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Deaf-Blind and Dynamic a Profile of Kerry Wadman

Editor's Note: Editors Note: Ing Wong is a freelance print and broadcast journalist living in Toronto. This article is reprinted from Abilities Magazine, Fall, 1995, Issue 24.

Kerry Wadman once walked into a bank to open a new account. It should have been a simple procedure. But there was one small problem. The teller was unwilling to communicate with Kerry.

So Kerry took his business elsewhere.

The bank teller who dealt with Kerry could have easily accommodated his disability. She chose not to try.

Kerry is deaf-blind. Deaf-blindness is a disability where the individual cannot see or hear and must communicate through hand signs or someone else.

In this case, the teller could have communicated with Kerry by printing on his palm. This means that she would have traced letters into his hand, enabling him to answer any of her questions.

Attitudes like these are one type of barrier that Kerry runs into. To get around most barriers, Kerry uses interveners to help him communicate. Interveners are people who translate the spoken word and visual cues for people who are deaf-blind by signing symbols into their hands. They act as interpreters, similar to those used by many people who are deaf. At no time do interveners speak on behalf of the individual, unless the individual cannot speak.

As Kerry says, The interveners are my eyes and ears, not my mouthpiece and not my brain. Kerry's intervener translates for him what other people are saying. Kerry then replies by speaking.

While Kerry has interveners now, he didn't always have access to this and other kinds of services.

Kerry grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the youngest of nine children, including two sisters who are also deaf-blind. He was born hard of hearing, and had some ability to see. As a child, he says he was a loner, isolated from other children. I spent a lot of time at the seashore, he says.

At first, he went to a school for children who are deaf in Halifax. When he turned 13, he lost the ability to hear speech and was sent to New York to attend high school. At the age of 21, Kerry lost the ability to read large print.

Kerry moved to Toronto from New York in 1969 to attend the University of Toronto. He says he wanted to be the first person who was deaf-blind to graduate from a university. And he almost was but a woman who was deaf-blind beat him to it.

When Kerry started university, there were no interveners on campus, and no other special services, such as the provision of Braille textbooks, were available. So he had to find his own way to have his needs met. Kerry found his first intervener through unusual means. It was quite a joke, he says with a chuckle. I grabbed a guy off a motorbike, trained him, and we went to university together.

Other student volunteers came along and provided intervener services for Kerry over the next few years as he worked towards completing his Bachelor of Arts. When he finished his degree, he had a choice either to stay in Canada or to move back to New York. He elected to stay in Canada, since he had been offered his first job working as a teachers assistant in a school for children who are blind in Brantford, Ontario.

Since then, Kerry has moved on to become an advocate for people who are deaf-blind. He currently works as an advocate with the Ontario Advocacy Commission, which was set up to inform people with disabilities in Ontario of their rights. He's also involved with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), working as the deaf-blind Program Associate Manager.

And he doesn't have to grab people off motorbikes when he needs an intervener. One of his current interveners, Rachel, came to him through a student placement position at the CNIB. She studied at George Brown College, which has a program for people interested in becoming professional interveners. Others of Kerry's interveners are volunteers, interested in supporting people who are deaf-blind. While at one time there were virtually no services for people like Kerry, there is now an informal network set up within the deaf-blind community to enable them to support one another.

But there's still a long way to go.

While some people with disabilities are successfully integrating into communities with the financial support of government, Kerry says that people who are deaf-blind are still trying to educate government about their specific needs.

They have done many surveys and recommendations and held task forces to all levels of government. These all end up being shelved, he says. The last task force on intervention in 1992 went to the provincial government. We wanted something like the Office for Disability Issues for deaf-blind, deaf and blind people. That hasn't happened.

They [the government] don't realise that keeping people institutionalised is more expensive than providing intervention. When they see the dollars that are needed for intervention, they panic.

As a result, many people who are deaf-blind are forced to live in nursing homes or similar institutions, despite having the ability to live independently in the community with the support of interveners.

And for those who are able to receive support from interveners, Kerry clearly states that the hours they receive is not enough.

You have your eyes and ears 24 hours a day. For these people, they have their eyes and ears for five hours a week. Depending on the individual, getting the mail, shopping or going to medical appointments... their life has to be put on hold. Its an issue that clearly frustrates him.

I wish people would treat other people like they would want to be treated, he says. Able-bodied people should be happy to provide services to people with disabilities, so that those services are there if they need them.

These services include providing more interveners to people who need them. Examples are apartment buildings that have in-house intervener support. Kerry says there is only one such building in Ontario. It is one of only a few in Canada. Located in North York, this particular apartment complex has 16 units set aside for people who are deaf-blind. Each person receives four hours of assistance from an intervener each day.

Kerry says buildings like this one can help people who are deaf-blind to integrate into the community.

Only when deaf-blind people are segregated into smaller communities, and receive support from interveners, will they be able to integrate into the larger community.

Kerry himself is a clear example. The storekeepers in the neighbourhood know him well and can communicate with him without an intervener. He knows other people who are educated about the issues that people who are deaf-blind face. But he says that once he's in an unfamiliar environment, he runs into a brick wall.

Most of these brick walls are purely attitudinal, like the bank teller who wouldn't print on his palm. And then there are some people who do not believe that Kerry is deaf.

Some people think that deaf people cant speak. And because I can speak, they think I'm pretending to be deaf, he says. I've been living in this neighbourhood for the past 15 years and I recently heard that someone refers to me as that deaf, dumb and blind guy.

To change these attitudes, Kerry tries to educate people on two different fronts. He speaks at conferences for people with various disabilities to educate them about deaf-blindness. He travels to schools and service organisation's to give presentations. He speaks to media to reach a wider audience. And, of course, there's the day-to-day educating by talking and being with people who aren't deaf-blind.

Most importantly, Kerry teaches other people who are deaf-blind to advocate for themselves. People should know their rights and that there are people who will be able to help them. If they know that, maybe they'll try to do it themselves.