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December 13, 2004

Deaf and nearly blind, Strauss is an 'inspiration'

From: Danville Advocate - Danville,KY,USA - Dec 13, 2004

Staff Writer

Abigail Strauss has excelled at almost every stage of her young life.

The former Danvillian performed well in elementary, middle and high schools. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in college with a record of good grades. She has held two highly responsible positions in social work and counseling, the current post being at a prestigious school in New York City, where she lives by herself and gets around as well as a veteran cabbie. She has traveled alone around the country and the world.

All of this and Strauss is only 29, deaf and nearly blind.

"I (recently) taught a class for a group of hearing parents from around the world who had just found out that their children were deaf. I was teaching them how to work with their children," she said Strauss through interpretation provided by her mother, Carolyn Strauss.

"Some of the parents told me after the class that I was an inspiration. They were impressed that I am deaf-blind (but) am able to live a normal life," she said.

"Normal"? A proud mother begged to expand on her daughter's word, if not differ with it.

"Abby has led as normal and ordinary a life as any of our other (three) children, but she truly is an extraordinary young woman," said Carolyn Strauss.

"We always knew Abby was very smart. She picked up sign language and comprehension very quickly," she said. "My husband (Dr. Howard Strauss) and I were committed to providing her as normal a childhood as possible and assign to her and provide her the same expectations, challenges and opportunities as we did our other children.

"She has worked hard to be as well educated as possible, to pursue a good career, to lead an active live and do it on her own."

Speaks at KSD

Abigail Strauss was in Danville last week to give a speech at the Kentucky School for the Deaf before a group of Gallaudet University alumni, as well as KSD staff and students. The speech was, in part, a lesson in history about famous deaf educators, Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet, and how Clerc not only established teaching methods for deaf students but also developed ways to educate deaf children who also are blind. The speech also was Abigail Strauss' personal story - the story of a deaf-blind youngster with courage who now is an adult on a crusade.

The crusader was born deaf. Carolyn Strauss said she and her husband, a Louisville dentist, wanted the best possible education and home life for their second child, so they decided to enroll her at KSD and to move from Louisville to Danville so she could be a day student and grow up in her own home. She later was diagnosed with Usher's Syndrome, a progressive disease of the eyes that affects about 5 percent of deaf people.

"We had no deafness, or blindness, for that matter, on either side of our families, and none of our other children is deaf or blind," said Carolyn Strauss, whose other children are Ted, who is a resident oral surgeon; Peter, who is in law school; and Joanna, a fourth-grade teacher.

"But other than learning sign language - Abby was my teacher, by the way - we did not do anything differently or treat her any differently from the other children," she said.

Abigail Strauss was a student at KSD from ages 2 to 14. She then transferred from KSD to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., and, after graduating from MSSD, went to Gallaudet University in D.C., where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in guidance counseling. She landed a job as a case manager for the New York Society for the Deaf, where she accessed various services for developmentally-delayed deaf people. She then was hired for her current position as guidance counselor at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City.

Her avocation as an advocate

As much as Strauss loves her vocation as a guidance counselor, it's her avocation as an advocate that is driving her. "I have hopes for both deaf children and deaf-blind children," she said. "A lot of deaf and deaf-blind children do not have strong academic backgrounds or skills. My hope is that they are given access to the best possible education and support systems so they can succeed in life."

But success depends not only on continuing to break down barriers between the deaf and deaf-blind cultures and the hearing world, but also on eliminating barriers that separate the deaf and the deaf-blind cultures.

"Many deaf people are put off by deaf-blind people," Strauss said. "The deaf feel uncomfortable around the deaf-blind. They put down the deaf-blind."

The discomfort and even contempt has to do with communication, she said.

"Deaf people rely on their sight, they're dependent on the visual to communicate. They don't like the tactile form of communication that the deaf-blind use. They don't like that much touching," she said. "The deaf-blind sign by holding each other's hands. That method takes longer than normal deaf signing and it involves more details, like having to explain where everyone is sitting and other details."

Another part of the negative feelings the deaf may have toward the deaf-blind has to do with fear, Strauss said.

"Losing your sight is scary," she said. "Deaf people rely so much on their sight to communicate, to exist, that the idea of losing theirs - an idea that becomes very real when they are around the deaf-blind - scares them."

Building a "bridge between the deaf and deaf-blind cultures"

Strauss's goal is to help build a "bridge between the deaf and deaf-blind cultures," to improve communication and understanding between them and to have them join together in mutually-beneficial efforts to improve education and job opportunities.

"The deaf and deaf-blind have too much in common to be so far apart," she said.

To reach her goal, Strauss said she is offering herself as a "role model," because she has experienced life as both a deaf person and a blind person and made it. She traces her success to her parents.

"My parents believed in me, always believed that I could accomplish any task regardless of the difficulty and believed I could achieve so much," she said.

Now a confident and independent young woman, Strauss is looking to the future. She wants to be involved in projects to establish more after-school programs at deaf schools. She also would like to spend more time as a motivational speaker for deaf and deaf-blind students. She also is considering writing a book about her life.

The idea for writing a book came from Strauss's younger brother, Peter, whose first word as an infant was the sign for "more" - and second, according to his sister, was the sign for "No, Abby!"

Her mother would be a good candidate to write a forward.

"Abby is living proof that anyone can excel at school and work and in life if they work really hard and don't ever give up," said Carolyn Strauss. "She has so much courage, so much strength.

Copyright The Advocate-Messenger 2004