12/30/2022 01:23 AM By Lisa Anderson
Portrait of Kimberly Williams wearing a green sweater
Kimberly Williams
Story by Cierra Ross • Photo by Joshua Jacobs


DeafBlind Retiree Seeks To Educate Others

Kimberly Williams was born August 27, 1955 in Indiana. The doctors noticed right away that she wasn’t responding to noises, which led her to being diagnosed as deaf. Her mother was involved with the Deaf community, and Kimberly learned American Sign Language growing up. At a year old, her parents noticed that she bumped into sofas and tables, as though she didn’t see them. When she was taken to the hospital, the doctor confirmed she was 10 percent night blind.

“As I grew up, I did not feel the same as everyone else. People used to call me horse because of my inability to see either side, like a horse with blinders,” Kimberly states. She couldn’t play out at night, and this exacerbated how different she felt from others.

Joy with Saddness

Kimberly graduated from high school and moved to Minnesota. At 23 years old, she was diagnosed with Ushers Syndrome. “I truly believed growing up that I was slowly losing my eyesight. Very slowly. I used to be able to drive,” Kimberly says. Losing her vision was heartbreaking, but she saw one upside: She didn’t have to drive anymore. “I never felt comfortable driving.”

Despite the joy of not having to drive, Kimberly faced hardships losing her eyesight. “Each time I saw a little less, it hurt.” The darker the world grew, the more pain she felt, until she became involved with the DeafBlind community. “Being with the community made the heartache lessen,” Kimberly states with a smile. She worked for the DeafBlind Services Minnesota (DBSM) for 27 years. She taught Protactile to interpreters in the DeafBlind community for four to five years before retiring and moving to Florida. Kimberly communicates using tactile communication.
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Communicating as DeafBlind

Tactile interpreting or signing is when the DeafBlind individuals have their hands resting on top of the interpreter’s hands. For Deaf people to communicate, they must see the visual language of American Sign Language; however, without eyesight, DeafBlind individuals must rest their hands on top of the person they wish to communicate with.

“It would be nice if people would know and not ignore us or not bother with us,” Kimberly signs. She enjoys getting to know people and knowing who is in the room. “I like to know who is here.

"I like to be informed about who I am meeting.” It essential that a DeafBlind individual knows where someone is in a room and what their name is. People in Kimberly's situation are completely blind and unable to see facial expressions or any emotion, such as laughing, smiling, or crying. When a DeafBlind person is signing, there are ways people can show they are paying attention.

“If we’re chatting, I like when people let me know how they are responding to me,” Kimberly says. These methods include touching someone’s leg or arm using fingers to draw a smile, a frown, or scratching to show laughter. These Protactile conversation responses allow a DeafBlind individual to know what the other person is thinking or feeling. “I can’t see your face. Without [Protactile responses] I feel blocked,” Kimberly says. “Sometimes, I ask my husband about what other people are doing; without that information, it feels like a wall. It’s important to show me how you’re responding.” With responses, Kimberly is able to connect with someone and build a relationship.

Essential Support

In Florida, individuals who support DeafBlind people are called CoNavigators. Kimberly works with two to three CoNavigators, who allow her to be more independent. CoNavigators enable her to go shopping, and go to restaurants, drive her places, and do anything else she may want or need to do.

Kimberly also notes a distinction between Florida’s CoNavigators and Minnesota’s, which are called Support Services Providers (SSP). “[Minnesota] had passed legislation that provided all the expenses for SSP. Now, being here, I have a dream that I hope one day that Florida will establish CoNavigator services that emulate those in the State of Minnesota.”

Without her husband, Kimberly requires a CoNavigator to communicate. Otherwise, Kimberly would have to feel her way around. “I prefer to have a [CoNavigator] so I know who each person is and can meet them. I try not to depend on my husband too much. I try to have balance, because I want my husband to enjoy his own life, too,” Kimberly says. She and her husband have been married for 42 years.

Kimberly has worked hard for DeafBlind people in her community. She encouraged them to learn independence. Her advice to any DeafBlind individual would be to learn braille. Braille has enabled Kimberly to email, text, and use Facebook. The technology she has allows her to embrace her independence and communicate with friends without needing anyone else to text for her.

“We need to educate people and to have patience. The education should never stop. Sometimes, meeting DeafBlind people can feel awkward with Protactile communication. Don’t be afraid. Without Protactile communication, how are you going to understand me? How will I understand you?” Kimberly asks. Though she misses her friends from Minnesota, she loves the weather in Florida and the relaxation of retirement.
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