Anne Sullivan - Helen Keller memorial - Tewksbury, Massachusetts

Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week

by Nicholas Goodman, Intake Clerk

Helen Keller portrait, circa 1904
Helen Keller portrait, circa 1904

When you hear the term Deaf-Blind, what comes to mind? For most people, Helen Keller is the initial response. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan declared June 24-30, “Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week”. There are approximately 40,000 people who are Deaf-Blind in the United States, although exact numbers are hard to pinpoint because degrees of hearing and vision loss vary from person to person (Watson 1993).

You may be wondering, what is Deaf-Blindness? It’s easiest to start by explaining what Deaf-blindness isn’t. Being Deaf-blind does not always mean a person has both complete vision as well as complete hearing loss. A person who is Deaf-Blind has degrees of hearing loss as well as vision loss that do not allow them to completely rely on either sense to process information about their environment. Most people who are Deaf-Blind were born with average vision or hearing. Not everyone who is Deaf-Blind was born that way.

Depending on an individual’s needs, there are many options for communication, including but not limited to: braille, large print, American Sign Language (ASL), tactile American Sign Language, spoken English with hearing aids, spoken English with a cochlear implant (CI), and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART). The medium through which a person communicates is a balance between their medical needs and their personal preference.

While most of our programs here at Elder Law of Michigan operate through the phone, our staff as a whole values being of service to others. ELM also partners with organizations all over Michigan to improve the quality of life of Michiganders. I reached out to a good friend of mine who is Deaf-Blind and asked, “In regards to communication and interaction, what do you wish people knew when serving you?” On her behalf I am passing on the following advice for service providers to keep in mind when working with clients who are Deaf-Blind.

  • It is important to remember that in repeated appointments with a client, their vision and/or hearing levels may have decreased since you last met.
  • A person wearing hearing aids or cochlear implant may still need to use a certified Sign Language Interpreter.
  • Poor lighting or too much lighting in a room can reduce their ability to understand the conversation.
  • Becoming Deaf-Blind later in life may mean they did grow up using English and don’t know American Sign Language.
  • There are many diseases that cause vision loss, and depending on an individual’s field of vision, they may need you to sit several feet away instead of right in front of them in order to see you.
  • When you walk up to a person who is Deaf-Blind, don’t just tap their shoulder and pull your hand away, gently rest it on their shoulder until they locate you.
  • Don’t push or pull a Deaf-Blind person, if you need to walk with them, allow them to hold your upper arm and walk next to you.
  • Using the term “impaired” when referring to a person’s vision or hearing levels is considered offensive. Some preferred options are “deaf” or “blind”, or “deaf-blind”.
  • If your business has a website, all content should be accessible with proper headings and alt text on images, following standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

If you’re not sure how to interact with a Deaf-Blind person, the best course of action is to inquire as to their needs and preferences. If you’d like more information about the Deaf-Blind population, check out the following resources:

Sources: Watson, D., and Taff-Watson, M., eds. (1993). A Model Service Delivery System for Persons Who Are Deaf-Blind, second edition. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas.


Nicholas Goodman

Nicholas Goodman is a team member of the National Council on Aging (NCOA) Call Center. He has been a member of the Elder Law team since October 2013

Nicholas is currently in the Sign Language Interpreter Training Program at Lansing Community College. He is also pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in American Sign Language at Siena Heights University.

Before joining the Elder Law of Michigan team, he lived in a Catholic Worker House modeled after the traditions of Dorothy Day, which served the homeless population in Ann Arbor. One of his favorite accomplishments is involvement in getting a city ordinance amended in Ann Arbor which allows organizations to be exempt from the permit fee, if using city parks for humanitarian aid purposes.

Nicholas joined Elder Law of Michigan as a member of the Intake and Referral team working along side attorneys. He has since become a member of the NCOA Call Center serving clients who want to go through Reverse Mortage counseling.

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