June 27 is Helen Keller’s birthday, and the week of June 22-28 marks Deaf-Blind Awareness Week. The holiday has been celebrated since 1984, following a proclamation from Ronald Reagan. Since then, the week has been a time to reflect on the unique position of people with the often misunderstood condition.
What is deaf-blindness?
Deaf-blindness does not describe a singular disability. It refers to a combination of visual and auditory impairments, but the degree of each can vary and still be considered part of deaf-blindness. The term dual sensory loss is commonly used in the same context as deaf-blind to refer to any person with some degree of both hearing and sight loss. Though individual sensory loss is a common issue in elder care, few resources are designed specifically for those with combined impairments.
In fact, different people with dual sensory loss have greatly varying needs. Many who would be considered deaf-blind by medical professionals may not think of themselves that way at all, instead considering their sensory loss to be a natural part of aging, according to Community Care.
Breaking the silence
Communicating with a person with deaf-blindness can be difficult for those who don’t understand the condition. Many people who haven’t had experience with sensory loss have the tendency to simply speak louder or use exaggerated gestures to get their point across. This is unlikely to help, as it does nothing to address the specific circumstances of their conversation partner’s sensory problems.
Instead, the British deaf-blind organization Sense offered some communication tips:
- It’s always best to make sure that someone with vision loss knows that you’re there and who you are before starting a conversation.
- Take the initiative and ask what you should do to ease communication, so that the other person doesn’t have to stop and ask for help.
- Speak a little more slowly, clearly and loudly than usual with anyone with sensory loss, but keep in mind that there is no need for exaggerated speech or gestures as long as you’re being clear.
- Short phrases and words may be easier to hear or lip-read, but don’t “dumb down” the point you’re trying to make.
Isolation is a major concern for people with dual sensory loss. Some people lose one sense before the other and learn to adapt only to later be faced with the loss of another sense. For instance, a person may be hard of hearing and rely on lip reading, only to have his or her vision then fade and be faced with finding an entirely new way to communicate.
People with one or more sensory impairments often have difficulty leaving their homes, as fading senses make it increasingly dangerous to navigate in unfamiliar places. This danger may lead to depression, anxiety and frustration. Some retirement communities or sections within them are designed specifically for people with sensory loss. They may offer a way for seniors to get specialized care and socialize with people who understand their needs.