For the week of July 7, 1999  thru July 13, 1999  

Two ladies—one blind, one deaf—learn to communicate with each other

Sign language bonds friendship further

Express Staff Writer

Just when I thought all was lost

You changed my mind

You gave me hope not just the old soft soap

You showed that we could learn to share in time…

Precious friend you will be there…

Pete Seeger

Olivia Arthur and Marlys Schmidt are precious friends. They see the world through each other’s eyes and ears.

Arthur, 75, of Hailey, is blind. Schmidt, 72, of the Bellevue area, is deaf.

Schmidt, who has endured a silent universe for four years, shuttles Arthur, whose world has been dark for 18 years, around Hailey in her white Subaru, making the rounds to the post office, the bank—the stuff of a routine day for most.

"When you don’t hear, you look at the [rear view] mirror a lot," Schmidt said in a clear, level voice.

"I help her with sirens," remarked Arthur, a familiar figure strolling with her white and green cane on Hailey’s streets.

Indeed, the remarkable relationship of these two gritty ladies, who lost sight and hearing to disease, speaks volumes about overcoming seemingly insurmountable afflictions through the boundless resourcefulness of the human spirit.

Such synergism was underscored last Wednesday evening, June 30, during a sign-language class, designed to teach communication to the deaf, at the Blaine County Head Start center on Hailey’s Main Street.

The class, the first of its kind in the county in recent memory, was conducted by Mitzi Mecham of Hailey, marketing director for local cable television station Channel 13.

Mecham, 35, who studied sign language techniques at College of Southern Idado and Boise State University, readily admitted some trepidation when she discovered that the blind Arthur had coaxed the deaf Schmidt into taking the class together.

"I was really concerned," Mecham said in an interview before the class started. "How was I going to teach them?

"Being deaf is such a lonely thing--you’re all alone in the world," she said of Schmidt.

As for Arthur, she said, "being blind could hamper her ability to see me and the signs."

Still, Arthur viewed the class, which began in May, as an important key to strengthening the dialogue—and the bond—between the two.

They sat side by side last Wednesday inside a yellow clapboard house, in a classroom designed for tots, with tiny plastic chairs and the requisite pre-school equipment to prepare needy children for formal instruction.

Both women have gray hair, Arthur’s longer and bound into a ponytail, Schmidt’s a more severe cut. A floppy blue hat hung over Arthur’s dark glasses. Both ladies wore blue jeans and sneakers.

Arthur is a Maryland native with a keen sense of humor. She met Schmidt, a Nebraskan by birth who lives on a small horse ranch, in the 1960s while both were nurses at the south campus of the Wood River Medical Center in Hailey.

There are other parallels in their lives as well. Their husbands’ careers—Arthur’s was a college professor, Schmidt’s was in the construction business—led them to Idaho. Eventually, both divorced while pursuing nursing careers.

Once the sign-language class began, Mecham was a whirling dervish of hand signals and animation. Schmidt, of course, clearly saw the often intricate hand and finger sequences, her future communication keys.

Arthur, however, had to be coaxed by Mecham, who often touched the unseeing lady’s hands, gently shaping her fingers and palms while also verbalizing the positions.

Mecham implored her small class not to think traditionally in terms of the alphabet and spelling, but rather to shift logic gears and focus on symbols and synonyms linked to the hand signs.

"It’s so important," she underscored, "to think like a thesaurus."

At times, Arthur turned to Schmidt to help her friend correctly arrange her fingers and hands so that she would soon be able to "talk" to her.

"I help her understand hand signs," Arthur said during an interview following the two-hour class. "I stopped writing her [notes] to force her to use the signs."

In truth, Arthur was picking up on "signing"—as the technique of sign language is called—faster than her deaf partner who could actually see the signs. Mecham said it was not an ironic development, but was expected given her teaching experience.

"The blind person you can explain to," she said, "but for the deaf person you have to write everything out or physically move their hands. They’re not understanding anything you’re saying."

Also absorbing the lesson were four others with normal hearing and vision: Schmidt’s adult daughter, Jil, of Bellevue; Mecham’s two daughters, Mykel, 8, and Deni, 10; and Kathy Perron of Hailey, who said she has a 25-year-old son who has a hearing impairment.

Although the deaf can’t hear Mecham, they can "read" her expressions. The animated instructor blurted out "shhhh" while rapidly scrambling her hands to communicate a flat tire. "Rrrr," she sounded out another time, while demonstrating a sequence for an airplane.

Mecham cautioned that even a seemingly slight finger-thumb deviation can result in embarrassment. Using a thumb instead of a finger in one sequence, she declared, turned "gasoline" into "poop."

At another point, she urged the class to pay close attention to her expressions as well as her hands.

"You can see my face, can’t you?" Mecham declared.

"No," laughed the irrepressible Arthur.

Soon the class ended. Arthur eventually rose, clutched her cane and, arm in arm, she and Schmidt walked into the twilight, down Main Street to Schmidt’s car.

In a few moments the Subaru passed the learning center, the deaf Schmidt at the wheel, the blind Arthur her passenger, and disappeared into southbound traffic.


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