Now she sees: After struggling with deaf-blindness, Jeri Cooper finds calling teaching those like her
By Michael Overall Tulsa World Sep 1, 2017
Tulsa World Magazine
This story appeared in the September/October issue of Tulsa World Magazine. Order a copy at tulsaworldmagazine.com
Fresh out of high school and eager to prove her independence, Jeri Cooper climbed off a commuter bus in downtown Oklahoma City and ventured by herself
toward a busy intersection. But blurry vision left her hesitating at the curb, not sure whether the light said “walk” or “wait.”
“Do you need help?” a man asked, perhaps just being friendly, or maybe trying to flirt with an attractive young woman.
Cooper took the man’s elbow and stepped with him into the crosswalk.
“Had too much to drink last night, honey?” he asked playfully.
“Oh, no,” she said, feeling embarrassed. “No, I’m not drunk at all. I’m just, you know, visually impaired.”
If she had confessed to having some deadly, highly infectious disease, the man could not have gotten away much faster. He practically ran. And Cooper,
left alone on the crowded sidewalk, made a life-altering decision that day in the mid-1970s.
“If people can accept drinking but can’t accept blindness,” she thought to herself, “then I’m going to drink.”
Born in Tulsa in 1958, Cooper didn’t respond normally to stimulation from light or sound, and doctors diagnosed her with what was described at the time
— insensitively — as Mongolism, now known as Down syndrome. She would have the mentality of a 5-year-old and probably die in her 20s, they told her mother.
And she should be placed in an institution.
Cooper visibly shudders when she imagines what her life would have been like if her mother had taken that advice. Norma Lynn, a frugal child of the Great
Depression with a deep Christian faith that permeated every decision she made, taught her to read and write. And eventually — when it was obvious that
her daughter was not mentally disabled — she had Cooper retested.
Doctors confirmed that Cooper had severely limited vision — able, at the time, to see broad shapes and colors but not details. And she could hear only
if people got very close and spoke very clearly. But intellectually, she was a bright, articulate child.
“Mom was like my Anne Sullivan,” Cooper says, referring to Helen Keller’s famous teacher. “She believed in me and wouldn’t give up on me.”
Cooper had three older siblings — two brothers and a sister. And one day, in an effort to make them more sympathetic, their mother put tape across their
eyes and watched them stumble around the house for a while. But Cooper’s mother didn’t want — in fact, didn’t allow — any special treatment for her.
Once, for example, when Cooper was about 10 years old, her mother took her out to a restaurant with several family members. And when she asked to go to
the bathroom, her mother simply gave her directions.
“See that door over there? Go through there and make a right.”
Her relatives seemed shocked.
“Why don’t you help her?” they asked.
“Because,” Cooper’s mom explained, “I’m not always going to be here.”
On the other hand, she was around more than Cooper realized, watching from afar. She’d sit in a window for hours to watch Cooper ride her bike up and down
the street, never knowing that her mother was there.
“It’s almost like God is to us,” Cooper says now, looking back on her mom, who died in 2004. “She was always watching, but from a distance, letting me
think I was doing things on my own but ready in case I needed her.”
In the fourth grade, Cooper enrolled in the Oklahoma School for the Blind in Muskogee, where an audiologist performed a routine hearing exam on her.
“Let me try something,” he said offhandedly, fitting a pair of hearing aids into her ears.
Doctors had always thought that such devices wouldn’t help Cooper, whose hearing loss was blamed on nerve damage. But suddenly, for the first time in her
life, she could hear everything clearly.
“Wow!” she remembers. “A whole world just opened up.”
But the hearing aids weren’t hers, and the audiologist had to take them back. Cooper left the room in tears.
The audiologist, apparently feeling lousy about it himself, followed Cooper upstairs to a third-floor locker room, where she was still sobbing.
“Let me do this for you,” he said, holding a metal device about the size of a shoe box with a handle on top and an intercom-style microphone on the front
with a couple of control knobs. He placed a pair of large headphones on her head, plugged them into the box and showed her how to adjust the volume.
She carried the box around school for weeks, looking — as she describes it herself — “like a weirdo.” But she could hear.
After that, she was fitted with hearing aids of her own and she has worn a pair ever since, although her hearing has grown steadily worse with age and
she struggles to understand people if there’s much background noise.
Her vision grew steadily worse, too, until she went completely blind in her 20s. By then, Cooper had self-consciously and deliberately plunged into a life
of alcoholism and drug abuse, partying as often as possible while jumping from job to job and relationship to relationship.
Her friends seemed shallow and her romances didn’t last. Some even became abusive. But at least she wasn’t alone.
Estimates vary wildly on how many people have limited vision and limited hearing, with the definition of deaf-blind covering a wide spectrum that ranges
from low-vision coupled with mild hearing loss to the total loss of both. In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Education put the number at more than 700,000
nationwide. But more recently, the National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness, perhaps using a stricter definition, estimated the condition affects roughly
10,000 children and 40,000 adults.
Either way, it’s a tiny fraction of the population. And that only reinforces the feeling that people have to face it alone.
The worst part about blindness isn’t the inability to see, Cooper says. It’s the social barrier that blindness can put between people, making even casual
acquaintances hard to keep, much less close friendship. Add deafness to the mix and people really don’t know how to act around you, she says.
They tend to raise their voices, thinking volume will help. But it only makes them harder to understand.
“Come closer,” Cooper tells people. “Don’t get louder.”
Some people are OK getting within inches of her face. Others find their comfort zone being invaded. And even up close, if background noise is cluttering
the conversation, Cooper might ask you to repeat yourself a few times. And then people get frustrated or embarrassed.
“And they think, ‘Oh, never mind.’ It’s easier just to avoid this woman.’ They don’t want to deal with it,” Cooper says. “Isolation was always my biggest
fear. And that is why I drank.”
Bad relationships, however, create their own kind of loneliness. Partying was a way to be near people physically. But emotionally and spiritually, Cooper
felt more isolated than ever.
In her mid-30s, needing surgery to repair an old cheerleading injury from her days at the School for the Blind, she told her sister that she didn’t want
to wake up from the anesthesia. But Cooper did wake up.
“So I decided that God apparently had a reason for me being here,” she says. “I’m kind of like the prodigal daughter, coming home to my roots. I wasn’t
raised to live the kind of life that I was living.”
The doorbell doesn’t make a sound but flashes a light inside Mary Edwards’ dark living room, where her limited vision can notice it. She hasn’t bothered
to turn on any lamps, and with the blinds closed throughout the house, it feels like midnight inside, even though it’s a bright, sunny afternoon outdoors.
Cooper, with a driver from the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, has come a hundred miles to visit Edwards, who goes by the nickname “Sunshine”
and lives with her mother in the eastern suburbs of Oklahoma City.
A dozen family photos are hanging on the walls, but Edwards hasn’t seen them since she went blind in 2015. Like most people with Usher syndrome, an incurable
genetic condition that is one of the leading causes of deaf-blindness, she began having night blindness during high school in the 1990s. And both her vision
and hearing grew incrementally worse until she needed cochlear implants in 2009.
Today, unfortunately, the batteries seem weak, and she’s struggling to hear.
“Do you want to sit here?” Cooper asks, suggesting the living-room couch. “Or at the table?”
Edwards doesn’t respond. Barefoot in jeans and a purple T-shirt, she has straight, dark hair down to the middle of her back.
“Here or at the table?” Cooper repeats, leaning closer and speaking slowly.
“Yes, I’m OK,” Edwards says, still not understanding.
At 39, she’s one of Cooper’s older clients and “late to the game,” as Cooper says. But she desperately wants to learn sign language and Braille to help
her fight a custody battle with her ex-husband over their three children — ages 7, 14 and 16. So Cooper has been coming once a week this summer.
Feeling their way along the walls, Cooper and Edwards move to the kitchen, where the clock on the stove says 5:07 and a clock on the wall says 9:40. A
voice clock, announcing the time out loud every five minutes, gets it right: 1:20 p.m.
They sit close to each other, knee-to-knee, and hold hands to practice “tactile signing” — feeling each other’s words in sign language.
“How are you doing?” Cooper asks.
But instead of signing back, Edwards speaks.
“How do you say ‘good?’?” she asks, with the distinctive drawl that a lot of deaf people have.
“I don’t know,” says Cooper, who speaks so clearly that new acquaintances often don’t realize she is deaf. “How do you say ‘good?’?”
“Oh, I remember,” Edwards says, signing the word into Cooper’s hand.
“If you can’t remember a sign,” Cooper tells her, speaking and signing the words, “just spell it.”
Deciding to go back to college at age 40, Cooper originally wanted to major in human resources, helping place people in jobs they’re most suitable to do.
But on second thought, she didn’t seem very suited for it.
Friends suggested that she become a rehab teacher for the deaf and blind.
“Well, that’s a thought,” Cooper agreed.
So she graduated from Northeastern State University, then received a master’s from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in 2009. An internship at Oklahoma
Rehabilitation Services led to a full-time job, and now, she travels all across the state to offer one-on-one tutoring to people who, like her, are deaf
They spend an hour working on sign language and Braille, then Cooper lingers for a while just to have a personal conversation, not translating the sign
language to protect Edwards’ privacy. When they’re ready to leave, Edwards hugs Cooper and the driver.
“What helps the most,” Edwards confides, “is talking to somebody who understands.”
About five years ago, Dylan Richardson spent two weeks in a coma with spinal meningitis before waking up totally deaf and blind. To him, it seemed to happen
overnight. He went to sleep able to see and hear and woke up trapped in silence and darkness.
A tattoo artist with plenty of ink covering his own arms and legs, Richardson lashed out in anger at the world and kept shoving people away, unable to
understanding what anybody was trying to tell him. He didn’t know if it was day or night and lost track of what month it was.
Cooper went back week after week to visit him at a nursing home in Okemah, an hour south of Tulsa, where at first he refused to let her even touch him.
But eventually, using magnetic letters to spell out messages on a cookie sheet, she coaxed him to feel the shape of each letter, exploring the words with
his fingertips until he understood what she was trying to say.
“I am deaf and blind, too,” the message read.
He simply held her hand and cried for several minutes.
“This job is why God put me here,” Cooper says. “I finally got to where he wanted me to be all along.”
And now Richardson is her star pupil — “my pride and joy,” Cooper says — learning sign language and Braille. And more important, learning from her example
that the deaf-blind don’t have to be alone.