Up until last month, I had never met a deaf/blind person before, so I had no idea what to expect when Sam Avery, a board member of the Alder Springs Deaf and Blind Community in Morganton, offered to introduce me to Lea Moynihan, a deaf/blind resident at the unique apartment complex serving deaf, blind and deaf/blind individuals.
I met with Lea and her interpreter, Danette Steelman-Bridges, in a small meeting room at the facility. As Danette signed my questions into Lea’s palm, Lea talked animatedly in a rush of sounds that flowed like water while signing American Sign Language. I could pick out certain words she said, such as “OK” and “Yes.”
A Connecticut native, Lea, 52, is deaf and blind due to a genetic condition called Usher Syndrome. Her parents discovered she was deaf when she was 15 months old, although she didn’t lose her sight until much later.
She began attending a school for the deaf when she was 3 years old. She stayed in a dormitory during the week and went home on the weekends. The deaf curriculum at the time focused on oral communication instead of ASL, so she was taught to talk at the school, which was reinforced by her parents at home.
“I don’t feel like my parents treated me as somebody ‘different,’” Lea said. “I don’t feel they tried to patronize me in any way. I think they just looked at me as a daughter. They were very supportive with everything I needed.”
She lost her vision over a period of years, starting when she was 16. She described how her visual field gradually narrowed and darkened.
“I was kind of freaking out, but I just went ahead with my life,” Lea said.
Determined to succeed, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York, and a Master of Science in School Counseling and Guidance from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Lea interned with the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf in Wilson in 1995. She counseled students with behavioral issues in one-on-one and group settings, taught classes on abuse prevention and co-directed a deaf/blind class. After earning her degree, she worked at ENCSD as a counselor. In addition to counseling and co-leading the deaf/blind class, she also did crisis intervention and created a program to teach coping skills to students with anger issues. She explained how lack of communication could make students’ lives difficult.
“Many of their family members did not use sign language to communicate, so that meant they did not have communication at home,” Lea said. “I also noticed that sometimes staff who could hear, if they had limited signing skills, really didn’t have the ability to communicate effectively with the students. I felt like they needed more deaf role models, because I could see that they would connect with folks who were deaf or proficient in sign language, but the number of role models was low.”
During this time, she struggled with increasing loss of vision. She began asking her interpreters to wear clothing that contrasted with their skin tone so she could see their signs better. She also used a mobility cane to help her walk at night.
“There is a lot of grief in losing your vision,” Lea said. “The grief happens over and over again, because every time there’s a vision loss change, grief occurs, so it’s a repetitive cycle.”
She finally reached out to the North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind. Representatives from the agency evaluated her home and tailored assistance to meet her needs.
She was having trouble pouring liquids, so they gave her a cup with a battery-powered hook on the side that vibrated when the liquid inside reached a certain level. They put raised dots on the buttons on her stove so she could tell what each was for.
“They taught me how to use a knife safely and gave me long mittens to use when I was getting things out of the oven,” Lea said.
Lea was hired as a deaf/blind services specialist with the North Carolina Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in 2004. She traveled a 24-county area from the Outer Banks to Interstate 95 advising deaf/blind individuals, training them to use assistive devices and making referrals for further assistance. She did consultation work with other agencies and gave presentations to ASL students and social service professionals about her work.
“I enjoyed meeting so many different people,” Lea said. “I felt like I was able to provide assistance and innovation.”
Lea left that position around 2013 to complete intensive, on-campus training at a rehabilitation center for blind individuals in Raleigh for a couple years. She learned Braille and the use of Braille assistive technologies, as well as mobility, orientation and other skills.
After completing the program, she felt isolated living by herself in a large city, so she explored other options and discovered the Alder Springs Deaf and Blind Community.
“When I looked at this apartment building, it was my goal to move here,” Lea said. “It was an ideal situation for me, (because) I’ve got the support, and I can reach out to other people.”
She moved to Morganton in 2017. She likes the convenience of walking to places close by and is a regular at The Grind coffee shop, her favorite place in town.
“When I walk in, they know me,” Lea said. “I just write down what I want and hand it to them at the counter. They’ll ‘write’ on my palm (a technique called “print on palm,” in which a person spells out words on a person’s hand with their finger) the amount I owe.”
She rides the Greenway bus to get to other places, such as the Morganton Aquatic Center, where pool staffers reserve a lane for her to swim 120 laps twice a week.
At home, Lea has a video phone that people can type messages into and see her signing on the video feed. A vibrating pager alerts her to visitors, as well as fire alarm activations.
She said residents at Alder Springs often get together for fun activities, such as playing games. She has a set of card and board games that are Braille-configured, so she can participate.
She also has Braille readers installed in her computers and smartphone so she can read emails and text messages, follow social media and research subjects on the internet. She is an avid fan of women’s college basketball and tracks the game scores online.
Her favorite application of this technology is reading books on her iPad. Her favorite authors include Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham. She also likes to read biographies and books about other cultures.
Lea is comfortable traveling by herself, and visited her family in Connecticut often pre-coronavirus. She has a portable Braille display that helps her communicate with people she encounters.
She’s taking a break from work, especially since COVID-19, but shared her vision for the next season of her life. She would like to train interpreters and speak to different organizations and agencies about her experiences.
“I’d like to be able to give presentations on different topics of deaf/blindness, so people know what deaf/blind people go through and what challenges they have,” Lea said.
She believes some hearing and sighted people have a misconception that all deaf/blind individuals are completely deaf and blind, but there are varying degrees of ability.
“Every person with hearing or vision loss, they are their own individual person,” Lea said. “They have their own individual challenges. They have their own needs and abilities.”
She said another misconception is that deaf/blind people can’t do things.
“People need to become aware and educated that deaf/blind people can honestly do anything,” Lea said. “Deaf/blind people can live independently, and many, many do. Unfortunately, there are some who have kind of fallen through the cracks. They’re living with their families and don’t have the opportunity to live independently. It’s unfortunate they can’t reach out to other people who are like them or who can understand them.
“I’m fortunate that I do live independently and have connected with people at deaf/blind camps and conferences. I’ve got technology where I can connect with others, but there are some people that don’t have that access, and then their skills become more and more limited. The key is support. Having a good support system and assistance helps them to be able to live on their own.”
Lea is both living proof of that and an inspiration to all.
Tammie Gercken is a staff writer at The News Herald and a member of the Morganton Writers’ Group.