I first met Jackie Coker when she and I were assigned as partners at a convention of the American Association of the Deaf-Blind.
I soon discovered that her appearance as a quiet, gray-haired woman sitting in a wheelchair was belied by her sense of adventure, courage and resourcefulness.
I became intrigued as I learned about her unique life.
At a time when Helen Keller and most deaf-blind people never traveled alone, she traveled independently with her dog guide.
She is one of a handful of deaf-blind people who still communicate using Tadoma, a method of reading people's lips with the hand.
As far as I know, this method is no longer taught, probably partly because strategies for teaching it were never documented.
Fortunately, when Jackie was in her 20's, she wrote about her experiences - including how she learned Tadoma. She has now returned to that manuscript to complete her autobiography.
This article shares excerpts from her story, including her experiences becoming deaf-blind, trying to communicate, and having hallucinations.
Although I have known other deaf-blind people who experience benign hallucinations -- probably as a result of sensory deprivation -- I have not known anyone else to write about it.
We pick up Jackie's story at age seven, when she had become seriously ill with a high fever and passed out at her home in Arizona.
ONSET OF DEAF-BLINDNESS When I came to, I was lying in bed in a hospital.
After Mom gave me some juice, one of the nurses reached down with a thermometer.
I looked up at her, and everything went blank. I never saw anything again.
I seemed to be drifting in and out of wakefulness. Suddenly I felt an emptiness and had difficulty breathing.
Would I ever get enough air? I heard my own voice distantly screaming, "Oh-h-h, Mama, Mama, Mama!"
"Yes honey," her voice replied. I felt a needle jab into my lower back, then I drifted again.
Something was fading, growing dimmer, and then it was completely gone.
Gone with blackness what I slowly realized was enveloping me. I was closed in, half dead, as if I was wearing an invisible helmet.
The sound of footsteps was gone!
The nurse washed me and dressed me in my pajamas, then someone carried me with hands that were big, like a man's.
I put my arms around his neck, and my fingers detected a mole. Dad! He could be no one else.
Dad put me into a car, and I fell asleep. I woke up later in a bed and wondered if I was in another hospital.
I called to Mom, and a strange woman came. Later there was another strange woman who had different hands, and I even discovered a man I did not know.
I was surrounded by strangers. Where was Mom?
ATTEMPTS AT COMMUNICATION The thought came to me that since I could not see faces or hear voices, Mom might be one of those strangers. But how would I know her?
Then I remembered that she always wore a silver Indian bracelet, set with a single turquoise.
"Mama, Mama," I called. When the strange woman touched me, I felt her wrist.
There was a bracelet with one stone on it. This was Mom; she had been there al the time without my knowing her. I hugged her.
Maybe I was at home, not in another hospital, and people around me were my relatives.
Could the other strange woman be Grandma? Grandma wore a bracelet with turquoise all around it.
When the other strange woman touched me, I found the bracelet and knew that it was Grandma. I felt happy.
There was no difficulty recognizing the man. I only needed to touch his face and feel a toothbrush mustache to know he was Grandpa.
A few days after coming home, however, I had a big worry. Every night I could feel Mom's stomach shaking, and when I touched her face I found it wet.
She was crying, but why? Could it be that the doctor told her I might not ever see or hear again?
I would have to find out, but how? I would not be able to hear her answer.
However, I could feel her head move and the direction in which it turned.
In the morning I put my hand under her chin. "Did the doctor say I might not get to see and hear again?" I asked.
There was no response. I said, "Shake your head 'yes' or 'no.'" Her head moved up and down.
I panicked. I dug my face into the pillow, and began to cry. Mom grabbed my hand and put it back on her chin.
She was shaking her head violently from side to side to let me know that it was not true, the doctor had said no such thing.
I stopped crying, but I was not convinced. I knew the doctor had said it, or she wouldn't have been crying like that.
No matter! The doctor didn't know everything and could be wrong. I figured that he was wrong this time and I would see and hear again.
As days passed, family and friends found ways of identifying themselves to me. One morning after I had recovered enough to sit in a chair, someone touched me.
I thought this was not a man because the arms were not hairy, but it was not Mom or Grandma.
She showed me a pail she was carrying. I knew that a neighbor's daughter carried the garbage in a pail every morning and emptied it, and I guessed that it was her. I was right.
Gradually as time went on, I was able to recognize people in other ways, such as by their rings, clothes, or distinctive scars.
If someone came whom I did not recognize, I asked in which direction the person lived.
Someone would point my hand toward a direction, such as the back of the house, and I would name all the people who lived that way.
Whoever held my hand would nod when I hit on the right person.
Later my family tried printing letters on my hand.
I was able to recognize the letters because I had been in the second grade before I fell sick but, because I hadn't yet learned to read anything except my own name, I did not know what they spelled.
During these times, my family also developed some hand signs and gestures to try to communicate with me. These were not signs such as are used in American Sign Language, but rather universal gestures that anyone could understand.
For example, to convey drink, they would cup their hand as in the letter c, put their thumb to their lips, and tip their hand upward as if drinking.
To signify eat they touched my chest then my lips.
For all this time and struggle, however, the communication barrier was not lowered.
The signs and gestures were helpful but limited, and I hadn't yet learned to make sense of letters.
My cousins later spoke many times of how difficult communication had been in those early days.
In a typical incident, I was visiting them one night when I reached over to touch one of them and found her looking intently outside.
We then went to the bathroom where they looked out that window too.
When I asked why, one of them put my hand on her throat and said a word.
As always before, I was unable to understand.
Whatever it was, it had to be something unusual, so I asked, "Are there snakes out there?"
She shook her head. I could think of nothing else to make them stare.
After breakfast the next morning, I was taken outside and shown what they were looking at -- snow! Out on the desert, snow is unusual.
I have never known why people at that time were forever putting my hand on their throat or lips and speaking to me.
Surely they must have realized that I did not understand them.
When my hand was on someone's throat I felt only a bur-r-r br-r.
If my hand was on the lips of a woman it was "pludh dul dul, da, da," if a man, "Wah, woo, baw," and if a child it was "bub, bub, bub."
How is that I can read lips now if I could not then? Before they can catch words, hands have to be trained to recognize vowels and consonants separately.
This training began when I started school the following year.
HALLUCINATIONS People may imagine that deaf-blind persons live in darkness and silence, which may be true for some individuals, but most certainly not for me.
When I focus my eyes and try to see what is around me, I find either a blazing light or a brightly colored map of something that continually moves upward.
Before I was able to walk again after my illness, I noticed sounds that I could not identify.
Sometimes there was a popping noise like a cap-gun going off, a rattle like the lid of a bread box raised and lowered, or music.
For a time I thought these sounds were real, but then I realized they could not always be.
For instance, once when walking outside with my parents, I began hearing music.
When I asked each of them if they heard it, they both shook their heads, and I figured it must be just in my ears.
One night I was drifting off to sleep when I noticed the "map" I so often saw moving upward was stopping and taking forms.
I saw a man in fashionable clothes carrying books on his head.
He went to a bookcase and slid the books off his head onto a shelf that was at the level of his forehead.
Then he went to a table where his wife was sitting and a kerosene lamp was burning and sat down opposite her.
The sounds I heard became spoken words.
"Raise your hand up, Pa," the woman said, and he did.
A magician standing behind him put a box of kitchen matches into his hand.
The magician then stepped to the table, opened the box, and emptied the matches onto the table.
"See," he said, "they can move by themselves."
The matches sprouted arms, legs, and faces and ran all over the table and floor.
They went to their box, and some got in it while others began pushing it around the floor.
Their antics were so comical and I began laughing and woke Mom.
She was irritated and swatted me. I laughed several more times and each time got a swat.
Poor Mother! How relieved she must have been when I finally went to sleep.
Not long after this incident, I found how easy it was to "see" scenes in my imagination and to "hear" voices, words, and even music.
Just thinking of a scene would bring it clearly to my mind's eye unless I was seeing the glowing light that I so often saw then.
It was a while before I learned to separate my imagination from whatever caused those moving patterns and lights.
I began creating imaginary characters to carry out actions I wanted to watch.
Since I had not yet been blind for even a year, faces and figures were still fresh in my memory, so creating the looks of the characters was no problem, but clothes were difficult because I hadn't paid much attention to them, especially shoes.
I solved this problem to some extent whenever I came into contact with other children buy touching the clothes and shoes they wore.
I have no idea what they thought when I did that -- probably that deaf-blind children are eccentric.
I pictured my dream-children going to carnivals, riding in parades and singing, shopping for toys and clothes.
Sometimes I watched them playing cowboys and Indians, banging away with guns and galloping wildly over the desert land.
They rarely got hurt.
My mother began showing concern that I had stopped going out to play.
I was just sitting around in the house, doing nothing but dreaming.
She tried to get me outside with toys, and sometimes I would go if in the mood.
This changed after Dad got a job and we moved.
I knew Dad was working because he left the house every morning and came home in the evening. One morning I asked, "Mom, what does Dad do""
She went outside and brought me a rock, then she made the movements of a person digging. "He works in a mine, Mama?" I asked, with my hand on her face. She nodded.
One day I came into the kitchen and found Mom at the table with a pencil and paper. "Who are you writing to, Mom?"
I began naming all the people I could think of: Grandma, aunts, uncles. No, none of these.
She finally took me out for a walk. She showed me a patch of daisies, which I recognized by their feel and smell.
Daisies reminded me of a friend of Mom's who had moved to Illinois. "Daisy Palmer," I said.
Mom took my forefinger and made the gesture of writing on her palm. I understood; that was the person to whom she was writing.
One day Mom showed me a suitcase, pointed to me, then made a motion like writing on a blackboard. I was going to be sent to a school.
I was excited about being in school again, just like other children.
So it was that in September 1937, a little less than two years after I had lost my sight and hearing, my parents drove me to Tucson, Arizona to begin school.
I did not cry when Mom and Dad left. I cried in private, in bed, but I did not cry much because I was bursting with curiosity to see my teacher-to-be the next day.
The next morning, the housemother took me to another building and into a room with a wide doorway. When we walked between rows of chairs, I knew we were in the school auditorium, and I sat down.
After some time passed, I felt the vibrations of footsteps as people were beginning to leave, then a thin hand took my own and drew me up.
We walked from the room together and came to a stairway, and I staggered up the steps after Skinny Hand.
TRAINING IN TADOMA AND BRAILLE
We went down a corridor and into a room.
She showed me a desk and motioned for me to sit down. After I did so, she drew a chair up and seated herself in it.
She raised my hands to her face and showed me her cheeks, lips, earrings, and hair.
Then, keeping my fingers on her lips, she began making sounds, one at a time. "Ah-h-h," she said, "ee-e-e-ee. O-o-o!"
I could understand the sounds because I remembered lip positions when people made them.
But not until she gently jiggled my chin did I understand that she meant for me to repeat after her, and I did so.
Eventually we went outside for a walk, and when we returned she started again with the sounds that I was to repeat after her.
This time she occasionally said more than one sound at a time.
I knew when it was time for me to repeat because she would pull my hand down from her face.
As days passed and I became better skilled at recognizing vowels that the teacher voiced, she shifted to consonants.
Consonants are not at all difficult to recognize by touch. Vowels are the real little devils that can cause frustration and confusion.
The short e and i can be confused with each other, as can the long a and i.
The two consonants that are difficult are n and r.
Eventually, the teacher began putting both vowels and consonants together, though without saying actual words.
The fact that she did not try real words may have been part of the reason for the trouble we had later.
When she finally introduced words, I thought they were only another combination of meaningless sounds.
She said what sounded like, "meesset ter mah-h-h r-r-oh-h."
I tried repeating that, but she shook her head to signify I was wrong. We tried again, but it was still wrong.
Time after time we tried, and I was wrong again and again. For days I struggled with the "meessit ter mah-h-h-h-r-r-r-oh-h" until at last, somehow, I hit the right pronunciation.
The teacher was pleased and took me downstairs to a man who was sitting at a desk. She said those funny sounds and I repeated.
She smiled and took my hand and patted the man's shoulder. I said it again and he arose and shook hands with me.
I was glad because I thought the struggle was finally over, but as it happens I still didn't understand in the least.
I figured she had brought me to show him I had finally gotten it right, but whenever that man came into the classroom to speak to her, he would take my hand and the teacher tapped my chest and made those garbled-up noises.
One day -- perhaps a few weeks or a month later -- when this happened again, I wondered why she did that every time I came in contact with him.
Surely I did not need to keep proving I could say the sounds right. Could it be that the "meesis-ter" was really the word Mr., and the man's name was Morrow?
When he left the room I touched the teacher's face and asked, "Is his name Mr. Morrow?" She nodded. So that was it!
The reason she had taken me down to this man that day, made those sounds, and patted his shoulder was not to show him I could make the sounds right, but to let me know that it was his name.
I had not understood that at the time.
Before this discovery was made, the teacher had already begun trying to teach me her own name.
This time I understood that it was her name, but am not sure how I knew.
She may have pointed to herself and then said the words. I could understand the word Moore but not the first word, which sounded like "Meesit ah-h ah-h-hz-z-z."
To my hands it did not sound anything like "missus." Hands were made to feel shapes and textures, not words, though they can be trained to do it.
When I could hear, people usually just said "miss," rarely "missus," so possibly if she had just said "miz" I would have caught on more quickly.
I had decided her name was Moore and asked her. She nodded.
I was going to ask, "Mrs. Moore?" but before I could do so, she said "missus" herself, and the confusion started over again.
What in the world was that ah-h-h-z-z-z-z? Her name surely could not be Mrs. Ahz Moore.
How many days this struggle went on, I don't remember.
It just happened that during one of our sessions I suddenly realized that the funny-sounding word was missus. I asked if it was and she nodded.
I was so happy I grabbed her and gave her a big hug, and she gave me a kiss.
I mentioned wooden letters that Mrs. Moore had shown me earlier. One day she showed them to me again, and then show3ed me a copper sheet with braille on it.
She pointed from the print to the braille several times to tell me that they were the same, though they didn't look the least bit alike to me.
I decided that since I could distinguish one braille letter from the other, it didn't matter that they didn't look like the print letters.
I thought maybe they did resemble the print but were so small that I couldn't trace the lines.
Another teacher began coming in daily after that. Her name was Dr. Louise Wilber, and she was herself blind.
Mrs. Moore, who had been trained in speech therapy for deaf children and, as far as I knew, had never taught a deaf-blind student before, didn't know braille, so Dr. Wilber taught us both.
Dr. Wilber went over the alphabet with me, then showed me different letters to see if I recognized them.
How long it took for me to learn braille and understand speech I do not remember, but I do know it was not long.
Before Thanksgiving I could read, and I could understand some spoken words and even sentences.
At first I could understand only when Mrs. Moore spoke, but by the end of the school term I was able to understand almost everyone, including other children.
AFTER THE COMMUNICATION BARRIER WAS BROKEN
After that first year in school, the communication barrier was let down and I was able to enter classes with other teachers.
Several times they tried having me enter classes with other students, but that did not work out well.
The teacher had to come to my desk to speak to me, or I would go up to hers.
If she were speaking to the students as a group, there was no one to interpret for me.
For that reason, most of my teachers had their time arranged so that we would work together alone.
The subjects I studied in all the following years were the same as those taught in regular public schools.
I was at the Arizona School for the Deaf and the Blind for nine years.
My parents and I then moved to California in 1946, and I finished school at the California School for the Blind.
I did not enter college immediately after high school graduation but instead went to live with a roommate in a small California town.
I felt I needed to learn how to live independently outside of an institution, and I have never regretted that decision.
After five years, I went to the University of the Pacific and graduated in 1959.
The next year I was hired as a counselor-teacher by the Division for the Blind of the California State Department of Education, where I worked for 17 years teaching persons who were newly blinded how to live normally without vision.
After that I became statewide consultant for deaf-blind persons for eight years in the U.S. Department of Rehabilitation Services for Deaf Persons Section, making surveys of services available to deaf-blind persons and passing the information to those needing it.
Jackie Coker, B.A., retired counselor, California State Department of Rehabilitation, Mailing address: 7692 Rotherton Way, Sacramento, CA 95823.
Dona Sauerburger, M.A., orientation and mobility specialist. Mailing address 1606 Huntcliff Way, Gambrills, MD 21054
Jackie Coker passed away February 19, 2005 -- we are grateful that she shared her delightful story; her obituary appeared in the Sacramento Bee.