article by Diane Lane Chambers
In cities like Seattle, where a large deaf-blind community gathers
around the Lighthouse for the Blind, or in the state of Louisiana, where an estimated 800 persons with Usher’s Syndrome live in the Cajun community, interpreters have the opportunity to become highly skilled at working with the deaf-blind population.
In Colorado, where I work as a free-lance interpreter, we have consumers with varying degrees of vision loss including those with Usher Syndrome. However, like many states, we do not have a large, deaf-blind community that depends on tactile interpreting. Nevertheless, I enjoy this type of interpreting and for the past twenty-five years, have kept my “hand” in it while pursuing opportunities to sharpen my skill and understanding of this unique population.
Most of the requests I receive for deaf-blind interpreting are for medical, social service, or vocational rehabilitation appointments. Some consumers require tactile signing, some use the tracking method and others need close range interpreting. In each setting, I am ultra-observant of the environment. Because blind and deaf-blind people are not privy to visual information that triggers ideas and thoughts in our minds, I have a responsibility to describe the surroundings in my interpretation. I include relevant objects and people. I describe their behavior and actions, as well as interpret what I hear. And, I accept the added role of support service provider, or SSP as it’s more commonly called.
In this role, I anticipate what assistance a person needs, so I can act accordingly. For a vocational rehabilitation intake, I am not only the interpreter for an Ushers client, I am the interpreter for the blind counselor who is doing the interview. For the counselor, I interpret verbally, the signed communication as well as the client’s actions. “She’s searching in her purse for her identification card,” I say. Near the end of the interview, I say to the counselor while we wait, “she’s still reading the forms.”
In more casual settings, like a restaurant, I offer to interpret the menu. When the food comes, I let my deaf-blind friend know what delights have arrived and where they are located on the table, or on her plate. After lunch, when she sets two bills on the table to leave for a tip, I am obliged to ask her, “Do you mean to leave a six dollar tip?” “No, she says,” gratefully.
She thought the bills were both ones.
As interpreters/SSP’s we offer assistance, and we look out for hazards. We don’t seat persons in unstable or broken chairs. When we’re outside, we offer warnings about near-by animals, or about puddles on the sidewalk. We alert them when we are about to move onto escalators, or moving walkways. We watch for oncoming cars while crossing streets. We’re alert to sharp, or jagged objects like a broken soap dispenser jutting from a restroom wall. We must always be ready to react on behalf of our charge.
Working with the deaf-blind can bring unexpected surprises and wonderful opportunities—even in small towns like, Conifer, Colorado, where I live. In 1998, I began work with an elderly gentleman with Usher Syndrome, named Bert Riedel, who had lost his sight and hearing in his later years. Bert was wanting to learn tactile sign language at the age of eighty-six. His family, who lived in my community, called to ask if I would teach them, some “basic signs.” When I accepted the job, I expected to do that, even though I knew there was no such thing as “basic signs.”
What actually transpired were six impactful years in a teacher-student relationship, in which I was not always the teacher. While Bert learned to read tactile signs from me, I learned from him, that it’s never too late to improve ourselves, or our situation in life. “Learning! Learning is the Key,” Bert would often proclaim. From Bert I learned about life, about attitude, and gained a deeper understanding about deafness and blindness. From notes I kept in a journal I wrote a book about our journey.
Because of my experience with Bert, I considered myself knowledgeable about deaf-blindness. But, there is always more to learn about this diverse group and about our role as interpreter/SSPs. In August of 2004, I traveled to SeattleWashington, to the SeabeckConferenceCenter where every year, for one week in August, the Seabeck Deaf-Blind Retreat is held. I went to the Seabeck camp to volunteer as an interpreter/SSP. Immersed into deaf-blind world, I tested all of my skills and abilities:
One can learn a lot in a short amount of time at Seabeck.
Right away, I see that it’s customary when introducing a
deaf-blind person to spell their name first, followed by a
name sign. Included is a sign for sighted,or the sign for
Usher Syndrome, with a sign depicting the person’s degree
of sight. The hands show the “box of sight limitation”
around the eyes, or the tunnel of vision closing shut. From
this I know how much vision a person has, or who is totally
blind. I know how I must adapt my communication and my
service as an SSP.
While it’s often impossible for deaf-blind people to
participate in team or group activities with hearing people,
at camp I experience how it is possible for them to enjoy
group activities like a game of Pictionary, modified by the
substitution of modeling clay for pen and paper, or a team
competition scavenger hunt, using clues printed in braille.
On the scavenger hunt, a deaf-blind deaf woman
depends on me to guide her as her team speeds across the
campus. We scurry up a hill,on our way to the hot tub where
we are to search for a hidden clue. She trusts that I will lead
her around hazardous objects. I hustle her around some
low hanging tree branches. Panting, we arrive at the hot tub,
where she dips her hands into the warm water. She feels
across the bottom where she discovers a weighted plastic bag.
In the bag, she finds a piece to a puzzle and, printed in braille,
directions to where the next clue is hidden. She reads the
clue and shares it with her deaf-blind teammates. With
quickened steps, we set off again, this time “to the school house;”
There, the deaf-blind team searches for balloons. They
scour the classroom, until they find them. They think to pop
the balloons. Behold! Inside one are more pieces to a puzzle
and another clue. We speed off to the front porch of the lodge
where the deaf-blind team races to beat the competition in their
search for the one wooden rocking chair where the next
clue is concealed. There are many rocking chairs. It requires
careful, tactile attention to each slat of wood, each arm, each
rocking leg, each seat, each chair back, until the hidden clue
In the end, the puzzle pieces must fit together, to read the
message. Perceptive fingers of the deaf-blind team work
together, to find the straight edges. They place them in a
square. The puzzle is solved! The SSP’s read the message
to learn what the team has won. It’s candy; the favorite reward.
On a different excursion, a deaf man with impaired
Sight Does not need me to guide him around obstacles, but
I do need to warn him about a bump in a sidewalk and an
expected step leading into a casino. I do not need to guide
him to the slot-machines, he can find them on his own.
He doesn’t need me to interpret when the bells and whistles
go off. The flashinglights and spilling coins tell him he has
hit the jack-pot. Another deaf-blind man plays blackjack.
With his competent interpreter/SSP at his side, he grins wide
in challenge against the dealer.
As SSP’s we are flexible and adaptable. We use
judgment as to when to assist and when to be respectful and
give a deaf-blind person independence and privacy. It’s
appropriate to allow one, who is familiar with her surroundings,
to walk independently to her room as she wishes. But, I follow
with my eyes, watching her step carefully up the stairs; her
hand on the rail. I always ask when I’m not sure, whether
someone needs assistance. Deaf-blind people are only disabled
from hearing and seeing. They’re not disabled from thinking
and doing for themselves.
On an afternoon boat ride with another camper, I paint
with my hands the panorama of the Olympic National Forest
which meets the shore of Puget Sound. I interpret the words
of our boatman. There’s no need to interpret the sensation
we feel; the excitement of the cool, wet wind intensified by
the speed of the boat.
I marvel at the diversity among us as I sit at the
dinner table, facilitating a conversation between a deaf-blind
woman and her friend. I copy-sign her friend, who sits across
from us. Sharing our table, is an older woman, with more
hearing than sight. She relies on her SSP to speak loudly in
her ear. A young athletic-looking man, who is hard of hearing
and has poor vision, speaks to his SSP. She is my new friend,
whom I met on the bus on our way to Seabeck. She introduces
me to the young man. From across the table, I am not sure if
he can see me better or hear me better. I use my voice and
sign at the same time, “Do you use ASL?” I ask. He strains
to see my signs and turns to my friend for help.
“Do you use ASL?”she repeats aloud. He looks back to me.
“Yes, I’m bicultural,” he says. I use ASL and I speak English.”
At Seabeck, I find it profoundly striking how a group
of seventy deaf-blind people from throughout North America
functions as a whole. In the dining room when a speaker
addresses (signs to) the entire group, I see deaf and hearing
SSPs interpreting at every table; hundreds of hands working
silently together, like moving parts of a well-oiled machine.
Communication flows rapid, and fluid throughout, in a spirit of camaraderie.
At Seabeck, I witnessed the highest caliber of interpreters and SSP’s in action. I learned what a difference it makes when an interpreter/SSP is well-matched with her deaf-blind camper. When we are in sync, four hands and two minds become as one instrument. In tandom, there are no barriers in deaf-blind world to boating, jet skiing, biking, and shopping. There’re no impediments to conversation, dancing and games. All of us together, we are instruments of an orchestra. I went to Seabeck on a quest to improve my interpreting and my guiding. What I found was a Deaf-Blind Symphony.
Book by Diane Lane Chambers
Words in My Hands, A Teacher, A Deaf-Blind Man, An Unforgettable Journey
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Diane Lane Chambers