I just returned from 2.5 amazing days at the Lighthouse for the Blind’s Seabeck Deaf Blind Retreat. I was invited by Randall & Barb Angell (Team Angell), a dedicated tandem cycling couple who want to share their passion with people in the blind community.
For 31 years, Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. of Seattle, has hosted a week of fun, laughter and tactile love for American and international Deaf Blind adults, as well as sighted volunteers. About 60 Deaf-blind campers ages 20 to 82 attended the camp, where they participated in a vast range of camp activities, socialized with new and old friends, and partied hard. The retreat was held at the historic Seabeck Conference Center on Washington state’s beautiful Hood Canal.
Each camper was usually accompanied by a volunteer support service provider (SSP). SSPs worked as interpreters, many using tactile communication, some using close vision, some signing from across the table, depending on the visual field of the deaf-blind camper.
As a sighted and hearing person this was a new world for me. I started with little understanding of the deaf-blind community. I’ll try to tell a short version of the story in a way that sighted and hearing people like myself can understand. I’ll do my best to accurately convey information here, but want to apologize in advance to my new deaf-blind friends. Should I make any major errors, feel free to correct me.
All campers are legally blind with some degree of hearing loss. This encompasses a broad spectrum. Individuals have vastly varying degrees of mobility and communication techniques. Some campers can see at close range, but still rely on a cane for walking, and are able to communicate by visual signing. Some communicate by speaking and signing. Some communicate via tactile hand-over-hand signing.
Some individuals have Usher Syndrome, or “tunnel vision” and the range of that tunnel varies person to person. Some individuals were blind first and later lost hearing, and may be more reliant on spoken English and the use of assistive listening devices and may not sign at all.
My friend Penny (photo at top of article) has been blind her whole life. Later she became completely deaf. She lived completely deaf and blind for years until receiving an experimental cochlear implant which gradually enabled her to hear and speak again. Her story is an example of the complexity and diversity within the deaf-blind community. It is not one thing. Since Penny is a writer, rather than attempt to tell Penny’s story here, I’m looking forward to having Penny share her story with you in her own words in the not-too-distant future. What I can tell you is that Penny rode tandem with her husband in Ottawa for many years. He passed away two years ago. She owns her own tandem and rides with sighted friends from time to time, but not as much as she would like. She told me that tandem cycling is a wonderful way for blind people to be part of the “normal” world and stay healthy. She is actively advocating and promoting tandem cycling through her writing.
As a sighted-hearing person I do not consider tandem cycling with deaf-blind people to be a charitable act. I believe each of us is isolated in our own little worlds and benefits greatly from sharing our lives and experiences with people from all cultures and backgrounds. I captained a borrowed tandem with deaf-blind stokers, and would be lying if I said I was fully-abled in that capacity. No one was injured, but we had one close call (sorry Randall!). I’m looking forward to riding tandem again with fearless deaf-blind stokers and bringing my sighted cycling friends and their friends into this world. Participating in this camp affirms my belief that if cycling is not a social activity for you, you’re doing it wrong.
Footnote: Even within the sighted-hearing community there are many shades and nuances of perception and communication. Photographers typically have a heightened sense of seeing. Some of it’s innate, but can also be learned. We’ve all heard people who despite playing a musical instrument for years will never be considered good musicians. There are painters who clearly have a heightened sense of color. When we eat at a nice restaurant, we hope the chef has an acute sense of taste. Where many people see woods or hear birds, a naturalist sees complex nuanced ecosystems and hears specific birds. Mathematicians are able to visualize another dimension that most of us can’t see. A good nurse can detect subtle cues in a patient’s health. Then there are the horse whisperers, dog whisperers, and all, who dare not reveal what their pets told them in secret. So, this whole sighted/blind, hearing/deaf thing is complex and highly nuanced. Each of us may never know the intensity and detail of how and what another person is perceiving when they smell a rose, taste an apple, look at a dragonfly, hear the wind, or feel a warm summer rain on their face.
Essential Resources & Links
Call to Action: We’d like to be part of making tandem cycling a year-round activity for blind cyclists. If you’re a sighted cyclist interested in doing what you already love and making new friends, click here to contact Randall & Barb or me, Eric Shalit and we’ll try and make it happen. Perhaps you’ve got a used tandem in your garage that you’d like to contribute to the cause. I’m sure you could get a nice tax deduction for it.
Outdoors for All Foundation provided most of the bicycles and bicycle-like contraptions. The Outdoors for All Foundation is a national leader and one of the largest nonprofit organizations providing year round instruction in outdoor recreation for people with physical, developmental, and sensory disabilities since 1978.
The U.S. Blind Tandem Cycling Connection endeavors to increase the participation of individuals who are visually impaired or blind in the exhilarating sport of tandem cycling. They serve as a resource to:
- Connect blind and visually impaired cyclists with sighted cyclists
- Educate people about tandem cycling
- Disseminate information about cycling clubs, events, and opportunities
- Address the needs of the blind tandem cycling community
The Seattle Lighthouse is a private, not-for-profit agency providing employment, support, and training opportunities for people who are blind, Deaf-Blind, and blind with other disabilities since 1918. Its philosophy maintains that each employee be provided with whatever supports are necessary for success in the workplace. Supports include an in-house sign language interpreting department to ensure effective communication for Deaf-Blind employees, staff mobility instructors to teach independent travel with a white cane or dog guide, and over 100 computer workstations adapted for use by visually impaired individuals.
Seabeck Conference Center provides non-profit organizations with the perfect escape from the hectic pace of daily life. The facilities are located on 90 beautiful acres with sweeping views of Hood Canal and the Olympic Mountains. The grounds are reminiscent of a small village, complete with walkways that meander past manicured lawns, fruit orchards, and wooded trails. Steeped in history and beauty, it’s easy to find yourself transported back to a simpler time.
Many thanks to the Christian Worship Center of Seabeck, Washington for providing their facilities as a staging area for the tandem bicycle rides.