Sunday, July 3, 2011

Nellie Zimmerman

This last week was National Deafblind Awareness week. I wanted to post about one of my Deafblind heros. I'm a day late, but we'll just say I'm running on Deaf Time!

Earlier this year, I picked up a book entitled "Walking Free; The Nellie Zimmerman Story." It was written by Rosezelle Boggs-Qualls and Darryl C. Greene. It tells the story of Nellie Zimmerman who was born in the early 20th century.

Nellie was born sighted and hearing, but lost her hearing as a child. Her father advocated for her write to be educated, and even though Nellie was denied entrance to a public school, he hired a governess to educate Nellie at home. This governess taught Nellie the manual alphabet; what most people call "finger spelling."

Nellie began losing her sight as a teen, and was able to learn braille before becoming totally blind. She lived a very happy and peaceful life until the death of her father.
Upon her father's death, Nellie was shuttled from one family member to another. However none of these people could finger spell. They treated her like baggage; moving her from here to there without explanations, or a word of kindness.

Eventually Nellie ended up in a state hospital where she lived for eighteen years.

Imagine it, for just a moment. Not being able to see, nor hear, not being able to communicate, not having any control. She was effectively imprisoned for eighteen years for the crime of being deaf and blind. Eighteen years is a very long time, countless minutes, hours and days surrounded by strangers-- many with dementia or other illnesses which frequently made Nellie a target for abuse.

Eventually Nellie was able to establish communication with a woman who knew the manual alphabet. At age seventy-one she was freed from the hospital and began to live her life in the free world.
Nellie went on to attend college, with the assistance of her SSP and friend Emily Street. She eventually got a job teaching activities of daily living to Deafblind boys.

When I think of someone whom I should strive to emulate-- one of the people I'll always think of first is Nellie Zimmerman. She could have just let herself go, once confined to the hospital. However she continued to stay active, even if those activities were limited to reading her braille Bible and doing complex math problems in her head. She kept herself sharp and continued to hope. At age 71-- when most of us willingly slide into our retirements-- she began attending college for the sheer love of learning. She made friends, attended parties, and went dancing.

Nellie Zimmerman is a great example of a Deafblind person who made a difference. Her life serves as an example that it is not Deafblindness itself which is the problem-- it's lack of understanding and unwillingness to communicate which are the barriers for Deafblind people world wide. If her family had only taken the time to communicate with her-- to learn the manual alphabet-- her life would have been so different. But it wasn't to be, and rather than wallowing in misery and "might have beens" Nellie lived her life in the moment-- looking toward her future.

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