Carlos Velez Shayla Jackson showing off her hearing aids
Shayla Jackson may be young, but she already knows the power of embracing what makes her different.
Jackson, 18, recalls how she was diagnosed with a hearing impairment that required her to get hearing aids at just 3 years old. Despite living with the condition for nearly her entire life, she tells PEOPLE she never let it stop her from achieving her dreams.
"My hearing loss is not a disability, it's an ability," Jackson says. "I hate that these types of things have to be put with the word 'disability' because even though you may have it, it doesn't prevent you from doing things you want to do."
After being crowned Miss Georgia Teen USA last year, the Valdosta resident will next compete for the Miss Teen USA title at Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee on Saturday. She's hoping that by sharing her story on a national level, it will not only inspire people like her, but also encourage others to change the way they use the word "disability."
"I'm doing things that I've never dreamed of myself doing," she says. "It's so crazy how people feel held back because of things, but the sky's the limit and you just have to push for it, and I want to be that person to say that and to show them that."
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Though she has developed an unbreakable confidence, Jackson admits that wasn't always the case, especially in the early stages of living with hearing aids.
"Nobody wanted to play with me on the playground or do a group project with me. It was really sad," she says of her grade-school days. "All of the kids used to stare at me if I were to go to the front of the class. I was just 'the weird one.'"
Jackson's turning point came when she had to read an essay in front of her third-grade class.
"I backed out of reading that essay and started crying because I could [internally] hear all the voices and comments that everyone had made before," says Jackson. "My teacher had to help me finish it and I just felt so down on myself."
"But then, I started walking back to my desk and all the kids started clapping for me. I was like, 'Am I dreaming?'" she continues. "That was the moment I knew, 'Okay, I have to step up. I can't let this hold me back. I have to show them that being hearing impaired is okay and it's not a weird thing. I'm just like them, except some things might be a little bit more difficult.'"
Carlos Velez Shayla Jackson
And that's exactly what she's done. Since that day, Jackson vowed to never let others' opinions affect her self-confidence — and that promise ultimately changed her life.
"People started to want to learn more about [my hearing aids], like, 'Can I see them? Why does it make that noise?'" says Jackson, who went on to become an honor student and the captain of her high school volleyball team before earning the Miss Georgia Teen crown. "They wanted me to be in their group projects and hang out with them."
"Of course, the bullying didn't stop completely, but now I'm just like, 'I don't care what you have to say... I'm just going to turn my hearing aids off and I'm not going to listen to you,'" she quips.
Though she's been able to tune out the bullies, Jackson has not been able to avoid some of the personal and professional challenges that have come with the coronavirus pandemic this year.
"I read people's lips, so having masks on, especially during this pandemic, it's been very hard to understand," she explains. "One of the things that I've learned to do is stand six feet apart from people and then tell them, 'Hey, I wear hearing aids and it's a little bit harder for me. So if I step back six feet, will you take your mask off?'"
Shanta Jackson Shayla Jackson, in the No. 14 jersey, playing volleyball
In addition, Jackson says she's "had to think outside the box" in order to promote her Miss Georgia Teen USA platform after the pandemic halted her plans to visit schools.
"It's been hard holding the crown, having to promote a platform and not being able to do things in person, but I've been trying my best," says Jackson, who made a YouTube video reading her children's book, When I Wear My Crown: Shayla’s Story, alongside an ASL interpreter in replacement of her visits.
"I love going to see the kids, so hopefully I can still go back — crown or not — and read my story and share it with them," she says.
As she looks ahead, Jackson is excited to finally compete for the Miss Teen USA title in Memphis on Saturday.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time and I want to see all the girls, I want to be on the stage," she shares. "It's a dream that's coming true."
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As for her long-term goals, the teen — who is currently taking online classes at Valdosta State University — hopes to become an audiologist and reform school policies so that students with different abilities always feel confident and included.
"For a while, I was kind of losing hope until that moment in third grade," Jackson recalls. "And now, all I want to do is just get out there because I want someone to know what it feels like to have a room full of people clap for them."
"You can do anything you set your mind to, no matter the challenge," she continues. "I know that it might be really challenging, but I promise that you can do all of it. The sky is the limit."
Miss Teen USA will stream live on the Miss Universe Organization social channels on Saturday, Nov. 7 at 9 p.m. ET.