Monday, September 19, 2005

Deaf-blind campers find camaraderie at retreat

Few friends of mine flew there to volunteer. I look forward to hearing their stories about the camping retreat.

From the newsroom of The Repository, Canton, Ohio, Sunday, September 18, 2005 .....

Deaf-blind campers find camaraderie at retreat

By RACHEL LA CORTE Associated Press writer

SEABECK, Wash. — Heads bowed close to each other, hands clasped, fingers fluttering, dozens converse without a sound.

Far from the world they normally live in, with its seeing and hearing majority, more than 60 deaf-blind campers gather at a yearly retreat on Hood Canal in western Washington state to do what much of society thinks they are incapable of — ride Jet Skis, work on computers, tackle a triathlon.

“I’m trying things I’ve never had the courage to do,” said Richard Garrett, of Austin, Texas, who’s almost completely blind and hard of hearing and was looking forward to getting into a kayak for the first time.

The Seattle Lighthouse, a not-for-profit agency that helps blind and deaf-blind people with employment, support and training, has run the weeklong retreat every year since 1978, drawing deaf-blind people from across the country and beyond.

Worldwide allure

This year, Canadians, Australians and a camper from Japan also made the trek. The more than 130 volunteers traveled just as far.

There are other camps for those without vision or hearing, but supporters say the Seabeck retreat is uniquely varied in its offerings. Campers can ride tandem bicycles, take dance classes and create art. They also learn about the latest medical research and technological advances that make everyday life easier.

Rope paths lead from house to house, activity to activity, so that campers can explore the compound independently. A series of knots tell them where they are.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said retreat coordinator Tami Berk. “It’s a little bit of hope and inspiration, and then they go back to their real lives.”

There are at least 40,000 to 50,000 blind-deaf children and adults in the United States, said Nancy O’Donnell, with the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, N.Y.

Within this group, there’s a broad range. “People try to fit deaf-blind people into a stereotype and they forget that there’s a person behind those challenges,” O’Donnell said.

Many at the retreat had Usher Syndrome, a degenerative condition that affects the hearing and vision of more than 10,000 people in the United States.

For those who are completely blind and deaf, tactile signing is used; for those who are deaf but still maintain some vision, American Sign Language or different variations are used.

While many of the volunteers have both their vision and hearing, several are deaf, something they say helps them relate even more to the campers.

“I have a similar shared experience,” said Terry Dockter, who was born deaf and is a freelance interpreter who also does advocacy work in Seattle.

For Dockter, deaf culture is as distinct as Italian or German culture and should be treated as such, not as a disability.

Feel good thing

“Hearing people feel the need to ’fix’ deaf people,” he said, noting that at the camp, no one is made to feel that there’s anything wrong with them. “This is fertile ground for people who are going through this to come here and feel good about themselves.”

Berk said that the cost of the weekly retreat is about $75,000, though that doesn’t involve the staff time.

The more than 130 volunteers pay their own way and donate their time, and while it costs the Lighthouse about $900 per camper, the campers pay a flat fee of $280 to attend, and can apply for scholarships to cover their costs. The costs are covered by the Lighthouse, which raises money throughout the year.

The tuition covers a week’s worth of food, lodging and activities, including a craft house, where the sound of hammering rings out as campers make leather bracelets and bookmarks.

Lavena Meske of Seattle pounds metal imprints into the soft leather of her bracelet as her interpreter guides her.

“Do you want to put in a moon or a star?” interpreter Deanna Donaldson asks Meske, her fingers forming the question in Meske’s uplifted palms. Meske chooses the crescent moon, carefully feels for the space on the band that her eyes cannot see, lifts the mallet, and pounds down to create the imprint.

“I’m trying to get the hang of this,” Meske says through Donaldson, who is deaf. “I think it’s going to be really pretty.”

Upstairs, Anindya “Bapin” Bhattacharyya, technology supervisor at the Helen Keller National Center, is demonstrating how to use phones, laptops and Braille communicators.

Campers sit at computers, scrolling through Web sites that they “see” through the refreshable Braille that rises under their fingers on a board just below the keyboard.

Bhattacharyya, who is deaf and blind, speaks with a reporter intermittently through a translator and through a screen Braille communicator. The communicator has two sides: one in Braille that the deaf-blind person can read, and the other a screen with a keyboard, for a sighted person.

Thanks to technology

“The technology has enabled us to participate in the world more than before,” he said.

Berk said the popularity of the retreat shows how vibrant the deaf-blind community is, something that she said is often overlooked.

“I think people think deaf-blind people are slow, they need to be in a group home, they can’t live by themselves,” Berk said. “How can you live alone if you can’t see or hear? But every deaf-blind person here does exactly that.”

On the Net:

Seattle Lighthouse:

Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults:

American Association of the Deaf-Blind:

© 2005 The Repository