Learning from Helen Keller

For the care of those with sensory-impairment, we can turn to the very words Helen once wrote: “The public must learn that the blind or deaf man is neither genius nor a freak nor an idiot. He has a mind that can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realize, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself so that he can win light through work.” It is our task as nurses to help them achieve this goal.

Northern Dispatch
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 46, December 23, 2007-January 5, 2008

When I first heard of Sign Language Lessons being included in the curriculum for our Nursing course NCM 104 in Easter College, I was somewhat bemused, as were others in my year level. What possible use could the language of the deaf have for us aspiring nurses? As expected, a number of students started grumbling, a rather low grumble to be sure. No one really wanted it to reach the ears of the higher-ups; because, naturally, a twelve-hour sign language lesson would be more carefree and involve fewer requirements than a hospital or community duty, so it was rather welcome in an odd sort of way.

I presented myself to our instructor on the first day of our sign language class rather late, still unconvinced of the usefulness of learning Sign Language. I had long been exposed to people belonging to the deaf community, and I wondered whether teaching my classmates would make any significant difference. Frankly, I doubted whether a twelve-hour crash session in sign language would change even their own perceptions about the deaf population. And as we all know, “If there is no change within us, there can never be change around us.”

But, far from my expectations, I found myself utterly mistaken. My classmates embraced sign language with an eagerness that was surprising. They absorbed the lessons taught to them in such an unexpected way that I was left with feelings of guilt for my own lack of enthusiasm in signing. I was most pleased to see how the story of Helen Keller (who was for some reason shockingly unknown to them prior to that class) affected them in such a positive way. Helen’s story is not just a touching drama. It is a testament to the indomitable spirit existing within a person that can alter all predetermined courses given to us by that monster which we call fate; fate which took away Helen’s sight and hearing.

There are a myriad of wonderful lessons that we can learn from Helen Keller. To elaborate on all of them would be incredibly tedious and would unnecessarily tax the readers of this essay. Thus, I shall discuss only a few points, which I feel very strongly about.

There is nothing more damaging to the impaired than pity. Pitying others is a manifestation of our pride. How arrogant it is of people to consider themselves better than others! When we say we pity someone, we admit that we are better than that person. I feel annoyed whenever I hear people say in the vernacular, “Buti nalang hindi ako bingi o bulag” (Good I am not deaf nor blind.) How do we know that we are in a better position? There are many things that the deaf or blind experience that we can never ever know about. With their heightened sensation in different areas that are unimpaired, they are able to view life in a different way. Helen, for example, claimed to feel the differences in color. I can only imagine how the aroma of flowers must be even more distinct and pleasing to them too. Are we truly better off?

Also, we should consider the fact that children, although naïve, are extremely sensitive to the subtleties of a person’s behavior. They can sense even the tiniest trace of pity. Knowing that they are pitied does nothing for the development of their self-esteem and independence. A child who grows up believing that he cannot make it in this life and trusts that he will be constantly excused for his failings because of his impairments, will never reach out and do anything remarkable. He will continue life as the useless idiot that people believe him to be. Helen’s life gives us a clear picture of this truth.

Before Anne Sullivan came along, Helen was a wild child, undomesticated, more animal than little girl. She was allowed to do whatever she wanted and was even given candy whenever she threw a tantrum, just to keep her quiet for a few minutes. What her parents failed to realize was that they were actually rewarding her for her bad behavior. They were so caught up in their pity for her that they never saw it necessary to demand from her what they normally would from unimpaired children. But Anne Sullivan, with such a terrible conviction “expected Helen to see.” She knew Helen was more than just the wild, untrainable being cursed by fate to live a life in total darkness. She wanted to give Helen the gift of light, not in the form of surgery or medication for restoring her sense of sight, but in the form of Language.

Language is a very precious thing. Through it we learn from and experience the world. Because of it, mighty civilizations came into being and Jesus was able to spread the Word. In Anne Sullivan’s own words, “Language is more important to the mind than light is to the eye.”

A human is not truly human if language is alien to him. In our everyday life we take language for granted. We toss words back and forth like it is nothing, never knowing how each small word we possess in our vocabulary has helped shape our culture and our way of life. Without it, we would be like jellyfish, no, more like plankton, floating in the sea of chaos. Never moving forward nor looking back.

Using language to actively effect change in our world is imperative for all those who possess and wield this power of communication. Always remember this, we can make a huge difference in someone’s life. Whether we like it or not, nurses are in a pivotal position. The health of our patients lies heavily on our shoulders. Nurses are tasked not merely with bedside care, monitoring, or giving out medications to sick patients. We must also teach our patients the things they must know to live healthy life.

Health teaching is the most vital form of care nurses can possibly give to their patients. It has the power to cause change within their lifestyle and to promote or maintain their health. If done correctly, we would never see our patients return to the hospital again and again; which, logically, should be our goal. Through language we establish the trust that is necessary in the relationship that is to move the patient from a period of sickness to complete, holistic well-being.

Nursing is not only a work of the heart, it is a ministry of presence. It is our therapeutic presence that enables the patient to change for the better. After patients have gone through a nurse’s care, they ought to manifest positive behaviors characteristic of a holistically healthy individual, not only that, but to continue being this better individual for the rest of his generative life. For the dying person, our therapeutic presence must support him and assist him towards the accomplishment of a dignified death worthy of the life he has led.

For the care of those with sensory impairment, we can turn to the very words Helen once wrote: “The public must learn that the blind or deaf man is neither genius nor a freak nor an idiot. He has a mind that can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realize, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself so that he can win light through work.” It is our task as nurses to help them achieve this goal.

In this way, we transform the meniality commonly associated with the nursing profession and raise it to a more sublime vocation.

Someone once said, “I dreamed of things impossible.” I too dream of impossible things. Things I hide within my chest and think over only within the comfort and safety of the dome of my head. Things that people would scoff at if they knew. But I believe that like Helen Keller, my dreams have a chance to bloom someday and with tender cultivation and belief in myself, these impossible things can finally be made possible.

It is my sincerest hope that all those student nurses who underwent sign language classes in Easter College would finally understand the kernel of truth that people like Helen Keller have been trying to plant in our consciousness: “All things are possible,” because they are – really. Northern Dispatch / Posted by Bulatlat

The author is a Nursing student of Easter College.

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