Braille Monitor                         November 2020

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Mastering the Skills of Deafblindness

by Danielle Burton

Danielle BurtonFrom the Editor: Danielle Burton is a very active member in our Kentucky Affiliate and in our national movement. Her signature line could almost pass for a resumé: She is the secretary of the DeafBlind Division, the second vice president of the DeafBlind Division in Kentucky, and the program manager of the Technology Assistance Division of the affiliate. What she writes here is a variant of something that appeared in the Kentucky Cardinal, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky. Here is what she says:

Many of us who have been in and around the National Federation of the Blind for a while know that one of the unique things about the Federation is its belief in having to master the alternative techniques of blindness. These blindness skills such as independent living, cane travel, assistive technology, and Braille that are taught in our three training centers are important skills needed in order to be a successful blind person. However, sometimes blindness skills alone are not enough to be able to compete on equal terms with the larger society.

I was born deafblind. I currently have no vision and have a mild to moderate hearing loss which causes my hearing to vary from day to day. Back in 2011 when I joined the NFB, I did not consider myself as deafblind. I knew my hearing wasn't normal since I've been fitted with two hearing aids my entire life. I simply kept trying to pass as a hearing blind person while struggling over and over to cross streets and use sound for orientation while traveling. Trying to follow people in a group by hearing alone is equally ineffective. With traveling becoming more and more exhausting, I began to realize that relying on blindness skills alone wasn't working—particularly in the area of communicating with hearing people, sighted or blind, where there is background noise.

After many months of thinking about and evaluating my situation, I came to the decision to learn Tactile American Sign Language or ASL. I attended the Helen Keller National Center, located in Sands Point, New York, to begin the process of learning ASL. After eight months there, I learned the basics of ASL, its grammar, structure, and deaf culture. I spent time learning from other deafblind individuals and practicing with native signers in my spare time as a student at Helen Keller National Center. Upon returning home to Kentucky, I had attained basic ASL communication.

Many people might think that this basic knowledge would be plenty. However, growing up in the Federation has taught me otherwise. I am now attending Eastern Kentucky University, majoring in deaf studies and am currently enrolled in ASL 101.

The ASL courses offered here are total immersion classrooms. They are similar to how we teach blindness skills to blind students at our training centers. In this case you are learning how to communicate without using your hearing. In the classroom you use ASL and written communication with your classmates and your professor.

I have found immersion to be an excellent way to master the skills of deafblindness, while signing in the areas designated as sign-specific spaces. I do not use my vision or my hearing, which allows me to really focus on being able to communicate as a deafblind person only. I have found immersion to be challenging and rewarding. I am slowly beginning to experience the ease of communication that tactile sign language provides. I can chat with friends at gatherings in the dining hall and other areas with background noise with a new level of ease. I don't have to struggle to understand what is being said or sit on the sidelines of the group, not knowing what the conversation is about. Since many of my new friends on campus can sign to some degree, I have been able to interact with them in a way that allows us all to enjoy doing what every college student does while not doing homework—having fun with friends.

ASL will also play an important part in my role as a student, future teacher, and as an active member of the National Federation of the Blind. By having interpreters to interpret for me in multiple settings, I can now have full access in the classroom to presentations and meetings like never before. While still in transition between the worlds of ASL and hearing, I will continue to work toward of goal of ASL. Because I believe in the Federation philosophy, I will master this skill.

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