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Opening Up The World

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Transition (BC Coalition of People with Disabilities), November/December 2005.

Eddy Morten and interpreter Brenda Erlandson sit facing one another and, as their hands move in an intricate dance, the words pour out. For my benefit, Brenda speaks them aloud. She is interpreting through tactile signing for Eddy who is deaf-blind.

Eddy was familiar with this way of speaking before he needed it himself as his older brother was deaf-blind from birth and this was how they communicated.

Eddy, who has Usher syndrome type 1, was born deaf, but did not begin to lose his vision until the age of eight. The retina of his left eye detached, leaving him with sight only in his right eye. His vision slowly deteriorated and almost disappeared by the time he was 10 or 11.

Many years ago, surgery to repair his left eye was unsuccessful. At about age 20, he began to develop cataracts which he had removed two years ago.

"It's better now," says Eddy. "Before the cataracts were removed, it was like looking through the windshield of a car that has been outside all night is all foggy and fuzzy. But the cataract surgery cleared away a lot of the fog. Now it's like looking through a tunnel--a very narrow tunnel, but clearer."

He can see best in the evening light and wears dark glasses to ward off glare in bright sunshine.

Eddy is an athletic, confident and independent person who likes to be out doing things. Whether it's a long walk or a trip to the grocery store or attending a meeting or workshop, his constant companion for the last seven years has been Harmony, a friendly black Labrador.

"We're always together," says Eddy. "She's a trained guide dog and she's very hardworking. It's her job to keep me safe."

But when they are at home, Harmony is off duty--a big loveable pet who greets guests and plays with Eddy's two young sons when they visit.

Until about 15 years ago, Eddy communicated primarily through visual use of American Sign Language. "I needed to be quite a distance from the other person to be able to see their hand movements. With tactile signing, it's the opposite--I have to be very close to the person. It's an intimate way of talking."

Although tactile signing makes use of American Sign Language, the speakers are actually feeling the shape of the signs in the movement of each other's fingers. It's a technique that takes getting used to.

"Some people aren't comfortable with such close contact," says Eddy. "But, once they get comfortable, it's fine."

Eddy says there is also no denying that some people are just a better fit together. He and Brenda have worked together and been friends for more than nine years and their conversation is rapid and fluid. "Very rapid!" laughs Brenda. "Eddy is a fast talker."

He is also a humorous, animated speaker, enhancing his signing with body language and gestures, as well as smiles and other facial expressions.

Brenda, and the other interpreters Eddy calls on, are his personal supports--supports who think and breathe, rather than other disability supports like computers or hearing aids.

Eddy will book an interpreter when he attends a workshop or a meeting of the BC Association of the Deaf-Blind. Interpreting in such a setting is intense--physical, visual and auditory information need to be interpreted, so two or more interpreters will usually spell each other off. An intervenor may also be there to guide Eddy to his destination, describe his surroundings for him, and help him do things like locate refreshments and washrooms. Intervenors do interpret, but they don't do the intensive interpreting needed for something like this interview.

In addition to his personal supports, Eddy also has the help of some technology.

Many bank machines, for example, now have braille on the keypads, so he can perform his own transactions. He frequently carries his own device about half the size of a laptop with both a regular and a braille keyboard. In addition to holding downloaded information from his computer when he is at meetings or travelling, it can be used to communicate with a sighted person through written messages. He also communicates via email by using a program that greatly increases the size of the lettering or another program that converts it to braille. All of these disability supports enable Eddy to live as independently as possible--which he has always tried to do.

He has always been involved in athletics and by high school had decided that he was going to be an Olympic wrestler. He participated in the Paralympic Games in 1980 and 1984. Then wrestling was dropped as a Paralympic event but undeterred, Eddy switched to judo. His thrice-weekly training sessions were with sighted and hearing athletes, so Brenda accompanied him to relay visual signs and instructions given by the coach. Eddy won a Bronze Medal in judo at the 1988 Paralympics Games in Seoul. A rotator cuff injury put an end to judo, but Eddy continues to run, lift weights, work on a stationary bike, and walk with friends or with Harmony.

"I can see a little bit, so I'm confident on my own," he says. However, not everyone is, so Eddy helps out.

He works with a program to help members of the small deaf-blind community get into the broader community and become more independent. He helps train intervenors and guides, and coordinates meetings between individuals and intervenors. "It's a very personal interaction, so it doesn't always work between two people. That's OK--if it's not a good match, we just try a different one."

Eddy says that something as simple as a walk with a friend or intervenor can open up the world around a deaf-blind person. "They can tell you how the mountains look that day, describe your surroundings, tell you what the other people are doing--so you are part of it."

Tactile Signing: In tactile or hands-on signing, the receiver's hands are placed lightly on the backs of the hands of the signer to read the signs through touch and movement. The sign language used is often a slightly modified version of the local Deaf Sign language. This is especially the case when used by people with Usher syndrome, who may have first lost their hearing and later their sight. Non-manual elements of the deaf sign language, such as facial expressions, have to be substituted with information produced manually.