The group of teens entered the classroom, arms stretched out in front of them. Some held hands as they led each other through a maze of chairs, banging shins and stumbling over unseen obstacles. Awkward and disoriented, they felt for their seats in the darkened room.
For more than 20 students at the Cambridge School of Weston, this was no ordinary day in class. It was an opportunity to temporarily experience life without the benefit of vision or hearing, at a deafblind immersion seminar hosted by Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard.
“I’m excited for people to experience what I do, so they can get an understanding of what that’s like,” said Lard, who was born deaf with severely limited vision. “I think it’s really important.”
Lard’s seminar was part of the private high school’s Michael H. Feldman Social Justice Day, an annual event to promote inclusiveness and cultural understanding. This year’s theme of “Ableism” was designed to boost students’ awareness of people with mental or physical disabilities.
“The idea of doing something immersion-style was what appealed to me,” said student Charlotte, 15. “You get to see what it’s like to be deafblind.”
Lard conducted the presentation with her interpreter Christine Dwyer by her side. As Lard signed, Dwyer spoke her words aloud to the students, and signed into Lard’s hand comments and questions from the audience.
The 90-minute presentation included slides of Lard as a student at Perkins School for the Blind, participating in activities such as scouting and birthday parties. There was video of her navigating her morning routine and an interactive lesson in tactile sign language, where Lard taught the students simple signs like “hello” and “thank you.” But it was the immersion activity that attracted the most interest.
For that, students stepped into the hallway outside the classroom and donned eye masks and goggles. Some of the goggles offered blurred or pinhole vision, simulating different visual impairments. The students then fitted earplugs into their ears. When they were ready, Lard invited them back into the room to find their seats.
It was not exactly the same classroom they had just left. Lard had moved the chairs around and placed random objects on the floor. This, she explained to the students, approximates what it’s like for her to walk into a completely new environment.
Afterwards, most students said they felt nervous and tentative as they stumbled around the usually familiar space.
“That’s how I feel on a daily basis,” Lard told them.
Lard was upfront about other challenges of being deafblind, including the fact that it can be difficult to meet new people.
“It’s awkward – sometimes people are shy and afraid to sign with me,” she said. “Being deafblind can definitely be isolating. I’m always looking for new friends.”
As the presentation ended, students clustered around Lard. They reached out and signed “thank you” into her hand for the unforgettable glimpse she had offered into her deafblind world.
Jaimi Lard offers an array of presentations to suit almost any audience. For more information about booking a Perkins spokesperson, visit Perkins’ spokesperson page »