Jan 2018 Pittsburg Morning Sun
Ellen Foshag doesn’t let her sight and hearing loss slow her down. She has been diagnosed with Usher Syndrome Type II, characterised by progressive loss of vision and hearing. Ellen is completely blind and has a cochlear implant, which allows her some hearing. When Ellen was around three years old her parents realised she couldn’t hear very well. Years later, Ellen realised she had night blindness, her eyes gave her difficulty in low light — this is where her journey began, she said. As a young adult, Ellen worked as a nurse and managed to get around the hospital she worked it. “By my early 20′s, that’s when I was tripping over curbs and falling over steps and sidewalks and having troubles, but I was a young nurse and I floated all over this very large hospital,” she said. “I managed, but I don’t know how I did it.” She said lip reading may have been the key to her success then. “I learned to lip read very well at a very young age and that covered me a lot,” Ellen said. It wasn’t until she went to the optometrist for new contacts and she was informed of the seriousness of her condition. They sent her to specialists where she endured hours of testing. “I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I had no idea it was something so serious and that profound.”
Years went by and her sight and hearing loss continued to progress and, consequently, she was encouraged to go into social work to assist people with similar conditions. She also realised she needed a lot of help to do daily activities, as her sight continued to fade. Ellen wished to continue to be active, to independently continue doing her fitness routines, go to Sunflower Kiwanis and the library’s book club. If she did not receive training and something were to happen to her husband, Fred, Ellen would have to live in an assisted living facility — not something she wanted. “Many people end up hiding in their houses,” Ellen said.
Ellen decided she would like to go to the Helen Keller National Centre for Deaf-Blind Youths & Adults in New York. It was not easy to get in, she said, it was costly and the money to go is funnelled through the state. About four years ago, she traveled out to HKNC — an experience which gave her hope, she said. “I felt hope for the first time for a quite a few years,” Ellen said.
Ellen said she struggled to find the funding to go to the extended training at HKNC, but she persisted, sending letters to directors, making phone calls. The state finally decided to send her to the centre about three years later. People from all walks of life trained at the HKNC — there were younger and older people, educated although blind their entire life, and others were less functioning as others, she said. “I turned 70 while I was there,” she said. “I still kept up with all of them.”
Now back home from HKNC, she has brought home knowledge and tools which she’s practiced using, some of which she already had but now has fine-tuned her skills. “This white cane,” she said. “Gives me my freedom and independence.” Ellen uses a sign which reads, “help me cross the street, tap me if you can help, I am hard-of-hearing and blind.”
“The first time I used it in Pittsburg, three people stopped and helped me,” she said.
Ellen keeps time using a few different watches depending on the occasion. During book study, she often uses a silent vibrating watch. It has buttons which vibrate the hour and minutes. Another one of her watches appears to be like any other, except the glass can be popped open and the face has raised markers. Her other watch says the time out loud.
Her cell phone has been a helpful tool for her, it reads messages and answers her questions. It also has several applications, such as “Tap Tap See” and “Be my eyes” which volunteers use to “see” for her through video. Programs like these help her not only find things which may have been dropped on the floor but also do things like picking out clothes which match.
Speaking of clothes, Ellen also has learned braille, which is on little aluminium tabs on her clothing. She can now read braille books and signage. To help her get around the house and kitchen, she has stickers called “bump dots” which help her push buttons on things like microwaves. These are just a few of many items she uses daily. One thing Ellen said she is really hoping for is a guide dog. They are very expensive and there are requirements such as living in an urban area. Soon, she plans to walk the streets of Pittsburg with her hoped-for guide dog, she will be there holding her sign as she crosses the street. Ellen said she would like to inform the community about the blind community and share what they can do to help them do things like cross the streets safely. Ellen said it would make her happy to continue to help people who are of hard-of-hearing and or blind.