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June 27, 2004

Deafblind woman overcomes obstacles to lead productive life

From: Daily Home Online, AL - Jun 27, 2004

Kelli Tipton

Helen Keller, perhaps the world's most famous deafblind person said, "All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it."

Clara Johnson, 39, of Anniston is an overcomer.

Despite being deaf blind, she lives independently in her own apartment. She shops for groceries, pays her bills and cooks her own meals.

The week of June 27-July 3 is Deafblindness Awareness Week. According to information from the Alabama Institute of Deaf and Blind, there are an estimated 40,000 people in the U.S. who are deafblind.

People who are called "deafblind" may have some hearing, some vision or both, but their dual disabilities are significant enough to interfere with their daily lives.

Though Johnson is legally blind, with corrective lenses, she can see well enough to type an e-mail to friends and family on the computer, if she uses a large type size. She can navigate a room without running into furniture, and she can see well enough to catch the bus that brings her to Gentry in Talladega.

Johnson uses American Sign Language to communicate with others.

"I am deafblind," Johnson said through support service provider Renita Hollman.

"I am deaf, but I sign. I am blind, but I can see," she said.

Johnson graduated from the Helen Keller School on May 23, 1986. She worked at The Opportunity Center in Anniston for 17 years doing assembly type work.

"I was laid off because of the war," she said.

Johnson is enrolled in two classes at Gentry. She takes a computer lab for the deaf, in which she is learning to navigate the Internet and use e-mail. She also takes a cooking class.

Hollman said Johnson uses computer software that teaches her the English language as she learns the computer.

"Clara's first language is ASL," Hollman said.

"Her second language is English. She has very good English language skills."

In cooking class, Johnson learns to prepare simple recipes she can fix at home.

Observing her, it is almost easy to forget she can't see until she struggles with individually wrapped slices of cheese and the packaging on a can of refrigerated biscuits.

But she continues to feel her way around the wrappers, turning the item over and over in her hands, until she is able to open the cheese and the biscuits.

She is making "Eggs in a Bundle," and as she flattens out the biscuit dough into a square shape on the pan, her teacher, Janice Newman, signs for her to make it bigger.

"She will put cheese, eggs and bacon in this, so it has to be bigger," Newman said.

Johnson is cooking side-by-side with one of her many friends at Gentry.

"My best friend is Margaret and Lisa and Tamara and Keisha," she said.

She also has friends in Anniston and outside the state, which is unusual for people who are deafblind, according to Hollman.

"People who are deafblind usually feel isolated because they don't have many friends," Hollman said.

Johnson is able to make phone calls to her friends and family with a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf, or TDD, that is interfaced with her home computer.

And flashing lights alert her when someone is at her door.

Johnson's mother takes her to the grocery store and to do other shopping.

"Johnson is fortunate in that she has a strong family support system," Hollman said.

Johnson is also fortunate in that she is able to work. While she is laid off from her assembly job, she is exploring other areas of interests.

"I want to work," she said.

"I want to work on jewelry, or packaging paper," she said.

Hollman said she is working with Johnson to see what types of jobs are available to her.

"If she chooses to make other choices, we want to broaden the choices she has in the future," she said.

Hollman allows Johnson assist her with clerical work such as copying and filing papers that are not of a confidential nature.

"Perhaps she may be able to find a job doing these tasks to free up other employees," Hollman said.

The Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind in Talladega provides educational and rehabilitation services to people who are deafblind throughout their lives.

AIDB also operates Regional Centers in Auburn, Birmingham, Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and Tuscumbia.

Early intervention is critical with children who may be deafblind.

If you know a child who may have hearing or vision loss, or a developmental disability, contact AIDB at (256) 761-3206 or Child Find, a statewide identification program, at 1-800-543-3098.

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