Disability leader with vision and hearing loss translates dreams into action with help from state Rehabilitation Services agency
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 would rush 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 DRS for new glasses and hearing aids led to a visit from Joan Blake, a specialist on deaf-blindness from DRS’ Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 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 DRS.
When they returned to Oklahoma, Cooper asked Oakes to encourage another client who was struggling with deaf-blindness. They met at the SBVI 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'll 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, which helps all Oklahomans with sight and hearing losses.
Oakes goals for the future include lobbying the legislature for more access to Support Service Providers 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.”