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Though Deaf and Blind, I Found Security

Though Deaf and Blind, I Found Security

Though Deaf and Blind, I Found Security


From birth, I was virtually deaf, yet I learned to manage in a hearing world. Then, while in college, I was shocked when I was told that I would become blind. My well-meaning college counselor gave me an article about living without sight and sound. Immediately, my eyes caught the phrase that those both deaf and blind are the loneliest people in the world. I burst into tears.

I WAS born in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.A., on July 11, 1954, the only child of Dale and Phyllis Den Hartog. Little did my parents realize that both of them were carriers of a genetic condition known as Usher’s syndrome, which is characterized by congenital deafness with progressive visual loss.

My parents did not at first suspect any problem with me. Perhaps this was because I had a little residual hearing of low frequencies and would sometimes respond to sounds. However, when I did not develop speech, they knew something was seriously wrong. The doctor finally diagnosed my deafness when I was about the age of three.

The news devastated my parents. Yet, they were determined that I receive the best possible education. I was put in an excellent preschool for the hard-of-hearing. But since I was nearly deaf, I failed miserably. My frustration was sometimes displayed by banging my head against the wall.

Sent Away to a Special School

My parents chose to enter me in the Central Institute for the Deaf (CID), in St. Louis, Missouri. Despite the great financial cost and the heartbreak of sending me away at the age of five, they figured that this was my best hope for a successful, happy life. My parents and I really could not communicate at that time.

I watched Mother pack my clothes in a trunk. The journey by car seemed endless. At CID, I remember seeing the other little girls with no mothers and thinking, ‘Oh, I won’t have to stay here because I have a mommy and a daddy.’ When it came time for my parents to leave, they tried to explain that they would come back in a few months. I cried and cried and held onto them tightly, but the housemother pried me away so that they could leave.

I felt abandoned. Alone with the other girls on our first night at the school, I tried to comfort a crying girl by pretending to talk to her, although I couldn’t actually speak at the time. The housemother scolded me and set up a divider between us so that we could not try to communicate. The wall remained there from then on. The isolation was crushing.

Gradually I figured out that all of us were there because we could not hear. Perhaps my parents loved me after all, but I reasoned that it was my fault that I had failed preschool. I was determined to succeed this time and one day return to my family.

The education at CID was excellent. Although we were not allowed to use sign language, we were given lots of individual instruction in lipreading and in speaking. All the subjects taught in regular schools were emphasized as well. While I believe that the oral-only approach, as it is called, does not work well for many deaf children, it worked for me, and I felt successful. With my hearing aids, I learned how to make sense out of the mouth movements and muffled sounds of others’ speech. Most hearing people were starting to understand my improved, though imperfect, speech. My parents and the school were extremely satisfied with my success. Still, I longed to be back home.

Each summer vacation I would beg my parents to let me stay home and go to school in Iowa, but there were still no local programs. After I returned to school, Mother would send me a letter each day and include a stick of chewing gum. How I treasured that gum because of the love it represented! Rather than chew it, I would save each piece, and I especially cherished them when feeling depressed.

Home Again, but Problems Arise

Finally, when I was ten, my parents brought me home. I was so happy and felt so secure to be with my family! I enrolled in a local special school in Des Moines for children with hearing loss. Eventually I was mainstreamed into regular classes because I was a fairly good speech-reader and had developed intelligible speech. Yet, there were many challenges with my new situation.

In the dormitory at CID, I had felt accepted by my deaf peers. But now, when I had to interact with more than one person at a time, my speechreading skills could not keep up with the fast communication. So I would be left out. I wanted so badly to be accepted!

This led to my seeking the approval of teenage boys, which resulted in becoming involved in compromising situations. And I didn’t know how to say no. When I was 14, I was raped; but I told no one. Although my parents were always concerned and loving, I felt isolated and lost.

With my hearing aids, I could enjoy music somewhat, but my choice of music was questionable. I listened to loud acid rock. I also became a regular marijuana user and withdrew more and more. I still feel deep regret when I look back on what I did during those turbulent years and on the pain it caused my family and me.

Efforts to Improve My Life

Throughout this period, I had a continuing thirst for learning and a desire to be creative. I read constantly, painted, sewed, and embroidered. I wanted more out of my life than what the future held for my friends who were only into drugs. So I registered in a regular college near home to pursue my interest in art. About this time I decided to learn sign language because I was frustrated at being left out socially.

Eventually I transferred to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York, to major in ceramic art. Although my eyesight was progressively getting worse—a fact that I somehow refused to recognize—I felt as though my life was heading in the right direction. But then my college counselor made me face reality by telling me that I would soon go blind.

The institution was ill prepared to handle my needs, and I had to leave. What would I do now? Although saddened by the prospect of soon becoming blind, I was determined to find a way to live independently and not end up as, in the words of the article the counselor gave me, ‘one of the loneliest people in the world.’ I returned home to Iowa to learn how to read Braille and how to use a cane for mobility.

Move to Washington, D.C.

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s only liberal arts college for the deaf, had specialized services for deaf-blind students. I transferred there and graduated with honors in 1979. Once again, I felt good to be able to succeed academically.

Yet, I still felt socially isolated from my peers. Robbed by my visual loss, I had learned sign language just in time to start to feel as though I belonged to a group, the Deaf community. The sign language I use is the same as the one other deaf people use. However, because I must put my hands on theirs to understand them, some deaf people avoided me out of awkwardness. I began to wonder if I would ever be truly accepted by any group of people.

Search for True Religion

Religion had not provided me with comfort while I was growing up. And in college, even though I took a course in religion, I never received answers to my many questions. After graduating from college, I continued to look for answers. During this time I was unhappy with my relationships, so I began to pray to God for his guidance.

In 1981, I moved back to Gallaudet University to get my master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. I continued to pray for help to find the right church. Several people offered to take me to their churches, but for one reason or another, they did not follow through. Then I met Bill, who could hear normally and was also in graduate school. He discovered, quite by chance, that I shared his interest in the Bible, and he told me that he was learning all kinds of amazing things from Jehovah’s Witnesses.

My first impression was that Jehovah’s Witnesses were some Jewish cult, an opinion that I found to be common to many deaf people. Bill assured me that they were not, and he said that the best way to find out about them would be to attend one of their meetings. I really did not want to go, but I remembered my prayer. I reluctantly agreed, on the condition that we sit in the back row so that we could escape if they put any pressure on us.

I Felt Right at Home

I was very nervous as we drove to the meeting. We both wore blue jeans and flannel shirts. I was glad we arrived a little late because then we did not have to interact with anyone before the meeting. Bill interpreted in detail all the things I could neither see nor hear. Although I did not fully understand what was going on, I was impressed by two things: The speaker frequently used the Bible, and the children, who sat with their parents, actively participated in the meetings. After the meeting, far from being pressured, we were warmly welcomed, in spite of our clothing and different racial background.

We were the only two white people in the Kingdom Hall. Although I was not aware that I had any prejudice against blacks, I was initially uncomfortable being there. However, the message of Bible truth was too compelling to let my discomfort stop me. We started to attend the meetings regularly. Even more of a challenge for me was that there were no deaf people in that congregation. So when we heard about another congregation that had some deaf attending, we started to go there. Again, at this new congregation, we were the only whites in attendance. Yet, we were made to feel right at home.

We accepted an offer of a Bible study. Finally, I was getting answers to my questions. I did not always understand the answers right away, but they were Scriptural. With more research and meditation, I eventually got the sense of the Bible truths. For the first time in my life, I came to feel close to Jehovah as the true God. At the same time, Bill and I became close friends. I knew that he liked me, but I was surprised when he asked me to marry him. Happily, I said yes. Bill was baptized shortly after our wedding, and I followed him a few months later, on February 26, 1983.

Finding the Security I Sought

Initially I feared that I would be isolated because our congregation had only two other deaf people and they were not adept at communicating with someone both deaf and blind. I could tell that our congregation was loving and warm, yet I could not at first communicate directly with them. This saddened me. Many times I felt discouraged and lonely. However, a kind act of a spiritual brother or sister would touch my heart and lift my spirits. Bill also encouraged me to persist in my ministry and to pray to Jehovah to bring more deaf people into association with the congregation.

I decided to get a guide dog so that I could be more independent. The dog also helped to dispel my feelings of isolation. When Bill was at work, I could walk to the Kingdom Hall to meet the group that met to share in the Christian ministry. Over the years I have had four guide dogs, and each has been like a member of the family.

Although a guide dog was helpful, I longed for more human contact. In time, Jehovah blessed our efforts to develop interest in Bible study among the deaf. The interest grew to the point where a sign language congregation was formed in Washington, D.C. Finally, I could communicate with each member of the congregation!

Bill qualified to serve as an elder and was appointed the presiding overseer of the sign language congregation. I found great pleasure in conducting Bible studies with other deaf and deaf-blind people, a number of whom are now serving Jehovah faithfully. I also tutored hearing sisters in sign language so that they could be more effective in the deaf ministry.

A Time of Testing

In 1992 major depression that was associated with the abuse I suffered as a youth overwhelmed me. For a couple of years, I could barely function. I felt handicapped—not by my deafness or blindness—but by my intense emotional turmoil. Many times I did not think that I could bear to go to the meeting or out in the ministry, and I would beg Jehovah to give me the strength to keep integrity. As a result, I rarely missed a meeting, and I remained regular in my ministry during those dark years.—Matthew 6:33.

In 1994 we moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to help with the formation of another sign language congregation. The move was not an easy one. I left behind a familiar city with many dear friends. Even though I was still not over the depression and anxiety, the joy of seeing a new congregation formed in Vancouver made all the sacrifices worthwhile. I made dear friends in the new congregation, so that it came to feel like home.

Blessed by Our Loving Father

In 1999 my husband and I and two other Witnesses visited Haiti for six weeks to help in the deaf ministry. Working in conjunction with the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses there, we taught a sign language class to the members of the congregation and preached with them in the relatively untouched deaf territory. In a few weeks, over 30 Bible studies were started with interested deaf ones! I returned home with renewed spiritual vigor and began the full-time ministry as a pioneer in September 1999. With the help of Jehovah, my dear husband, and a supportive congregation, bouts of depression have not robbed me of joy.

Over the years, I have experienced how tender Jehovah is in affection. (James 5:11) He takes care of all his people—but especially those with special needs. By means of his organization, I have been able to receive the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures along with many other Bible study aids in Braille. I enjoy conventions and assemblies in sign language. The congregation lovingly supports me by tactile interpreting, signing into my hands, so that I am fully included in all the meetings. In spite of a double disability, I have found security among Jehovah’s people. Not only do I receive but I can also give, and this gives me great joy.—Acts 20:35.

I look forward to regaining both my hearing and my sight in Jehovah’s new world. In the meantime I am not one of the loneliest people in the world, but I have a worldwide family of millions of spiritual brothers and sisters. All this, thanks to Jehovah, who has promised that he will by no means leave me nor by any means forsake me. Yes, in spite of all the challenges, I can say: “Jehovah is my helper; I will not be afraid.”—Hebrews 13:5, 6.

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Signing into my hand

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With my husband, Bill, today