Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week

Helen Keller was one of the most famous and accomplished people with deaf-blindness. Getty Images/Ken Brown

The last week in June was proclaimed by Ronald Reagan as Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week. The term “Deaf-Blind” is often misunderstood to mean completely deaf and completely blind. In reality, this term refers to a person with both hearing impairment and vision impairment that are significant enough to cause communication and educational difficulties.

Helen Keller, despite losing her hearing and vision at age 18 months, went on to graduate with honors from Radcliff College, testify before Congress, co-found Helen Keller International to combat blindness due to malnutrition, and co-found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Usher Syndrome

Approximately 50% of cases of deaf-blindness are caused by Usher Syndrome. There are three types of Usher Syndrome. In type I, children are born profoundly deaf in both ears and vision loss starts before age ten years. Eventually, the vision loss will be complete. In type II, children are born with moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears and experience a decrease in vision in late childhood or early teen years. In type III, children are born with normal hearing and vision but progressively lose hearing in childhood and start to lose vision in early teen years. The vision loss usually progresses until the child is legally blind.

Other Causes of Deaf-Blindness

Other conditions that are known to cause deaf-blindness are birth trauma, CHARGE syndrome, traumatic accidents, and illness. Helen Keller’s deaf-blindness was attributed to  “brain fever”; it is thought that this was most likely meningitis or scarlet fever.

Communication Options

People living with deaf-blindness have different options for communication. Adapted sign and tactile sign language may be used with more severe impairments. In adapted sign, the signer may be much closer to the person they are communicating with or use contrasting colors (dark gloves and a white shirt, for example) to assist a person with low vision.

Tactile signing is different as the person with deaf-blindness will put his or her hands on the hands of the person signing to feel the movements. Tactile signing may also be used with fingerspelling.

A screen Braille communicator is a device that has a Braille keyboard on one side and a regular QWERTY keyboard on the other. The person with vision loss types in Braille and their message is translated into text for the other person. The person with good vision will type on the keyboard, and their message will translate into Braille. Some of these devices can connect to the internet and sent SMS (text) messages.

A person who is deaf-blind can use the telephone with several different devices. One type is a TTY (TeleType) with Braille display.  This TTY can be used to communicate directly with another person who is using a TTY or through the Relay service and Relay Operator (also called a Communication Assistant, or “CA”). The CA will convert Braille or text to voice and voice to Braille or text.

Relay is a free service, and a CA can be accessed by dialing 711.

Final Thoughts

Today, people who are deaf-blind attend college, work, are active in their communities and are an important part of society. Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness week is a time to publicize and celebrate their contributions and provide examples to encourage younger members of the deaf-blind community to aim high in their goals and future endeavors.

Sources

Reagan, Ronald. Proclamation 5214 -- Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, 1984 Accessed 06/11/2015 from http://www.helenkeller.org/pdf/RonaldReaganProclamation1984.pdf 

Helen Keller. (2015). The Biography.com website. Accessed 06/11/2015 from http://www.biography.com/people/helen-keller-9361967 

Federal Definitions of Deaf-Blindness (2004). National Center on Deaf-Blindness. Accessed 06/11/2015 from https://nationaldb.org/library/page/90 

Usher Syndrome (2008). National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Accessed 06/11/2015 from http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/usher.aspx 

Kitzel, Mary Beth (2014). Braille Communicator. Deaf People and Technology Compendium 2014. Accessed 06/11/2015 from https://deaftechcompendium.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/braille-communicator/

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