Independence for the deaf-blind

The world of the deaf-blind is to a large degree a mental one, says Geraldine Lawhorn, a distinguished teacher and lecturer who is herself deaf and blind. Miss Lawhorn's plea is for more educational opportunities for the deaf-blind.

She says, "We know if a plant is in a room with windows, the branches will reach for the light. Education for the deafblind must have a structure with doors and windows so we can reach for and grasp the light of understanding."

Miss Lawhorn, who prefers to be called "Jerrie," opens windows for the deaf-blind as a teacher and lecturer for the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, Ill. She teaches the course, "Independent Living without Sight and Hearing."

Her own independence serves as an inspiration to her students. She has her own apartment near the school. When lecturing at various cities around the country, she often travels alone.

Miss lawhorn lost her sense of sight at age 12 and of hearing at 19. After hinishing high school, she had professional training in music and drama. In 1955, she received a "Show Business" Best One-Woman Show Award for a dramatic monologue she performed in New York city.

Illinois Gov. James Thompson appointed Miss Lawhorn to the Illinois Deaf-Blind Advisory Board three years ago, a project started when the parents of deaf-blind children petitioned the state for assistance in 1974. These children now attend a state-sponsored school for the deaf-blind in Glen Elly, Ill.

Miss Lawhorn stresses the importance of the family in helping the deaf-blind. She credits her attaining independence to her mother's encouragement and support for her when she was younger.

"Families often shelter their deaf-blind family member too much," she explains. "This results in the person's not having any purpose or meaning to his or her life." She says people need to live as independently as possible in order to have a sense of fulfillment.

The other extreme is that the deaf-blind family member is neglected and ignored, Miss Lawhorn points out. The proper agencies are not notifed of the disabled individual and services are not provided for a normal life style.

In the past few years Miss Lawhorn has taught more than 200 students in her "Independent Living" course at Hadley, a corresponding school.

Some areas of instruction include cultivating the residual senses (especially a sense of touch), developing universal and special communication methods such as Braile and one- hand manual methods, and preserving and strengthening the voice.

"A deaf-blind person is a walking, talking, living Sherlock Holmes most of his waking hours," Dr. Richard Kinney, author of the course book, writes. He was the third deaf-blind person to graduate from college in the United States, in 1955.

Miss Lawhorn says, "The deaf-blind have to think through their problems to find solutions. If one method of communication does not work, they must think of other ways to communicate." She adds, "Sighted people can be careless, but if we are wem are, the sighted people will say, 'You just can't do it.' We must be experst."

The Hadley School's enrollment has increased 60 percent this past year and now has close to 4,500 students. Word of mouth, in addition to more advertising and promotional work, brought the increase, according to Miss Lawhorn. Hadley has overseas regional offices in Paris, Bombay, Buenos aires, and Madrid; Florence, Italy; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; and most recently Nairobi, Kenya.

The first African branch opened this year offering courses in English and Swahili and has dormitories for boarding students.

One special challenge for Miss Lawhorn is working with the elderly. Many who have recently lost their sense of hearing and sight don't realize they can learn new ways to communicate. They can "lear new tricks" easily, she stresses. Miss Lawhorn advises them not to rely on just one technique but to learn several ways to communicate. She uses many -- including the one-hand manual technique, printing in the palm, Braille, Tellatouch, and Optacon.

Jan Warren, who serves as Miss Lawhorn's interpreter, uses the one-hand manual technique to "talk" with her. This method uses traditional sign language "spoken" in the hand of the deaf-blind.

Tellatouch is a typewriter-like machine which types Braille. The Optacon is a machine that reads print with a scanner and reproduces a raised patterns of letters that blind people can read with their fingers.

Miss Lawhorn says the Optacon is too expensive (approximately $3,500) for many families, but often social agencies can help with the financing. Many employers will invest in Optacon for the use of employees.

A system is being developed to add audio to the Optacon so individuals can listen to printed texts wich a machine reads and speaks

Miss Lawhorn says the technological revolution has dramatically helped the deaf-blind. A new device, the Mowat sensor, acts as a radar. Carried in the palm of the hand, it vibrates or buzzes to warn of obstacles in the path of the unsighted.

There are currently as estimated 12,000 deaf-blind persons in the US, plus several thousand more who go unreported and others who do not meet the various legal definitions but are functionally deaf-blind.

Part of her work for the Hadley School involves public speaking and promotional work throughout the country. When travelling alone, Miss Lawhorn often wears a tag on her coat or sleeve which identifies her as a person with a special need. People near her are alerted by the tag to provide assistance in case of an emergency.

Miss Lawhorn says that the deaf-blind have several needs which could help them live more independently and productively:

* State agencies need to advertise more those services available to the deaf and blind.

* Separate state agencies need to be formed to work with the deaf-blind rather than through two separate agencies -- for the deaf and the blind.

* The deaf-blind need more job opportunities such as typing, public relations , and assembly work which they can do weel with training.

* Funds are needed to provide interpreters for the deaf- blind, especially those enrolled at universities.

* The deaf-blind who can live independently need an individual to visit on a regular basis to assist in various ways.

* More government bodies should adopt "A Declaration of Rights of Deaf-Blind persons," which was drawn up at the first Helen Keller Conference in New York in 1977.

These rights include: "to lead a normal life within the community, . . . to secure work commensurate with their capabilities, . . . to live on their own or to marry and raise a family."

However, Miss Lawhorn cautions the deaf-blind, "Are we prepared for the tremendous responsibility for using these rights?"

The well-respected Dr. Richard Kinney wrote of the deaf- blind: "Ours is a mission to how the world that to knowm is more important than to see; that to understandm is more imprtant than to hear; that to serve is truly to live."

The idea of service, for Miss Lawhorn, "is what makes my life worthwhile; that's what we are here for." Miss Lawthorn has found a sense of independence overcoming her disabilities; she now helps open windows for others.

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