I’m not sure I’ve had any shift in perspective since the jump, it was more of a reaffirmation. Of what, I have trouble putting into the right words, but I think it’s like the world is still full of wonders and I can still experience that kind of thing. I definitely have to say I found my happy place though.
You kidding? I already bought the next jump! My one friend didn’t get to go and really wants to, so I will definitely go with her. Honestly, I just wish I made more money at my job so I could go a lot more! The drop site is about 2 hours from Raleigh and that is one hell of an expensive Lyft ride! I definitely want to go skydiving again, as much as I can, honestly. I really, truly loved it.
Skydiving is the great equalizer—people of nearly all abilities have access to the joy that the jump brings. Moreover, skydiving has substantive value. Those who face the challenge and experience a skydive can attest that it is not just a thrilling ‘ride’. The experience can reaffirm what you may already know about yourself or reveal something you didn’t. Either way, we think it’s worth the leap to find out.
If you missed Part I, click the button below to read Shawnna Maxwell’s inspiring story!