For University of New Brunswick student Cassandra Pitchford, losing her hearing as a young adult felt 'isolating' and 'impossible.'
She had people question the validity of her disability, ignore her requests for accommodations and even share ableist examples about deaf people during lectures.
"Imagine sitting in an auditorium and having your professor insinuate you're not as smart as everyone else in the room simply because your ears don't work," said Pitchford. "Imagine how I felt in that moment."
But despite the hardships she faced, she has become a disability advocate and the latest recipient of the New Brunswick Youth Human Rights Award.
Mamadou Oury Diallo from Moncton was also a recipient, taking home the New Brunswick Human Rights Award.
A ceremony was held on Thursday at Government House.
Diallo received the award for leadership in diversity and inclusion of New Brunswickers of African descent, according to a Nov. 10 news release.
"The principles of inclusion, equity, equality and social justice for all are very important to me," he said in the release.
Pitchford started her journey as a mechanical engineering student at UNB in 2015, but five months into her degree, her hearing started to rapidly go downhill.
"I quickly found that the world was not as accessible as I thought," said Pitchford. "I had to learn how to live life differently, while educating myself on my rights and mustering the courage to advocate for myself properly."
Pitchford said the struggles she faced while losing her hearing led to her "academic demise" and she began to fail without the proper accommodations for her disability. She didn't feel like she belonged in engineering or university in general.
But one day, she stumbled upon the New Brunswick Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Inc. She worked with them to get the supports she needed, like professional captioning and a telephone amplifier. Graduating in May 2024 finally felt like a reasonable goal again, said Pitchford.
But her own experience opened her eyes to "the cracks disabled people are falling through."
So she became an advocate. At UNB, she worked with administration and faculties to have disabled voices heard and accommodations implemented respectfully, said Pitchford.
During the pandemic, one of her advocacy measures was ensuring all students on campus who were deaf or hard of hearing would have access to masks with a clear window for lip reading.
"I took this a step further and advocated to have these masks tested and approved for medical use at all Horizon Health facilities in Zone 3, the Fredericton zone."
Then she worked to create a project that would allow a testing room in the engineering building for students with test accommodations. She said the pilot launched last month and she's already heard from students that it is having a positive impact.
Pitchford said has been sharing her story on a provincial and national level and giving workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion.
She said it's an honour to take home the youth human rights award.
"I'm just glad that the work that I'm doing is making a difference in New Brunswickers lives."