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November 27, 2004

Unable to Hear or Speak, but Communicating Just the Same

From: New York Times, NY - Nov 27, 2004


Published: November 27, 2004

is hands speak for him, sometimes gesturing feverishly, other times gently stirring the air, conducting a symphony without sound.

When Daniel Hawkins is not expressing himself in American Sign Language, he is doing so through his charcoal drawings, his radiant images of sunlight and hearts, and his clay vases.


"He's always been an artist," said his youngest sister, Pat Hawkins. "Not being able to hear and speak, he put his natural talents into his artwork."

Mr. Hawkins, 65, has difficulty reading lips and, according to Ms. Hawkins, his three siblings are not adept at signing, so communicating is a challenge for him.

All his life, his art has been his voice, and he has learned to speak in many mediums, including needlepoint, rug-hooking and knitting.

For the last 15 years he has been attending the Manhattan Continuing Day Treatment program at FEGS, a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York, one of seven charities supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

The day treatment program provides group activities for adults with mental and emotional problems as well as for those who are deaf, hard of hearing or visually impaired. Mr. Hawkins attends art therapy classes there, and his portfolio shows sketches of faces, ranging from those he has seen in magazines to that of Abraham Lincoln. There are also still lifes and holiday symbols, like jack-o'-lanterns and mistletoe.

"That's me," Mr. Hawkins said through an interpreter, Christiana Kuczma, a deafness rehabilitation practitioner at the day treatment program, as he pointed to a drawing of a boy in a baseball cap, smiling wide enough to expose a missing tooth. The face of the boy is still recognizable in the face of the man: the mischievous grin, the missing tooth.

The Hawkins children grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in a single-parent household. Ms. Hawkins, the youngest of the four siblings, said her mother spoiled her and Mr. Hawkins.

"I was the baby, and Danny needed special care," she said. "We were very tight with Mom."

Mr. Hawkins and his sister were still living with their mother in 1974 when she died of a stomach tumor at 66.

Her death stunned them both.

When asked about his mother, Mr. Hawkins put his index fingers underneath his eyes and brought them down over his cheeks, the sign language symbol for "cry."

It is perhaps the most succinct way of conveying the hurt.

Even with words, Ms. Hawkins had a hard time expressing herself after her mother's death, and her level of distress intensified her concern for Mr. Hawkins. "If I'm like this," she wondered, "how is he?"

It turned out that Mr. Hawkins was not well at all. He stopped going to a community center where he liked to draw, lift weights and socialize. Instead, he found solace in drinking wine and eventually became an alcoholic. His siblings helped him get back on track by taking him to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that included other deaf people.

Mr. Hawkins has been sober for several years now. "I'm finished with that," he said of alcohol. "Even though I might have a desire for it, I push it aside."

Helping him to do that is the day treatment program, where he attends substance abuse programs in addition to art therapy.

Still, each day is a challenge. Mr. Hawkins is unemployed and getting by on his Supplemental Security Income, which is little more than $500 a month. He lives with his sister, who is his legal guardian.

To help Mr. Hawkins maintain his stability and his sobriety, and to continue his art, FEGS tapped the Neediest Cases Fund. The fund provided $300 for art supplies. He is now able to be creative at home, on evenings and on weekends, when he is not at the day treatment program. His art is also a way for him to stay engaged and pass the hours when his sister, who works nights, is not around to keep him company.

Saturday is their day together. Although Ms. Hawkins does not know much American Sign Language, she says that she and her brother communicate just fine. Having grown up together, they often understand each other implicitly. Naturally, it is a bond made tighter by shared loss.

"She's been gone 30 years," Ms. Hawkins said of her mother. "And we're just now coming around."

They have gotten through it together, with and without words. Mr. Hawkins said he dreams about his mother sometimes. But his sister is the one he leans on now.

Each Mother's Day, he brings her flowers.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company