“I have a grandson who is both deaf and blind,” the woman beside me on the plane said. “At three years old, he contracted meningitis, and when he came out of the illness, he complained, ‘Why won’t anyone turn on the lights?’ and ‘Why won’t anyone talk to me?’”
My heart went out to this grandson, to this family. But with admiration in her voice, the grandmother went on to say, “He may be deaf and blind, and yet he sure makes up for it with his other senses.”
That brief conversation was exactly what I needed as I headed out for my two-day author visit to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (FSDB) in St. Augustine. With a bit of apprehension, I stepped through the school’s security gate and drew a deep breath of sea-salt air. The sprawling campus, started in 1885, is nestled near ocean marshes, and Spanish moss hangs from its canopy of trees. Students stroll between campus buildings, some arm in arm, some using white canes. The librarian who greeted me said she’d recently spotted a manatee in the canal.Before long, I stood in front of an auditorium filled with blind 9th–12th graders. “Honestly,” I admitted, microphone in hand, “I was a little worried about how to communicate with you all.” Behind me, a big screen was powered up with images for my presentation. The librarian had wisely advised me to go ahead and use my usual program, just to help me stay on track, even if the students couldn’t see it. “But what I realize now,” I said, “is that it’s no different presenting to you than to a group of sighted students. After all, as a writer, my job is to paint pictures with words. If I’m doing my job, you should be able to create images in your imagination, right?”
Smiles lit up across the room as students nodded in agreement. A few gave me a thumbs up. Others clapped.
After sharing the stories behind my stories, and the uphill challenge of revising and getting published, hands shot up everywhere. I couldn’t point to a student with their hand raised, or say “yes, you in the red sweatshirt,” so I often walked up closer and touched a student lightly on the shoulder. Their questions were great, and for several students, their motivation to write their own stories ran deep. As I firmly believe, I reminded them, “You each have stories only you can tell.”
I spent two full days presenting to the school’s 700 students, from pre-school to high school, all deaf or blind–and sometimes, both.
With the deaf students, whose pre-presentation banter meant a quiet auditorium with students signing back and forth, my challenge was pacing. I’m used to jumping ahead, from one idea to the next, on my own adrenaline and ADHD sort of energy. But with interpreters at my side, I needed to slow down and wait. A little extra time was required to relay my message and the student’s questions and comments.
Here was a new country, with entirely new languages: Braille on keyboards; rubber alphabet blocks topped with fingers and signed letters. Here teachers sign as they talk and rhythmic pauses allow interpreters to relay questions and answers. In this land, I was the outsider wanting in–suddenly wishing I knew sign language and fumbling at my attempts to sign “hello” and “thank you.”
At my last presentation of the day, one student named Katie, caught my attention. A senior, Katie is both blind and deaf. She sat in the front row, and her interpreter sat beside her, signing into the palm of Katie’s hand. After my presentation she and I exchanged greetings. “That’s my daughter’s name,” I said, “so you know I love your name.” We made small talk. The interpreter signed into Katie’s hand. In the pauses, I waited. Katie doesn’t see or hear, yet she’s witty and well-spoken with an infectious smile. I would have loved to visit longer.
I’m humbled and moved by the amazing students and teachers at FSDB, who helped open my eyes and my ears—and welcomed me as a foreigner in a new country. But what I found there was universal—a mutual desire to bridge the gaps between us—the need to communicate through whatever means necessary.
As writers, that’s what we aim for: to communicate as clearly as possible. Whatever our sensory capacity may be, we employ our senses to paint whole worlds in the minds of readers (whether they experience a story through text, Braille, or audio). We try to tell our stories as best we can, because stories are what draw us together. Stories are what bind us. Stories remind us—despite our differences—of all we share in common.