Disability leader with vision and hearing loss translates dreams into action with help from state Rehabilitation Services agency
Cassandra Oakes makes her point with speech and sign language during an interview in her Oklahoma City home.
(from left) DRS Deaf-Blind Specialist Joan Blake uses American Sign Language to communicate with Cassandra Oakes who is deaf and blind, and Rachel Hollis, who is deaf. Hollis uses hand over hand, or tactile interpretation, to translate what Blake is signing and provide information about what is happening in the room that Oakes might otherwise miss.
OKLAHOMA CITY – Cassandra Oakes, who was born deaf, faced a double disability as an adult when the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa caused her vision to deteriorate into blindness.
As a result, the wife and mother of four lost her job coding zip codes at the post office, due to safety concerns.
She and her husband Tim, a minister, faced her deaf-blindness with courage and faith.
At noon, he rushed home from work at the church to cook lunch for Oakes and their four-year old grandson Julius, worried that she would burn herself on the stove.
Oakes was struggling to adjust to vision loss, but reassured her husband, “I got this!” with more confidence than she felt.
“I questioned myself,” Oakes said and signed simultaneously in American Sign Language. “I just sat and dreamed and wondered how can I do that? I can’t see.”
A call to the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services for new glasses and hearing aids led to a visit from Joan Blake, a specialist on deaf-blindness from DRS’ Visual Services. Blake’s co-worker Ani Severtsen, a rehabilitation specialist for the blind, soon visited Oakes to teach her new ways to handle cooking and household chores.
DRS provided special equipment, such as a deaf-blind communicator with a braille display that enables Oakes to text, email and read books. The agency also gave Oakes a vibrating door mat that warns when her grandson leaves the house and a wrist watch that notifies her when someone is at the door, or the phone or fire alarm rings.
Blake and Severtsen encouraged Oakes to travel to the Helen Keller National Center in Sandspoint, New York for six months of intensive training. DRS paid for the training, which helped Oakes significantly improve her braille, cane travel and independent living skills.
“I made up my mind, myself, that I’m going there to Helen Keller,” Oakes said. “I’m going to stay motivated. Learn. Not going to get bored. Not going to give up. Not going to complain. And I didn’t do it! I was just passing the class with flying colors.”
At Helen Keller Center, Oakes made friends with Jeri Cooper, another deaf and blind person who was in training for certification in deaf-blind rehabilitation. Later, Cooper became a deaf-blind specialist working for the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services.
When they returned to Oklahoma, Cooper asked Oakes to encourage another client who was struggling with deaf-blindness. They met at the Visual Services office and hit it off. Oakes shared her positive attitude and belief in the potential of every deaf and blind person for independence and a rich, full life.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t know everything or know what other people know,” Oakes told her new friend. “You know something!”
“If you say ‘can’t’ and accept that, you have been beaten. You not win anything. You allow yourself to be beaten.”
Only two months later, Oakes’ new friend suddenly passed away before they could meet again.
Heartbroken, Oakes asked God for a way “to help deaf-blind people, to help them understand, to get them to feel good about themselves, to get them to be successful in their lives….”
The result was a new organization that Oakes named Sight-Hearing Encouragement Program (SHEP), which helps all Oklahomans with sight and hearing losses.
As founder and president, Oakes is planning the organization’s first deaf-blind conference at the Reed Center in Midwest City. DRS will co-host the conference, which begins at 1 p.m. on Oct. 12 and ends at 4 p.m. on Oct. 13. The theme is “You Can Do It: Advocacy and Self Determination, Keys to YOUR Future.”
Oakes goals for the future include lobbying the legislature for more access to Support Service Providers (SSPs) in Oklahoma. SSPs function as the “eyes and ears of deaf and blind people,” using hand over hand, or tactile, interpretation to provide information through touch and movement that would otherwise be missed.
“I used to be a homemaker, mother, grandmother, the babysitter,” Oakes explained. “With the help of DRS, that’s how SHEP got started when Jeri introduced me to that lady. That’s where Joan and Ani and DRS came in…. I changed my mind. I said, ‘No! I’m going to be more than that. I’m going to do things to help people.’ That’s what the change has started.”
In order to increase public awareness about the needs and abilities of Oklahomans with severe vision and hearing disabilities, Gov. Mary Fallin declared the week of June 24 as Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week in Oklahoma. An author and lecturer, Keller remains one of the best known Americans with deaf-blindness, although she died near 40 years ago.
For more information about available services for Oklahomans who are deaf-blind, contact Joan Blake at 405-522-3417 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or Jeri Cooper 918-551-4900 or email@example.com.
Cassandra Oakes is one of 70,000 Americans who have hearing and vision loss, according to population estimates by the Helen Keller National Center.
While specific employment numbers are not available for deaf-blind workers, U.S. Census data indicates that 29.7 percent of Oklahomans, ages 16 to 64, with all types of disabilities are employed, compared to 67.4% of individuals in the same age range with no disabilities.
The Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services provides vocational rehabilitation, employment, residential and outreach education programs and determines medical eligibility for disability benefits for 87,500 Oklahomans with disabilities each year.