There are many stories of people who are deafblind who, despite the challenges, learn communication systems and strategies to overcome those daily hurdles of life.
Most people have heard of Helen Keller (1880 – 1968) from the United States of America. Helen was born with sight and hearing and through illness at the age of 19 months became deafblind. Helen’s determination and enthusiasm to learn meant that, together with her teacher, Anne Sullivan who used the deafblind alphabet to spell words on her hand, she was able to communicate. Helen went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts Degree, and became a successful author and lecturer. The Helen Keller National Centre based in New York was named in her honour.
However, Australia’s answer to Helen Keller is Alice Betteridge, pictured to the right (1901 – 1966). Alice was also born with sight and hearing, becoming deafblind after contracting what is thought to be meningitis at the age of two. Following a visit with her mother to a school now known as the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC), Alice was later to enrol there at the age of seven. She was the first child with severe vision and hearing loss to receive an education in Australia.
Alice was introduced to tactile communication methods with similarities to the way Helen had been taught.
Alice began making connections with the words spelled on her hand by her teacher Roberta Reid and the objects that were presented to her to touch. This opened up communication for Alice who also went on to learn to read and write Braille.
After completing her education Alice stayed on at school to help other children for a number of years. Alice’s legacy also continues through the school named after her – The Alice Betteridge School at RIDBC in Sydney.
Although not as high profile as Helen Keller, Alice led a fulfilling life marrying Will Chapman (a blind penfriend) in 1939. Her husband passed away after only nine years of marriage. A meeting between Alice and Helen Keller took place in Sydney in 1948 during Helen’s trip to Australia, pictured left.
The majority of people who are deafblind (another term often used is dual sensory loss) will have some vision and/or hearing. However there are many challenges that are faced on a daily basis. Communication is one of the major hurdles to overcome. Once a system of communication is in place it can open up their world.
Alice Betteridge photographs courtesy of the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children
Read personal accounts of people who, like Alice and Helen, are facing similar challenges today with limited sight and hearing.