What the Deaf Blind Have Taught Us About Thinking and Communicating

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” -Helen Keller

As a child I met Helen Keller. She was one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. I have met other deaf blind people who are amazing. Leonard could place his hand on your face and understand your speech. Leonard and his deaf blind wife lived independently and worked in an electrical product plant assembling electric insulators.

In 1963 we had learned how to ensure women who were pregnant and contacted rubella could bring their babies to full term. Thus we produced some 60,000 multiply disabled infants. Five thousand were deaf blind. Congress passed a law that created centers for deaf blind services. I was the Director of the Division of Education Services in the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped and administered the deaf blind services.

Helen Keller. Photo from Helen Keller International.

Helen Keller. Photo from Helen Keller International.

I have a deaf blind grand nephew that is now two years old. I have given considerable thought to the education of deaf blind children. They explore and know their world through the near senses of touch, smell, and taste. Of these three, touch is dominant because it is the sense that they will use to organize their world. My nephew has two cochlear implants and appears to enjoy music. As yet we do not know if in deaf blind children cochlear implants will lead to the development of speech and language.

We know that Orion has begun to use touch signs. He signs “MORE” for food he likes.

Helen Keller’s first word as a deaf blind child was WATER. She felt the water at the pump. Helen had developed speech and language before she became ill. The water event sparked her recalling words, and she was eager to learn the tactile signs for other words. In a child like Orion, born deaf blind, there is no language memory so linguistic awareness must be developed.

First words must be highly related to food and tactile experiences such as hot and cold, smooth and rough, cookies and milk. Touch signs and spoken words via the cochlear implants must all be used to give the child the widest range of sensory experiences.

Parents must be encouraged to use every opportunity and means of stimulating the infant to develop an awareness of language. Many deaf blind people that I know have superior deaf speech and superior language skills. After all, Helen Keller was an author and public speaker. Why? I have come to believe that once language begins to click with a deaf blind learner, it begins to dominate their inner mind set.

As humans we all have an inner self that continually talks with us. Deaf people have a rich visual world that they live in, creating an inner self that talks with them. Similarly, blind people have an audio inner self. The little man or woman in our head that talks or signs to us as we think is how we think. These inner selves are rich in visual and audio images. In a deaf blind individual, the inner self is tactile, often Braile codes. In a deaf blind person, the inner voice is tactile.

If I recall my mother’s apple pie, I may use words to describe it but also have lingering images of how it tastes and smells, fresh baked and sitting out to cool. In a person with all their senses, in place rich audio, visual, and tactile images fade and are replaced by speech and language images.

In deaf blind people, tactile images of their world are associated with touch signs or Braile codes. The beginning of a deaf blind infant’s pathway to language may be to express his/her desire for more cookies and cream.

Remember deaf blind infants can generate communication systems. If they do, it opens up new horizons and worlds for them. Researchers have yet to determine the influence of cochlear implants with deaf blind infants. If they do as well as they do for some deaf children, then they hold out great promise. It could mean that the little voice in their head talks with them in audio speech and language images. Under any circumstances, the head talker will use tactile images and especially important will be Braile images.

In our modern world, deaf blind infants have a great chance of becoming self-sufficient independent adults. My experience with deaf blind adults that are successful is that they spend a great amount of time thinking and examining the world as they perceive it through whatever sensory system is most comfortable for them. Deaf blind individuals have a place in society. Often, like Helen Keller, they have made unique contributions.

“Once I knew only darkness and stillness. My life was without past or future. But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.” -Helen Keller

2 Responses

  1. Frank, great article. Keep penning in more thanks

  2. Helen Keller never learned to speak verbally. You can watch parts of documentaires of her life on YouTube. In her public speaking engagements, Annie Sullivan is speaking for her through her finger spelling. Helen Keller said that was one regret of her life, that she had never learned to speak. She could say a few words which were only discernable to those close to her.

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