*I wrote this for a group on Facebook which you can join, it’s for a good cause, to help improve and innovate Helen Keller National Centre to be the place it should be – not a place where Deafblind feel like they aren’t learning, a place of fear and oppression, and where almost no Deafblind lead. *
A Letter of Support for
Help Kindle Needed Change
Christine ‘Coco’ Roschaert
December 18, 2012
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller
Helen Keller is a heroine in her own right. She overcame her struggles with silence and darkness to achieve so much and proved so many people wrong even decades later about the abilities of Deafblind people. Not only did she have a breakthrough in communication, but she triumphed through academic challenges only to travel the world and raise awareness about Deafblindness, wrote endless classic books and poems, and she is the muse behind programs, international organizations and national centers (Toronto, New York and Mumbai). She always believed in speaking out, against oppression, ignorance and separation from functioning society.
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller
Thus, in 1967 through a Congress Act passage, the Helen Keller National Centre was formed. HKNC is a rehabilitation centre aimed at training and enabling youth and adult people who are Deafblind.
The programs cover training independent living skills for the home and school, using a cane, Braille lessons, urban and environment navigation, technology introduced through assistive device programs and more. There are dorms for students with day-and-night staff, an interpreting team in sign language and SEE, lounge rooms, classrooms, a special-needs Deafblind dormitory, and acres of beautiful land. You can find this centre in Sands Point, Long Island, New York, a 30 minute commute from the Penn Station in New York City.
That center changes lives each time the students enter, for better or for worse.
I have been a visitor to that center twice, in 2008 and 2009 to visit a few good friends who work there during my visits to New York City.
To be told, I had heard good and bad things about HKNC, and wanted to see it for myself. I even made the effort to make appointments with Susan “Sue” Ruzenski, the Direct Services director of HKNC, to talk about a Deafblind Nigerian named Hassan and how I could get him over here from Africa to be trained. That was one of my missions during my visit to HKNC as well as giving the campus a tour, observing their classes, and trying to understand what was so bad about it.
So my friend, who used to work on the interpreting team in 2008, brought me to HKNC. I had to sign in as a visitor, and sitting across from me was an elderly 70-something woman smiling and ‘gesturing’ to me. I naturally signed in ASL, because, come on this is a Deafblind center with an absolute necessity for a 24-7 sign language policy. But I was taken aback to find out this secretary worked for HKNC for the past 30 something years and STILL DOESN’T SIGN. Nicely, I asked her, “why don’t you sign? How do you tactile with Deafblind ASL users?”. She sweetly responded: I’m taking some sign classes now. Me thinking to myself: at 70?!? Oh dear………..
My Deafblind friend, also a staff at HKNC, who is fully blind, took me on a tour before my scheduled meeting with Sue. My friend, whom I won’t name, took me through what I thought was the most physically and visually contradicting tour of a center I would have perfectly assumed was a 100% accessible place with everything, absolutely everything, a Deafblind student or staff desired. Less challenges and more ease in an environment.
I walked through white floors and didn’t see ‘markers’ or ‘raised paths’ to guide canes to certain rooms or stairs like I’d seen in other countries or buildings for the blind. I squinted my eyes at the bright white walls, I felt like I was being transported through a psychiatric ward. So cold, unwelcoming. I stopped by to read a bulletin board of announcements. There were three prints: small print, large print and Braille. If you can catch the irony here: the small print had 2 pages full of information. The large print was 1 page. You know, if you enlarge print, you should have 5 pages or so? Nope. Just 1 page and it was a ‘summary’ of the small print info. The braille paper is almost like a large print paper, the braille takes up a lot of space. But there were only 2, not 7 or 8.
So what I saw was that sighted people had more privilege to information than Deafblind people who were fully blind or close vision.
I looked at all the plaques of congratulations, successes, honors to HKNC throughout the years. Pictures with congressmen, famous people, well-known Deafblind people like Laura Bridgman, Bob Smithdas, Father Cyril Axelrod and Helen Keller herself. Pictures of groups of former students. They didn’t look exactly as happy as you’d see in a group of Seabeck Deafblind Camp. The rest, a lot of pictures of hearing-sighted people.
My guide took me to the assembly room. This room is used for presentations, student gatherings, trainings, and meetings. Once the doors opened, I was speechless. My mind was going “wrong, wrong, wrong”…… The floors were a light green and gray swirling mixture as if Picasso painted it. Straight ahead I faced a long hall and at the end was a 20-feet wall. The wall itself was painted a dark color, but I couldn’t tell if it was gray or brown. But wrong colors – it should be darker, like black or navy blue to ease the eyes of many Deafblind who had partial vision and could see contrast. But the HUGE white projector screen covered 15 feet of the wall, leaving a minor 2.5 feet on each end. No, no, no. The screen should be 1/3 of the wall, so we can look at interpreters with tons of dark space.
On each side of the room, the walls were painted white. Curtains were flowing with the wind from countless open sliding doors. I lost count how many sliding doors there were on each side, but this is way too many windows for my eyes to handle. Too much sunlight for the cataracts. I pitied the students and staff who came to this room with severe lack of visual accessibility to important information.
The cafeteria was not environmentally friendly. I saw the dorms, they didn’t have the space considered Deafblind friendly.
I got back to Sue’s office and she can’t make it to the meeting. Oh well. I met with the international admissions director, bless my mind, I forgot her name. She met with me, and I handed her Hassan’s application forms and wanted him enrolled here for three to six months. I’ve known HKNC has admitted international applicants and I wanted hope for this Nigerian man I met during my 2-year volunteer mission. The director said she’ll look into it and asked me about fundraising. I said as long as we keep in touch and you let me know the costs, then I can try to fundraise for it.
My first visit to HKNC left me with a great uneasiness. It was not the ideal ‘super-Deafblind’ center I had thought surpassed the advanced support system of Seattle, Washington. Months later, HKNC had not continued communication with me regarding Hassan, and it still forever haunts me. I dream of Hassan sitting in the desert dirt of Birnin-Kebbi, Nigeria, wondering if he’ll ever go to America and take back the tools he needs for a better life.
My second visit was brief, but I enjoyed the library visit and the technology room visit. I was so fascinated with what technology was being developed for Deafblind today. The library is a golden treasure trove of resources and I wanted to swim in it. There are some great things about the center such as these, some staff who I hold in high regard and the beautiful property. However, during this second visit, I met Joe McNulty. The Executive Director of HKNC. He was in a hurry, but in our brief conversation I could see that he didn’t sign well. Used voice more often. I could barely understand his signing. He says he’s been here a long time. If it were up to me, I’d want a Deafblind person in his position, who could sign very well, or Deaf or hearing with fluency in ASL. He left in a hurry and I was dumbfounded.
But in my honest opinion, there needs to be serious change. After my visits, hearing unsettling and sad stories, seeing highly respected people fired, students who stood up for their rights being expelled, complaints and letters ignored, questionable use of sponsorship funds, audism and oppressive environment, I believe that Susan Ruzenski and Joe McNulty need to go.
A new era of HKNC is so much desired. This generation is so different from when Laura Bridgman started out, and when Helen Keller wrote her first book. There are Deafblind people who are so diverse: the developmentally disabled, physically disabled, young, brilliant, elder, active leaders, mothers and fathers with children, who use cochlear implants, can speak, or use full sign language; and then there are people who can see and/or hear and want to learn more about us, to better support us.
I believe that HELP KINDLE NEEDED CHANGE is not a ravaging rebellion of a sacred philosophy by Helen Keller, but voicing her spirit by showing the world what they truly need from HKNC. This is almost similar to the Gallaudet Protests. Deafblind people want to change their leader(s). Deafblind people want to be noticed and supported. Deafblind people want to voice their opinions and change their lives for the better. If the administrators or the stakeholders of HKNC refuse to listen to the very consumers of the centre, then you have forgotten what democracy is. Listen to the very heart of this matter, and reach out to those who are fearful of reprisals or speaking out, whether you are Deafblind or Deaf or hearing.
If you are a former student or staff of HKNC and would like to write an open letter, please join our Facebook group. The same goes to allies who believe in this cause and want to see HKNC prosper, with the right leadership, new strategic plan, and a brighter future for thousands of Deafblind people who might pass that door (and be able to tactile sign language with a new ASL-fluent secretary, ha.).
A neutral, investigative committee needs to be established. The board members need to be reviewed as individuals and a whole. The administration needs to be revamped. Consumer and stakeholder opinion need to come forward. Fear needs to be ridden of with faith, support and tactile unity. Talk about your experiences, but most of all, please talk about the future – what YOU WANT FROM THE CENTER. The government knows about this movement, and they are listening. Come out and help kindle needed change at our beloved Helen Keller National Centre.
“It is for us to pray not for tasks equal to our powers, but for powers equal to our tasks, to go forward with a great desire forever beating at the door of our hearts as we travel toward our distant goal.” – Helen Keller
HELP KINDLE NEEDED CHANGE, I got your back.
Christine ‘Coco’ Roschaert
Deafblind international advocate,
Director of Nepal Deafblind Services,
Gallaudet graduate ’06.