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January 25, 2005

Adding Some Essential Appliances in a Life of Silence

From: New York Times - Jan 25, 2005


Published: January 25, 2005

Pablo LaSalle's world is one of silence and light. Born deaf, he depends on signals of light to tell him what he cannot hear.

It is the small things, too. Whether someone is asking him a question. If there is smoke in his apartment. If it is clear to cross the street. The instances of daily life that others take for granted are what Mr. LaSalle most needs help with.

He depends on translators and his friends to speak and hear for him. After an arduous journey of the heart, Mr. LaSalle has learned to depend on himself for everything else - but to ask for help when he needs it.

Mr. LaSalle, 55, was born in Puerto Rico and came to New York when he was 4. His uncle, who brought him to the United States, enrolled him in a school for the deaf and blind in White Plains, where Mr. LaSalle learned American Sign Language, his main tool of communication. He stayed in school and received a high school diploma.

Although he was with other deaf people during the day, he remembers how difficult it was to be deaf and young in New York at night. He recalls being beaten up and being called names that he could not hear but still understood. He was shunned by others. It was vital for him to have other deaf friends. Even now, he says through a series of hand gestures interpreted by a translator, he faces discrimination daily because of his disability, encountering problems in the subway.

But it was through his deaf friends that Mr. LaSalle met his wife, Monica, on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn, in a moment that Mr. LaSalle recalls clearly, even after 40 years. He worked at Bloomingdale's, and she worked at Gimbel's. She was also deaf and mute. He fell in love and married her, and together they had a daughter, Sonia.

By 30, Mr. LaSalle had a family, an apartment and a job. He had a life that drew him out of the stillness imposed by his disability. But he and his wife separated when he was 39; his daughter went with her, he said, leaving Mr. LaSalle to his solitude.

When he describes this through a translator, the anguish that is plain on his face comes through in his voice. Mr. LaSalle, although technically mute, makes sounds, and often they are the most eloquent part of his communication. He grunts, and his mouth attempts to form words. A 50-year-old frustration boils in his face when he is not understood, and he will often try to write what he cannot communicate through his hands or sounds.

After Mr. LaSalle and his wife separated, he moved in with his mother, who had come to New York shortly after her son had. He lived a quiet life with her until 1998, when she died, and Mr. LaSalle was again left alone. He now lives by himself in an apartment for which he pays $230 a month.

In 1988, Mr. LaSalle left his job at Bloomingdale's, where he had worked since 1973 as a stock clerk. Without job or family, his life was again whittled down to just himself.

Recently, he began reaching out for help and found it at the Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, one of the seven local charities supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

Because he lives alone and cannot hear the doorbell, Mr. LaSalle does not know when someone is at his door. He needed a blinking door signal, a device that indicates when someone is calling up to his apartment. But the $876 that he receives from Social Security barely covers his expenses and could not be stretched to provide the $200 that the device would cost.

Mr. Lasalle's social worker, Griselda Pitre, obtained $203.90 from Neediest Cases, which paid for the signal now over Mr. LaSalle's apartment door. She is also trying to find a better smoke alarm for all the rooms in his apartment, a vital tool for Mr. LaSalle, who explained through a translator that his older alarm blinks only in one room.

Through these tools and other aid from Catholic Charities, Mr. LaSalle's life is beginning to open up again. He is starting to have more contact with his daughter, from whom he was estranged for many years. He plays dominoes with friends and spends time with his neighbors, who are also deaf.

So on a freezing day in Brooklyn, Mr. LaSalle said he felt good. He was bundled against the cutting wind, and his hands were chapped from the cold. But they still flew through the sign language that is Mr. Lasalle's only break from silence.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company