Motion to Take Notice of the Month of June as the Birth Month of Helen Keller and to Recognize it as “Deaf-Blind Awareness Month”Published on 28 May 2015 by Senator Joan Fraser
Hon. Joan Fraser (Deputy Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, I am very pleased to speak in favour of Senator Martin’s motion that we recognize the month of June as speech and hearing awareness month — I’m sorry, as deaf-blind awareness month. Speech and hearing is a separate matter that I’m going to get to in a moment. It is deaf-blind awareness month.
I was deeply moved, as I’m sure we all were, to listen to Senator Martin and Senator Munson as they spoke about something most of us probably did not know, which is the great numbers of people in Canada who suffer from deaf-blindness — nearly 70,000 Canadians, of whom apparently only maybe 3,000 are enrolled in programs getting the help they need.
The month of June was chosen because it’s Helen Keller’s birth month. I am sure we all remember, most of us, seeing years ago now the incredible film, The Miracle Worker, showing how Helen Keller, a child who was blind and deaf and lost, living basically like an animal, was saved by the work of what we now call an intervenor, Anne Sullivan. Thanks to that intervention, that long patient work, Helen Keller was able to overcome the terrible isolation in which she lived and become a beacon of hope and an inspiration for people all over the world, not just because she learned to speak and talk but because she had, once she was able to show it, such a wonderful mind that she could apply to the great issues of the day. She was truly an inspiring figure.
Not everybody is born with the mighty brain that she was able to put to such good use. Not everybody has the good fortunate to have parents who can afford to have a full-time carer, as Helen Keller did, to bring her out of her prison. That’s why we need to take a collective sense of responsibility for helping people who suffer from this unimaginably lonely condition. They may not all be Helen Kellers, but every one of them can contribute to the betterment of our society, and it begins with awareness.
I think it would be really terrific if today, on our last sitting in May, we recognize June as deaf-blind awareness month. But before we leave the month of May, I would like to remind all colleagues that the month of May has been designated by Speech-Language and Audiology Canada as speech and hearing month. Speech-Language and Audiology Canada is an organization representing about 6,000 professionals in the field of speech and hearing loss across Canada. Every year, in the month of May, they have a specific campaign to raise awareness and get help for some element of speech and hearing difficulties.
This year, I think we in the Senate may have a particular interest. This year, their focus was on communication, health and aging. I don’t know how many of us know that people who have hearing loss are two to five times more likely than others to develop dementia. We know that hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition, behind arthritis and hypertension, and yet only one in five people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one.
To have lost your hearing or never to have had your hearing is not as bad as to have lost both your hearing and your sight or never to have had your hearing and your sight, but to have lost your hearing is also a terrible factor of isolation. I sometimes think that if I had to choose between the two, I would almost rather be blind.
We see it. We sometimes feel it ourselves. As we age, we’re more and more likely to feel it. When you’re deaf, it’s very difficult to be part of the communications network of the people around you. It starts out with not quite catching what they say, not quite understanding the joke because you didn’t quite get the punch line, and then it progresses until there you are, surrounded by people who think you look normal but cut off from them by an invisible wall.
I’m sure most of us here today remember our former colleague Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, who was my seatmate for several years. He was deaf, and he was very much alone in the Senate Chamber despite his years of extraordinary parliamentary service. He was functionally alone here until the Senate figured out a computer system that would allow him to receive the stenographer’s debates on a computer screen. The whole world opened up to him.
Even so, I mean, I respected Senator Gauthier and I liked him, but I can’t say I communicated much with him. I was sitting beside a man who was incapable of hearing a word I said. Then I had a colleague who used to send me written jokes and I started passing them on to Senator Gauthier. He could read — oh boy, could he read — and his world lit up. He would giggle and that brought home to me, as much as anything ever has, how alone he was when he was deprived of the written word, even though he could see everything.
Thanks to help from people like the members of Speech-Language & Audiology Canada, some people can achieve miraculous progress. I once met a man who had been born totally deaf and who spoke fluent English, French and Spanish. I think he was working on his fourth language when I met him.
All things are possible if you have the determination, the resources and the talent. But how many of us have all of those things and, in particular, how many have the resources they need?
So let us move forward into June, thinking about deaf-blindness. I thank Senator Martin and Senator Munson again for bringing this terrible condition to our attention. But let us also think about the month of May. Remember that the campaign this year was about communication and aging, which is something we all need to pay attention to, colleagues.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.