I can’t hear the whispers? Breaking down the barriers of Deafblindness [Guest Post]

This week’s guest post comes from Marsha Drenth. Marsha is the manager of Pennsylvania’s DeafBlind Living Well Services program (DBLWS) through the Center for Independent Living of Central Pennsylvania (CILCP). Deafblindness has been Marsha’s passion since losing her vision in 2004 and beginning to lose her hearing in 2007. Now totally blind and profoundly hard-of-hearing, Marsha uses numerous methods of communication, including Tactual Signed English, Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids, and numerous other technologies to live independently. In addition to her fulltime job as a statewide program manager, Marsha is highly involved in the deafblind, hard of hearing and blind communities both in Pennsylvania and around the country.

In addition to serving and helping persons who have disabilities, Marsha is also a wife, a mother of three adult children, and a graduate of Temple University, where she earned her Social Work degree. She lives north of Philadelphia with her husband, Joseph, and her service animal. She is passionate about empowering persons who are deafblind, hard-of-hearing, deaf, blind and disabled to receive the services they need for engaging their culture, becoming productive members of society, interacting with their environments, and expressing their own voice to influence their future.

I can’t hear the whispers? Breaking down the barriers of Deafblindness.

First, you’re probably asking what Deafblindness is. And how does it apply to me? First the medical version, for the purposes of this article, according to the Helen Keller National Center, Deafblindness is any combined hearing and vision loss that impacts a person’s ability to communicate effectively. This is the short definition, as I could get much more technical but won’t for now. It means that a person has both a vision and hearing loss, and the combination of both causes difficulty in communication, independent living, orientation and mobility, social interactions, education, and obtaining employment. In most cases, there are two different communities in which a DeafBlind person could originate from; the blind community and the deaf/hard of hearing communities. In other cases, some persons obtain both a hearing and vision loss over time or suddenly for various reasons. DeafBlind persons have a wide variety of hearing and vision loss, communication methods for expressive and receptive language, education, orientation and mobility, support systems, involvement, experiences, and exposure. The combination of hearing loss and vision loss can happen at any point in a person’s life and effects all races, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, gender, income level, and any disability. So now to why does this effect the greater disability community? As blind persons use their hearing to navigate and understand the world; not supersonic hearing, not hearing better than others, but using that hearing in the best way possible. For example, when walking down the street, blind persons are able to hear buildings, doorways, trees, people walking by and traffic. As blind people, we are taught to listen for traffic to make sure that it’s safe to cross the street. As blind persons, we use our hearing to locate other people and objects within our environment. These are just a few examples of how persons who are blind use their hearing in the best way possible. Unfortunately, this is where I think the blind community has ignored and denied the DeafBlind community up until now. Blind persons cannot imagine losing their hearing. They think the world will be over if they do lose their hearing. Many times people will say, that will never be me, my hearing will always be good. And a million other reasons for ignoring the fact that they could lose their hearing at any point in their life. How do I know all of this, because I was once one of those blind persons who said those things! I am now DeafBlind. Yes, it can happen to anyone, at anytime, anywhere, for no reason.

Here is my story, in 2007, after being blind for several years at this point, I had begun to become lost in the most familiar environments in which I frequented on a daily basis. An O&M instructor friend suggested that I have my hearing tested. So I made the appointment, telling myself that I was just having a lot of issues lately and nothing was wrong. So I am sitting in the chair getting my hearing tested, and the audiologist comes in and says, yes you have a slight hearing loss. Of course my first reaction was that there is no way, not me. It was true, and I was fitted for hearing aids. I didn’t wear the aids, because I didn’t like the way they made me hear, or fit into my ears, and the fact that I was in pure denial. After being stubborn and in denial, I did begin to notice that I could not hear voices in loud places and I could no longer hear for the openings of doorways. Fast forward a bit, in 2011, my hearing took a sharp decline, not being able to hear people in the same room speaking loudly, understanding when a person was sitting next to me, hearing traffic, and using Jaws on my computer. Finally with much negative emotions I took those hearing aids out and began to wear them; although I still hated the idea, the reason for wearing the aids, how they felt, and how sound was distorted. Through 2011 to 2013, I went from a mild hearing loss to profoundly deaf. In the spring of 2012, I enrolled as a student at Temple University to finish my degree as a social worker. In the fall semester of 2012 and the spring semester of 2013, dealing with a major hearing loss and attending classes at a major university became overwhelming. I could no longer function with hearing aids and listening devices which increased my anxiety and stress; fearing that one day I would not hear traffic for example in the busy streets of Philadelphia.

During the summer of 2013, I was at a cross roads, knowing that going back to school would be much of the same, but also realizing that I no longer had the skills to function. So I made the very difficult decision to take a Leave of Absence from my education and attend the Helen Keller National Center for deafblind adults and Youth. HKNC is very similar to other centers, where you learn independent living skills, technology, orientation and mobility, and job readiness skills. The two areas in which HKNC is different from other centers, is that HKNC offers communication skills, like learning ASL or writing skills. The Orientation and mobility is targeted directly at teaching skills for DeafBlind persons to be independent. HKNC is a center in which other DeafBlind people attend for the same training, forcing everyone there to face the reality of hearing and vision loss. Looking back, being away from home, family, church and life was not exactly what I wanted to do, but spending the 10 months there was by far the best possible situation that could have happened for me.

Once I completed my training at HKNC, I re-enrolled at the University for my senior year. This last year of my undergrad career was going to be challenging as I now needed to use sign language interpreters to help with communication, to use Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), and a Support Service Provider (SSP). Now instead of listening to Jaws, I needed to use my braille display to read my textbooks. For both the fall and spring semester, I took 17 credit hours, with an additional 200 hour a semester internship. In May of 2015, I graduated with my bachelors of social work degree. I am now employed as the Program Manager for the Pennsylvania Deafblind Living Well Services Support Service Provider Program.

I have summarized my story of hearing loss, not to make myself sound inspiring but to help people understand how hearing loss can effect a person and the different barriers faced when hearing loss becomes a factor. I am now wearing the most powerful hearing aids on the market, but still struggle to hear speech and environmental sounds. I am one of the many deafblind persons who has one foot in two different communities, I belong to the blind community and the deaf community. For large meetings, I use a tactual English interpreter. For one-on-one interactions in a quiet environment I can use a Bluetooth microphone system that feeds directly into my hearing aids. To cross the street I use a street crossing card that asks the public for the assistance to tell me when its safe. When I am out alone needing to communicate with people, I use communication cards. I am at this point able to verbally express myself. I no longer talk on the phone because the telephone distorts the sound of a person’s voice too much. I now use non-auditory non-visual techniques to prepare and cook meals. I continue to enjoy listening to music, but unless I have heard the song before I can not hear the lyrics. As before I still enjoy community, social, organization, religious events with help from others.

So here is where I come to my topic in a roundabout way. Support Service Providers for persons who are deafblind. An SSP is the ears and eyes for a person who has a dual sensory loss. SSP’s help with human guiding, facilitating communication and providing environmental information. An SSP is absolutely not a personal care attendant, a care taker, or a nurse; SSP’s do not help with personal grooming, bathing, toileting, feeding, or hygiene needs. SSP’s work with adults who can self-determine with their own finances, and other personal matters. SSP’s are trained specifically to facilitate, not to do for the person, but instead to empower. SSps are not interpreters, and vice versa. Interpreters help bridge the language barrier and are used for legal, medical, financial and educational needs. Sometimes interpreters can also be trained as SSP’s, but not all SSP’s know sign language. I have used SSP’s for personal, professional and educational needs. For example, for social events I will employ an SSP to help with providing environmental information, navigating the surroundings, and facilitating communication. As a student in my senior year, I used an SSP for my one-on-one case management social work intake visits. In this case, an SSP would help with environmental information of our surroundings and of the customer’s non-verbal communication. In an educational setting, I have used an SSP for giving presentations, to provide me with the nonverbal and verbal communication of my audience. As a blind person, I would have never imagined needing or wanting to use an SSP. Now an SSP is absolutely vital to how I function in life.

Only about 30 states in the United States have SSP programs where the SSP’s are paid trained individuals. As you would imagine, the deafblind population is very small. Here is where I would like to ask for your help. What I am asking is several things. Acceptance; we are DeafBlind, there is a National Federation of the Blind DeafBlind division. We might do things differently than you, or as other blind persons, or even differently than other persons with disabilities; but we, deafblind persons do them in a way that works for us. Independence is in the eye of the beholder, we deafblind persons achieve independence as much or more than blind persons. Our independence is no less or more than others. We do not expect that you will understand what it’s like, but we do desire to be a part of the greater community and accepted within the fold. If you meet someone who is not like you, who might be lost, who might need help, that person could have a hearing loss, have a cognitive disability, mental illness, or numerous other disabilities. That person is not asking for a hand out, but the help or assistance as everyone needs from time to time. Deafblind persons are asking for the collaboration of everyone. When legislation, policies, restrictions effect the blind or deaf community, those same things will affect the DeafBlind community too. In other words, not only are you paving the way for the blind, but for the DeafBlind, or the Deaf, and the disability community as a whole. We are asking that you don’t forget to fight for us too, as I am sure we will fight for you when the same situation would come along. But further, when legislation, policies, regulations come along that are very specific to the DeafBlind community, do not bash, tear down, hinder the efforts to change even if you do not understand. It is this greater understanding that as a deafblind person I have gained from losing my hearing. No, I don’t understand what it means to be a person with other disabilities; but their fight is my fight. They understand the struggles, I understand the struggles, and we all should work together. There is power in numbers, so please walk aside me as a deafblind person, walk aside all people with disabilities for our right to be equal.

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