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Rachel Webber raises awareness for Deafblind community

By Jack McLaughlin

Arts & Features Editor

The World Languages department held a presentation on the Deafblind community for Deaf Awareness Month, Sept. 26, to bring awareness to the deaf and hard of hearing community.

The event was hosted by ASL Professor Bruce Bucci and featured Rachel Webber, a Massachusetts resident and member of the Deafblind community.

The event was conducted in ASL, with interpreters present translating to English.

Bucci began the presentation by directing attendees’ attention to a flag in the front of the forum. The blue and yellow flag with the outline of a hand in the middle represents the deaf community.

He explained how the flag is “slowly getting out there and becoming more mainstream, but is very, very powerful.”

Before showing an informational video on the flag, Bucci prefaced that the video would be played with no audio and closed captions. He then explained his own experience with watching T.V. as a child with no captions to read from.

“I would imagine what was going on. I was looking at facial expressions and their body language and I would make my own script in my mind and have a whole show going on about what they were doing,” Bucci said.

The video featured the flag’s artist, Arnaud Balard, explaining the artistic significance of the flag he created. Balard is a Deafblind aritst, and his work is mostly focused on his flag.

After the video, Bucci continued the discussion on the flag’s significance.

Bucci explained oppression in the deaf community to emphasize the flag’s significance - “They weren’t allowed to sign, they weren’t allowed to express themselves. So this flag is a symbol of signing and expression.”

He continued the discussion of advances made by the deaf community by explaining how a lot of the modern technology used today was originally created by deaf people to communicate.

“There’s Zoom, there’s FaceTime … it all started in the deaf community,” he said.

Bucci then introduced speaker Rachel Webber, who was there to speak about her experience with Deafblind culture. She was born hard of hearing but lost her ability to hear at a young age.

She attended mainstream schools, and during that time her vision began to worsen until she was blind.

While explaining her journey, she went over the different forms of communication that she has learned throughout the years, which included lip reading, sign language, and is in the process of learning protactile communication - expressing emotion through physical touch.

Webber then explained what it means to be Deafblind, and that it is a spectrum.

“It can vary from someone who is completely deaf and blind, to being completely deaf and having a little bit of vision, to somebody who is born with partial hearing and vision and that slowly declines over time,” she said.

Webber continued to discuss how she interacts with the Deafblind community. She stays involved in the community by attending activities and going to Deafblind camps and said that they have been doing this for around four years.

“I have really tried my best to develop myself as a Deafblind person. And doing things like this and giving these presentations is getting to show everybody who I am and where I am in my journey,” she said.

She then began talking on protactile communication and how it can be used by the Deafblind community.

Webber explained that not everyone in the Deafblind community uses protactile communication, and it varies depending on someone’s own individual blindness or deafness

“So it’s important not to assume that you know how this person wants to communicate and don’t just jump into tactile signing. … Always go that route of letting them choose the mode of communication that they prefer,” she said.

She also explained the importance of keeping everyone included in these conversations.

“I know that when I’m with family or with a group of people, it’s hard to keep everybody included but it’s very easy to feel left out,” she said.

Webber also talked about the importance of treating members of the Deafblind community with respect when speaking to them.

“Remember these are adults just like you. And we’re not talking to them like children. So make sure that you are not using any degrading language. … The only thing that is different about them is that they are deaf and blind,” she said.

Bucci added to this sentiment, explaining that “I am not asking for anybody’s help. I am asking you to be my ally and not my helper,” he said.

This was continued by Webber, who explained when it is appropriate to assist a Deafblind individual. One suggestion included asking the individual if they need assistance, but reassured that is the choice of the individual.

“You can always ask, but taking over is never acceptable,” she said.

Other suggestions included alerting a Deafblind individual of potential dangers in an area they are in, or offering assistance reading menus in a restaurant.

The presentation then took a look at the different reasons that individuals become Deafblind. Different types included illnesses such as cancer, genetic disorder, and severe accidents.

Webber continued to explain what protactile communication is, informing attendees that it is a form of communication that allows for emotions and movement to be interpreted by someone who is unable to see or hear.

She explained that because protactile communication is physical, the goal of it is to make it completely non-visual.

Webber then demonstrated the different physical signs that are used for emotions such as laughing, nodding, and shaking your head “no.”

She talked about how while it is still being developed, there was no way to communicate those kinds of emotions to members of the Deafblind community before protactile communication was established.

Webber talked about the benefits of having that extra level of connection with people when they use protactile communication.

“Even in situations like this where I can’t see the audience, it’s very helpful,” she said.

Attendees were then asked to try using protactile signs with someone sitting near them. Webber guided the audience through different protactile signs and gave guests the opportunity to try them out on their own.

After this, Webber told a story to the audience of how she attended a conference in Boston and hired a support service provider (SSP) to accompany them. She described an SSP as someone who can “empower the deaf-blind person to travel independently and they will communicate environmental information.”

She explained how an SSP can be hired for everyday activities, but won’t take over or do anything for the deaf-blind person.

Webber informed the audience that to become an SSP, you will need to be trained through the Deaf-Blind Community Access Network Center, which is the provider for SSPs in Massachusetts.

The training of an SSP was described by Webber as “you learn how to communicate with deaf-blind people, how to lead blind people. … The different modes of communication they may use.”

Returning to her experience at the conference she attended, she recalled that an SSP was unable to accompany her for the event but was able to have her friends assist her.

During this, she recalled a moment where she wanted to walk back to her hotel. In the story, she told the audience that her friends recommended not doing so but she insisted, stating that “it’s my decision. I want to walk and it’s good exercise.”

This experience allowed Webber to have an independent choice with the assistance of her friends closeby.

Webber directed the audience’s attention to the screen, and asked those attending why the presentation was formatted to have a black background and white text.

This transitioned into a discussion on how to style presentations to best suit the needs of a deaf-blind individual. Simple designs like a black background and white text with little visual addition are the most optimal for someone who is deaf-blind.

After this, Bucci opened the discussion for the audience to ask questions to Webber.

One student asked if Webber is required to have someone accompany them if they are going out to run errands. Webber explained that while she can go by herself for these types of activities, they prefer to have someone accompany them due to the extra support.

At the end, Bucci expressed his gratitude for the event and for Webber’s presentation.

“This was so inspiring. I feel like I have tears of joy.”



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