When Channy Blott was in ninth grade, she won a contest and visited the Ottawa residence of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Channy is profoundly deaf, so she brought her mother along to interpret her American Sign Language (ASL) in order to communicate with the then prime minister.
After pleasantries were exchanged, the three made their way to the House of Commons, in which Alberta Member of Parliament Ted Menzies read aloud a small proclamation praising Channy. The contest, held each month in Canada, allows people to vote for an extraordinary child. The top contenders each month are then were voted on again at the end of the year for the chance to visit the capital. Contest voters were clearly moved by Channy’s story, the MP said.
“With the dream of one day becoming a manga artist… Chandler Blott won with over 4,000 votes,” MP Menzies announced.
What the proclamation failed to mention was that Channy was not just deaf, but also had been recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. She is one of the many members of the type 1 diabetes community who is also involved in advocating for those with other chronic conditions. In an email interview with DiabetesMine, Channy says her identities as a deaf person and as a person with T1D are intertwined and help shape each other.
“It was actually my diabetes diagnosis that helped me identify myself as a full-time deaf person in my teenage years,” she said.
Both chronic conditions have also informed her identity as an artist, and she often incorporates insulin pens, low snacks, and other aspects of life with diabetes into the characters she creates and shares on her Instagram account.
Channy has been deaf for as long as she can remember, but she was born able to hear before her hearing eroded. Her mother, Vanessa Blott, recalls that Channy’s speech development was progressing normally until the age of 2, and then it began to slow down.
“When (her sister) was first born, Channy called her ‘baby,’” Vanessa said. “And then we noticed she wasn’t saying anything anymore. I started to notice she wasn’t turning to me when I was talking to her, and she was acting out a lot.”
Vanessa said it took doctors about a year and a half to finally diagnose Channy with profound hearing loss. Luckily for Channy, Vanessa didn’t wait to adapt. She labeled everything in the house and taught herself and Channy ASL.
She also opted to fit Channy with a cochlear implant, an implanted device which can give some people with hearing loss a modified sense of sound. It consists of a device that sits behind the ear to pick up sound and then translate the sound into impulses that are sent to the auditory nerve.
Opinion is divided among the deaf communities and families of deaf children about the device; some say it’s a blessing, while others say it negates deaf culture. Like complex insulin delivery systems, it’s a solution that requires work to integrate into daily life and isn’t for everyone. Vanessa says that using the implant requires reteaching the brain to process sound, and she was told to block Channy’s ability to lip-read to communicate whenever possible.
This caused years of frustration for all involved. Channy never took to the device, and flicked the part behind her ear off. Vanessa spent thousands of dollars on speech therapists, and Channy’s school hired aides to help her with her schoolwork, but Channy fell further and further behind.
“It was always a constant battle, I’m not going to lie,” Vanessa said. “It wasn’t that I was determined because I didn’t want her to be deaf. You just want to give every opportunity in the world to your kids.”
That struggle, however, sparked Channy’s artistic life. She had a need to communicate, and visual art helped fill that need, Vanessa said.
“She drew pictures because when you have a 4-year-old, 5-year-old, 6-year-old who doesn’t know how to read or write, and we sort of limited sign language because of the cochlear implants, you don’t have a lot of ways to communicate,” Vanessa said.
Then, one day, Vanessa decided to stop struggling with her daughter over the cochlear implants. She gave Channy the option of going to school for a day without the receiver. Then, they agreed to do it for a second day. One day led to another, and Channy stopped using the implant altogether. It was a device that works for some, but not her.
Channy and Vanessa both learned to fully embrace Channy’s identity as a deaf individual, and it had a profound effect on her success in school. When Channy entered seventh grade, she had only a first grade level of proficiency in reading and math. Throughout her schooling, she was tested for learning disabilities, but the results always showed that she had extremely high intelligence levels and capabilities.
Channy was determined to earn a full high school diploma with her classmates. After discontinuing to use the implant, she buckled down and soaked up all the material she had missed utilizing only ASL and the written word. She graduated with honors at the same time as her peers.
“She literally learned everything from grade 7 to grade 12,” her mother said.
That accomplishment in accelerated learning was all the more impressive because Channy had to adapt to life with a new chronic condition. One day in seventh grade, she came home and said she was constipated; she also was often thirsty. Vanessa says that for a while she missed the signs. It all came to a head one day after a shower.
“I took a hot shower and that drained the last drops of my energy,” Channy said. “Then I was too sick to dress myself and started crying, wrapped in a towel.”
Vanessa took in the sight of her daughter, wet and crying, and noticed how thin she had become. She hugged her and smelled breath like nail polish, and she knew. She rushed her to the hospital and Channy was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
Once at the hospital, Channy asked how much longer she would need to take shots, and Vanessa communicated that it would be for forever.
“She understood what I was saying, and she let out this bloodcurdling scream, and I felt my heart breaking. I just wanted to take it away,” Vanessa said.
However, Channy quickly adapted and no longer feared the shots when she realized insulin therapy would be what would keep her healthy. Vanessa said that Channy’s journey to embrace herself as a deaf individual helped her quickly come to terms with type 1 diabetes, as well.
“I feel like there was this recognition within herself that she was different than everybody else,” Vanessa said. “She was so stubborn and determined to be who she needed to be that she was willing to work with both those things.”
Vanessa helped Channy during her school years with meal planning and blood sugar management until she went away to college at 18. While she now lives largely independent from her family, there have been some frustrating shortcomings to her access to medical care in relation to her diabetes because of her deafness. She can’t order her insulin online as she can with all of her other medical supplies, and she hasn’t been able to find a healthcare provider who can communicate with her through ASL, so she still must bring her mother along for visits.
“She’s an adult, and I still have to go to the doctor with her, which is stupid,” Vanessa said.
Art has been an integral part of Channy’s journey to her self-identity and independence. Having grown up with Archie comics and graphic novels, Channy decided to start drawing comics in earnest during middle school. She became drawn to anime — particularly the popular Sailor Moon and the anime subgenre of Magical Girl, in which ordinary girls gain magical powers. She says she loves these characters because they are distinctly human and emotional while also wielding the power to persevere.
“Sailor Moon’s character is important to me because she is a crybaby, yet so determined to save the world with her friends,” Channy said. “As my role model, she taught me how to express myself with my deaf identity, my emotions, and my newly diagnosed diabetes.”
To date, Channy has created a myriad of her own characters that weave components of her deafness and diabetes life into them. One of those is inspired by the Magical Girl genre and is named Arista, who’s often seen sitting and sipping a juice box while also holding a spear.
Channy says that finding community online among both the deaf and people with diabetes was also an important part of her growth. While she gravitates more towards the deaf communities, she also feels a deep affinity for the Diabetes Online Community. It was important for her to find other artists who gave visual representation to their diabetes on Tumblr, and she is especially drawn to the artwork of illustrator Jesse Barbon, who also has type 1 diabetes.
Currently, Channy is working on a web comic based on her life while she also studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. There, Vanessa reports that Channy has been a strong advocate for others with disabilities and for social justice issues at the university. She says she admires her daughter for her bravery and desire to help others.
“She has this passion to be an advocate, to be a voice for other people, which is so fascinating to me, because she doesn’t have a speaking voice, yet she felt so strongly about being a voice,” Vanessa said.
You can see Channy’s artwork at her Instagram account here. All artwork in this article and on her Instagram account cannot be reproduced without her permission.
Craig Idlebrook is a past editor for various diabetes publications and online communities. He currently serves as social media coordinator for DiabetesMine. You can find him on Twitter at @craigidlebrook.