Reflections on Helen Keller’s Birthday: With Learned Skills and Effective Support, Persons With Deaf-Blindness are Participating in Their Communities

Portrait of Hellen Keller

Lecturer, political activist and prolific author Helen Keller was born June 27, 1880. Among her many accomplishments: She was the first deaf-blind person in the United States to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

“I think the most significant part of her legacy is that Helen Keller was very eloquent and was a great role model,” says Joan Schneider, Executive Director of the Center for Deaf-Blind Persons, based in West Allis. “She proved that people who are deaf-blind can live productive lives. And one thing in the community of individuals who are deaf-blind is that they want to be a part of the community — and be active members.”

As unique as Helen Keller’s accomplishments are, deaf-blindness is not as rare as many people assume. According to the Center, there are 800 individuals in Wisconsin who are deaf-blind. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. The number of Wisconsinites who have both significant hearing loss and vision loss is much larger, 21,000.

“When people hear Helen Keller, they automatically think of someone who is totally blind and totally deaf. But that doesn’t apply to everyone,” Joan says. “It could be a person who is blind and hard of hearing. Or it could be someone who is deaf and has some loss of sight.”

Denise Jess, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired, emphasizes that while a significant number of people the Council serves also have some hearing loss — not uncommon among older clients —  the needs of individuals who are deaf-blind are different from the needs of those experiencing only vision loss. “The services a person can benefit from depend on their own unique situation and goals,” Denise says.

While aging is often a factor, there are also younger Wisconsinites who are deaf-blind. For example, Usher syndrome, a genetic disease that causes loss of both hearing and vision, generally affects children and younger adults.

Joan says the combination of sensory disabilities comes with a two-step personal transition.

“Individuals are likely willing to acknowledge and accept the first disability. But when the second disability happens, it may be harder to accept it,” she says. “That denial impedes their ability to really move on. Sure, they have to learn to do things differently, but they can still function. They just have to be willing to learn.”

The fact that there is a significant number of people in Wisconsin who have both hearing and vision loss means that there is a community of support out there. “No matter where you are in this, no matter what status you’re in, there are other people you can walk this journey with and get support,” Joan says.

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