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August 22, 2003

Deaf and blind woman aims to help others like her

From: Baton Rouge Advocate, LA - Aug 22, 2003

Advocate staff writer

The world has always been silent for Jackie Broussard. As a teenager, it started to grow dim.

Neither condition prevented Broussard from continuing her education and assisting others as deaf-blind program manager at the Louisiana Career Development Center for the Deaf and Deaf-Blind in Baton Rouge.

The center helps deaf and deaf-blind people with independent living skills, communication skills, job training and placement, and work ethic and transition from sign language to tactile signing as people lose their sight. Tactile signing is a method in which people who are deaf and blind can feel an interpreter's hands while signing. People also learn how to travel and live independently.

Family and friends, including Father Louis Dutra, formerly of Lafayette, co-workers Richard Malcolm and Carole Lockwood, encouraged Broussard.

Broussard, 47, has Usher's syndrome, a genetic condition that affects a person's hearing and sight and in many cases, it progresses as the person gets older.

There are two types of Usher's syndrome: Type 1, where a person is born deaf and may or may not gradually lose their sight; and Type 2 where a person has some hearing loss and some vision loss but isn't completely deaf or blind. It affects people differently.

Broussard said she has an aunt who is 63 and still has her sight; a brother in his early 40s who still has his sight; and her youngest son has Usher's but still has his sight.

Broussard's first indication that something was wrong with her sight came at 17 when her baby brother was starting to crawl.

"I couldn't see him on the floor and kept tripping over him," Broussard said through a sign-language interpreter.

Broussard's mother noticed and took her to the doctor, but Broussard put the thought of losing her sight out of her mind. She finished high school and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., in 1979.

In college, Broussard met others who had the same condition, but "I didn't want to talk about it."

Then in 1981, a woman came to Louisiana to talk about Usher's syndrome and Broussard decided to attend the seminar.

"All the symptoms matched me perfectly," Broussard said. Eventually, she said she began to accept her condition and decided to deal with losing her sight.

"I think my silence about my vision problem was giving me some problems," Broussard said.

As her sight failed, she would trip over things or fall, and explain the situation to friends.

"It made my life easier," she said. "My silence about my Usher's syndrome was because I didn't want to be different. I wanted to be the same as other deaf people."

The progression of Broussard's disease also changed her career.

After graduating from college, Broussard returned to Baton Rouge to be a dorm counselor for the Louisiana School of the Deaf. She later moved to Lafayette and got a job with the city as a data entry clerk until 1988.

"My vision started to get worse and I wasn't able to read and continue my duties," Broussard said. "I stayed home. I didn't know what I was going to do with myself. I was nervous for the future."

With two sons to care for, Broussard wasn't sure what to do next. A year passed and then Father Dutra in Lafayette, who ran the Catholic deaf-blind program, called and asked Broussard if she would like to volunteer.

"I thought about that. I'd like to, but I was afraid," she said.

However, Broussard started in November 1989 at what is now the Deaf Action Center, teaching basic Braille and basic mobility.

A year later, Dutra offered Broussard a new idea -- starting a deaf-blind support group.

"This was a very new concept for me and I was excited," Broussard said.

At first, the support group had only a few members but as word spread it became a viable project. "I really loved my job there. We would talk and discuss deaf-blind issues," Broussard said.

Richard Malcolm, the deaf/blind project coordinator at the Louisiana Career Development Center, said he is trying to identify deaf-blind people in the state. People are urged to call him at 225-387-0889.

"We have the highest deaf-blind incidence (in the United States) here in Louisiana," Malcolm said, and most people are in the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette areas.

Broussard continued to facilitate the deaf/blind support group in Lafayette until 1998, even after she moved to Baton Rouge in 1994 to work with the Louisiana Career Development Center. She took a full-time job in 1995 as independent living instructor and later was named deaf-blind program manager.

Carole Lockwood, director and founder of the Louisiana Career Development Center, said she knew that as soon as she explained what the center offers, Broussard would move to Baton Rouge.

It was tough moving from Lafayette where she has family and friends, Broussard said, but she added that it's been worth it.

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