The Gesture/New Series, No. 13/Darkness and Silence

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"Darkness and Silence."

Extracts from an article in the Lone Hand by C. A. Jeffries, by kind permission.)

One would expect that children who are afflicted with blindness or are unable to speak because they cannot hear would receive all the assistance the State could give them. One would think that the State would enable them to acquire the special kind of education they need to make them fit to earn their own living in this world. But, as a matter of horrible fact, this rich State of New South Wales does nothing for its Children of Silence and Darkness. Even when they are left on its hands as State children it gets rid of them as quickly as possible by passing them on to a private charity known as the N.S.W. Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind, a humane charity founded and supported practically by private people on the voluntary system. So indifferent is the State towards the welfare of those afflicted little ones, that there is no law compelling parents to educate them, as there is with children who are better able to fight their way in the world without education. 

The "Official Year Book of N.S.W. for 1908-9" gives the figures only up to 1901, when there were 390 deaf and dumb and 884 blind people in the State; but it is stated that it is feared that the full number has not been returned. . . .

. . . The Darlington Institution in Sydney was founded in 1861 "for the education and maintenance, and, as far as practicable, the advancement in life of deaf and dumb and blind children." The only other institution in the State of the sort is the Catholic institution at Waratah, conducted by the Order of St. Dominic, "for the instruction on the principles of Catholic education of deaf and dumb children, and the preparation of them for a useful life."

. . . The deaf and dumb child finds himself in a world of fearful stillness—one everlasting silence, through which comes no word to explain anything. He must learn to talk on his fingers, that a certain set of signals is this thing and another that thing. Always he has to be not only told of a thing, but to be shown it, or shown how it is done. When he has learned to talk on his fingers, and mastered the alphabet, the teachers at Darlington commence on the task of teaching him to read what people say by the movements of their lips, and to articulate in return in n voice that he himself cannot hear. It is a fearsome task; for the child has to be shown over and over and over again how to express various letters of the alphabet by shaping the mouth and forcing the air through.

Now, all that is pitiful enough. But think of the other horrible possibilities. Think of the child that is both blind and deaf! And there are such children. Imagination reels in the effort to grasp the full horror of that awful tragedy. The blind babes live in a world of unrelieved darkness; but the little one who can neither hear nor see finds himself alone in a desert of darkness surrounded by an ocean of silence. He feels something beneath his feet; out of the void ghostly hands touch him; but there is no sound, no glimpse, no hint of what it all means.

The blind babe can cling to his father's shoulder, and go out to explore among sounds, and shiver and thrill as fresh notes boom into his reverberating universe; for him there is romance and adventure and sensation among the tumbling waves of sound. He lives and feels; and, as long as his creature comfort are supplied by the unseen father and mother, can be happy and live a life that has at least variety to spice it.

But that other babe, clinging to his little rock in the midst of eternal silence and darkness, living helplessly amidst utter stagnation, finds himself in a place without form, a void of which he is not a part. He knows not anything, only wants and yearnings that torment him. His is a living death, out of which the helpless baby soul cannot even cry, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

. . . At Darlington they have a little eight-year-old girl who is both deaf and blind. Up to the age of three little Alice Betteridge was a bright little baby, who could see as clearly as any other child, and tripped about chattering as other children do. Then came meningitis; and when little Alice came thorough the horrible pain, the fearful delirium, it was to find that she had died and been born again in a world where it was always dark, and which was utterly devoid of sound. She had tormenting recollections of the sunlight, and haunting memories of the music of the earth.

Allice Betteridge - Deaf Dumb and Blind(1911 Victorian collections).jpg
By kind permission of Lone Hand

Deaf, Dumb and Blind
"On those dotted pages she reads stories."

But they had gone for ever.

Imagination reels in the effort to understand what that poor helpless child felt. Even the mind of Dante could not have imagined anything more horrible than her plight. Let us hope that infancy robbed it or some of its horror for her. But we can imagine the little girl, waking to find herself in the dark, trying vainly to call to mother or father, and unable to hear herself, or to hear her agonised parents trying to soothe her and quieten her terrors. She could not even know that they were still with her. The everlasting darkness must have crushed her; the heavy, fearful silence have terrified her. The loneliness must have been unutterably dreadful. No adult could live through such an experience: madness or death would end it. Blackness-silence; and the only communication with life, the touch of ghostly hands.

Of her life till she came to Darlington l know nothing. But it must have been terrible indeed, despite all that affection could do. But at last she arrived at Darlington, and found that the hands in the darkness were different to the others she had known before.

In her arms was placed a little doll, and the hand that placed it there took her Own hand and made a sign on the fingers. It was the word "doll" in the finger language. To the little girl it meant nothing. Then the doll was taken away, only to be given back to her with the same sign. She felt it all over lovingly, and then something seemed to occur to her. She passed her hand over her own body, and smiled sadly. The doll was like herself.

Whenever the doll was placed in her arms the same Sign was made on her fingers by the ghostly hands. One day she groped, and, finding the mysterious hand, repeated the signs it had made to her on its fingers. The doll was immediately placed in her arms.

It was the first step in communication. The little scarred brain was stirred. That sign would always bring the doll. One day the hand in the dark passed her fingers over the nose of the doll, and then over her own nose, and gave another and different sign—n-o-s-e. She understood, and, feeling for her teacher's face, touched her nose and spelt it. Hair, mouth, ears, head, all followed in their turn; and slowly, very slowly indeed, little Alice learned the geography of her own head and face, and finally her body.

The brain that had been so sorely smitten became active once more. The little soul that longed for expression and company fastened on to these wonderful signs with eager avidity. She became frantic to learn more and more. But, in spite of all her eagerness, it was long, long, weary work for the teacher, and slow, slow travelling for the little girl. The gulf was so great, the messages so weak. She was given beads to thread, and the word "beads" spelt to her. When she spelt "beads" she got them.

But it must be remembered she was only a baby, although an unusually bright one. And every one of those words was an arbitrary sign which she had to remember, for she had no idea of the alphabet.

That was to come later, and would represent the completed bridge across the great gulf that lay between her and the inhabited world she had no idea of. Gradually she began to understand that she could make more signs than she had fingers, wrists and palms, and the fact appeared to puzzle her. Baffled nature, seeking always an outlet for expression, told her instinctively that there was some system in it all, and impelled her to search for it. She had used a key to unlock a little box, turned a handle to open a way through a wall—but she could not find the key her little soul was so hungry for, though every day, when she awoke from sleep and before she went to bed, her teacher taught her the alphabet on her fingers.

Very gradually it came home to her that all these signals which would bring her a doll, beads, food, a drink, an apple, and all the things she knew (remember, she only knew of the things she had touched), were all combinations of these signs that the mysterious and wonderfully wise hands taught her every time she awoke and went to bed. But it was the decisive discovery. After that it was merely a matter of application and time. She learned that doll and dog both commenced with the same signs, that the top of anything and the pot that held the flowers were the same signals or signs given in the opposite order. So she learned the alphabet and its wonderful use.

Then another and more wonderful thing (if possible) was revealed to her. The same omniscient hands gave her a piece of soft, smooth surfaced material, covered with a number of little raised dots. The first was a single dot, and the omniscient hands made the first sign (A). Two dots, one above the other (B), were the second letter of the alphabet. There were never more than six dots, but she found that every sign she could give on her fingers had a corresponding signal in dots.

What it was for little Alice could not understand. But it was interesting; and it struck her as a new game, which she entered into with all the zest the young mind feels for a new thing. So, when they gave her a whole sheet of this material, she would amuse herself by picking out the signs in dots and rendering them on her teacher's fingers. So she learned that there was a dot alphabet, even as there was one of the fingers. She worked hard and acquired it; and then, to her boundless delight, found that the smooth material could talk to her! It told her wonderful tales, of how the cat and the doll slept together, and that the cat and the dog were not very bosom friend.

Playmates of Darkness and Silence.jpg (The Gestuer 1911) VictorianCollections.jpg

By kind permission of Lone Hand

Playmates of Darkenss and Silence
The blind girl on the right is reading a story from a Braille book The blind girl on the left is telling the story to the girl who is both blind and deaf

Little Alice has been less than three years at Darlington, but she has made good progress with both the finger and the Braille alphabet. And on those lotted pages she reads stories of children like herself, of the wonders of the world, of life and death. But it is always slow work, spelling out the words letter by letter stumbling over words that represent things she does not understand, not having felt them yet.

She is still in the halls of silence, surrounded by impenetrable darkness. But the world is no longer void and without form. The blackness is filled with other people like herself. Whenever she reaches out a hand she finds a companion to whom she can make signs that are understood and replied to. She has left the horrible-island of loneliness, surrounded by the ocean of emptiness, and arrived in a g great and wonderful treasure house of things that are absorbingly interesting, and which she is anxious to find out all about.

To feel fresh things and learn what they are called in that wonderful finger language, and to read about them in those still more wonderful raised dots on the Braille page, is delightful. Around her are other children like herself, with whom she plays. Her favourite game is to put other children into a make-believe bed and smooth them down for the night.

When the lessons are over she sits out in the Warm Sunshine (the blind seem to love the sunshine as though their pores absorbed the light from it) and nurses her doll, or threads her beads, or reads stories in the dotted pages of fairies, little boys and girls, of seas, ships, great cities, kings and queens. 

Last time I saw little Alice was as in the photograph. The girl on the left is reading aloud from the Braille page, for they are all three blind, and the girl on the right enjoying the story, smiling sadly as the blind do, is telling it by the finger alphabet to little Alice, who alone sits in the silence.

And little Alice is happy.