Programs sparse for deaf and blind in Louisiana

Published 8:18 am Monday, December 15, 2014

LAFAYETTE (AP) — On the northern end of Lafayette, not far from Teurlings Catholic High School, you will find Amelia Manor Nursing Home. The facility houses the elderly, the infirm, the sick and dying and those who cannot take care of themselves.

Some residents are in wheelchairs, some confined to their beds. But there are also a number of residents whose only affliction is that they cannot hear or see.

Some, like 57-year-old Phillip Quibodeaux, are both deaf and blind. Quibodeaux has been that way most of his life. He grew up in a world where few people understood him and even fewer could communicate with him.

For people like Quibodeaux, life can be lonely. Speaking through an interpreter, Quibodeaux described how he came to live in the home.

“I used to live on my own,” he said. “One day I passed out. I was on the floor the whole time until they found me the next day. I have diabetes and I almost died. I was in the hospital a whole week. After that, the doctors said it wasn’t safe for me to live alone. I had to accept it. But here they take care of me. I feel safe.”

One reason Quibodeaux said he feels safe is because some staffers were hired for their skill with sign language, so they could communicate with him and other deaf and blind residents.

The program, which has no official name, was created by Paulette Guthrie, a volunteer and devoted advocate for the deaf and blind. It is run by staff member Glynis Kibodeaux, a certified nursing assistant and the deaf/blind coordinator for Amelia Manor.

Guthrie said she learned sign language in a class she took decades ago and fell in love with it. She thought hiring staff who could sign was a vital need because, after years of volunteering in nursing homes and working with the deaf, she found the most common problem was that no one could communicate with the hearing impaired.

“I would visit the people in the nursing home and they first thing they’d say to me is ‘I’m alone, I’m alone,'” recalled Guthrie.

She recalled visiting a deaf-blind man. “I said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ And he said ‘I’m thirsty.’ Nobody could even understand that he was thirsty. So I gave him water and he drank two big glasses of water. And he was dying. So, even on his death bed, he had nobody to communicate with him.”

Guthrie started asking the homes she volunteered in to allow her to teach sign language to some of the staff. That did not work out well, so she asked if they would be willing to hire people who could sign. Most facilities were not willing to, she said, but Amelia Manor was.

“They were willing to hire staff,” Guthrie said. “And that’s been two years, so it’s been a success story here. We have socials just for our group and people who can interpret for them. Because when you put the hearing and the non-hearing together, they can’t keep up. They need an interpreter.”

Guthrie and others advocates are especially concerned about having enough programs and resources because of the unusually large population of deaf and blind in Louisiana.

According to statistics from the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf, a division of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, the population is the highest in the United States.

Commission director Naomi DeDual said numbers compiled in 2007 but still accurate today, put the figure at 425 deaf blind (accounted for) persons in Louisiana, with about 60 percent — about 300 — in Acadiana.

“Louisiana has the largest number of deaf and blind in the nation,” DeDual said. “There are no real demographic statistics, because there are different parameters of what constitutes deafness and blindness.”

But Usher Syndrome, an inherited disorder that causes people to be born deaf and gradually lose their sight, is more common in Acadiana than the rest of the country.

DeDual said her agency’s goal is to provide access to public and private services for those impaired individuals.

Unfortunately, DeDual said, barriers still exist.

Many who are hearing or sight impaired rely on family members or friends to help them navigate a world that is not always geared towards their needs. That can lead to frustration for them and they say they often feel misunderstood. They don’t like burdening family members, so many hearing impaired individuals simply sit on the sidelines.

Kim Hebert, 59, is deaf but doesn’t have Usher Syndrome. He said he lost his hearing when he was a baby and grew up having to write things back and forth to communicate.”

“It was very hard,” Hebert said. “Not being able to hear isn’t normal, so many people don’t know how to talk to you. They think I am rude when they say something. They don’t know I can’t hear them. I went to school where there was no sign language. I was embarrassed they couldn’t understand me.”

Kibodeaux said that is a common complaint among her clients, but it does not have to be the case.

She said many used to be very independent: “They cooked, they cleaned, they took care of their own business. But due to health or old age, they’ve had to come to our community. The just have to have the right (help) and they can do anything.”

Quibodeaux agreed. After a lifetime of living with no hearing or sight, he wants others to know there is potential locked inside every individual.

“We need to let people know,” Quibodeaux said. “Let us (in the community) join the living. There is no limit to what you can do if you are willing to learn.”

Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com(MGNonline)