On June 27, 1880, Helen Keller was born in Alabama, the daughter of a newspaper editor. At the age of 19 months, she survived a high fever that left her totally deaf and blind. Her struggle with and eventual triumph over deaf-blindness is an inspiration to all of us. In celebration of her life, the period of June 24-30, 2001 was declared Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week. This year it will be celebrated during June 26 thru July 2, 2005.
The National Clearing House on Deaf-Blindness estimates that 218 per 100,000 of the U.S. population are individuals who experience a significant combined loss of sight and hearing that cannot be corrected. Given that estimate, as many as 3,700 could be living in Nebraska. How many in Minnesota? Let’s do the math…with a population of over 5 million, as of the 2003 U.S Census, that turns out to be over 11,000 vision and hearing impaired Minnesota citizens.
As they grow older, many people experience loss of hearing and vision. Some may become totally deaf-blind although most can still hear and see a little. Since people over 55 represent the fastest growing age group in the United States today, we can expect that the number of people with deaf-blindness will continue to rise.
Reduced hearing and vision can lead to depression and isolation, especially among older individuals. Family and friends of someone struggling with deaf-blindness can help, however, by taking some special considerations:
• Introduce yourself when coming into a room in which there is someone who is deaf-blind. To make identification easier, present yourself in the same manner using the same words.
• Lightly touch the person on the hand or arm, if necessary, to get his or her attention.
• Situate yourself so that they can see you clearly. Do not position yourself in front of a window or bright light.
• Make sure that background noise is minimal.
• Use your normal tone of voice and talk clearly.
• Ask the person if he or she can understand what you said. Repeat yourself if necessary.
• Structure your time so the person knows when to expect interaction with you.
Find a support group for individuals who are experiencing recent hearing and/or vision loss. The opportunity to share with others who are experiencing similar difficulties because of deaf-blindness can be a tremendous source of emotional support.
People who are deaf-blind can also learn new skills to do what they once did with hearing or sight. A white cane can make it possible to travel more independently. Sign language for the deaf can promote greater ease of communication. Braille can be used in place of print.
Who to contact in Minnesota? Two online resources are:
1. www.deafblindinfo.org—Sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Human Services-Deaf and Hard of Hearing Division
2. www.deafvision.net—Site for the Minnesota Deaf Blind Association (MDBA).