Senses and sensibility

Andrew Mathieson
EVEN though darkness started to fall one evening, Richard Howell noticed his view of the world had begun to close in on him.
The simple observation told the fiveyearold something was not right.
He still remembers playing a game outdoors and struggling to see the ball.
The other boys just mocked him, unaware he was suffering nightblindness.
“My vision kept closing in,” Richard explains 56 years later.
“People were next to me waving and I couldn’t see them.
“They would tap me on the shoulder and ask whether I could see.”
Richard’s condition gradually worsened around 11 or 12 years of age after he developed low tunnel vision.
He was still determined to have a normal childhood. Never mind that Richard had already been born deaf.
The dual sensory loss, referred to as deafblindness, was to be a severe blow to his aspirations.
The country lad had always dreamed of running his family’s thirdgeneration farm outside Cape Clear and was shattered when he could no longer help mustering the sheep.
“I’d start to stumble over things in the shed,” Richard recalls.
“I was active as a boy and would be running around and sometimes would get lost.”
Richard’s father was quick to act and ensured his son had the skills of carpentry.
The skill led Richard onto an industrious path toward cabinetmaking, Frenchpolishing and antique restoration.
“I found that making the same things like drawers all the time was boring,” Richard says.
“But I feel at home when I’m in an antique shop.”
Richard would later teach carpentry to the blind.
But by his 35th birthday, Richard contracted cataracts. Full loss of his eyesight remained a distinct possibility.
Finally in 1990, he was diagnosed with Usher’s Syndrome, resulting from a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition suffered from birth.
“Now I’m 61 but in the future I’m not sure whether I’ll keep the tunnel vision or go permanently blind,” Richard says.
Of course Richard says very little, He signs Auslan – Australian sign languauge for the deaf.
When others can’t sign back, Nicole Foster lends a hand. She’s an advocate for several members of Geelong’s deaf community despite having no family history of deafness.
Nicole sits against a dark backdrop, directly in Richard’s line of vision and interprets his every word with aplomb.
Richard met his wife, Nina, in 1971 during a deaf function. She was also deaf.
Nina noticed Richard was having trouble getting out at nights.
“I could tell Richard couldn’t see properly when he was getting out, so I helped to guide him,” Nina remembers.
“Other deaf people there weren’t interested in talking to him, but I found him pretty interesting.”
She had previously guided both the deaf and blind.
“They probably didn’t even need my help but that didn’t stop me,” Nina smiles.
Their two daughters – Sarah, now 31, and Emma, 29 – also had learnt to sign.
They have grown up with their hearing intact from birth. Children of deaf parents like them are called CODA.
“When they were younger, they did help with communication,” Richard says.
“They weren’t very comfortable with it at that time as there weren’t any interpreters around.”
Richard has volunteered reading newspapers to others, too.
Focusing close to the print, it helps keep his eyes strong.
Nowadays the clarity of the internet is a godsend to keep in touch with the world.
“If I had done nothing, I would have got depressed at home,” Richard declares.
“But I feel like I have achieved things and have been successful.”

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