We all collect a varying assortment of skills and knowledges over the years. Some we need because they are directly relevant and necessary to our daily lives, some are useful for a specific time or place, and some we pick up because they seem interesting and might potentially be useful someday. And sometimes these talents and capabilities can suddenly become important or even lifesaving. We never know, life can be surprising that way.
Two Hand Manual is a form of communication developed for people with both visual and auditory impairments. It is a tactile alphabet which enables you to spell out messages on the other person’s hand by touching their palm at certain points in certain ways. Many people with this kind of double impairment are often also fluent in conventional sign language, as degenerative conditions which affect both tend to diminish auditory functioning first. Two Hand Manual is easier to learn and use than more fulsome sign language and thus the first to be taught to support workers.
I had the privilege and adventure of spending two summers working at a camp style resort run by the Canadian National Institute For The Blind. The camp was geared mainly for adult clientele with visual impairments, though we would host kids for a couple of weeks during the pre-season as well as a couple of weeks with kids from the Kidney Foundation. The last few weeks of the summer however were open to clients with double impairments. As staff we were trained in basic finger spelling and Two Hand Manual as part of our preparations. With practice we actually got quite good at it, though we were always much faster at sending than receiving. Most times the guests would take pity on us and verbalize their responses instead.
Aside from those who went on to continue working or volunteering for related service organizations most of us never wound up using those skills beyond our time at the camp. I do remember briefly having a tendency to offer people guiding elbows whenever we would get up from a table. And I reflexively used descriptive language in my first seminar presentation back at university after my initial summer there.
“Hello, my name is Jeff and I’m standing here at the front of the room. There is a chalkboard on the wall behind me and I have a piece of chalk in my right hand. As I draw a line across the board dividing into two halves, top and bottom……annnnd you are all fully sighted so I’m going stop doing that and start over…Hi.”
At one point I also had a fully blind student take dance lessons with me for a little over two years. It all came back to me and on her first visit I made sure I had extra time booked out so I could properly orient her to the layout of the studio as a whole and more specifically to the location and layout of the lady’s washroom. She loved coming to the studio parties and was always very appreciative of having someone on hand who was comfortable and familiar with assisting those with visual impairments, training I am forever thankful to the camp for providing me with.
There was one other time in particular, about two or three years after my summers there, when the skills with Two Hand Manual suddenly became relevant once again.
I was waiting at a bus stop to pick up a friend who was making a trip into town from the other side of the province when a growing commotion at the ticket counter caught my attention. The young guy working the counter seemed to be having a difficult time dealing with a customer who was growing more and more agitated. As the situation grew increasingly tense it became clear the customer wasn’t angry but instead seemed to be starting to panic.
It quickly became clear as the man’s voice grew louder that communication was the core issue. His voice and words had the clear distortion of someone with a hearing impairment and as I looked a little more closely he was also wearing the full dark eye coverings and holding a cane marking him as having a visual impairment as well.
I made my way over and as I stepped closer the young guy behind the counter looked over at me in near panic himself telling me he didn’t know what the man was trying to tell him. I nodded and raised my hand reassuringly before reaching out and gently placing my palm against the panicking man’s elbow.
He quieted for a moment, turning to face me with his head slightly lowered, a reflexive action to wait and see if the person touching his elbow was going to send any other signals. I took advantage of the opening by reaching out to take his hand, smoothing his palm flat, and beginning to spell onto it with Two Hand Manual.
“Hi. My nam…”
Before I could spell the ‘e’ he let out a rather explosive sigh and took hold of both my hands for a moment in slightly trembling relief. I gave him a moment then finished spelling out my name and asked how I could help.
He told me, in a voice slowly calming away from the edge of tears, that his name was Frank and he was worried he had missed his bus. He had to switch buses to get home and had used this route many times. He had been waiting at the platform but the bus hadn’t come. It was the last bus on that route for the day and if he missed it he wasn’t sure how he was going to get home.
He gave me his ticket and I had the kid at the counter check on the bus. It was listed as on time but the bus terminal had, for whatever reason, changed the platform it usually arrived and departed from. Looking at the clock the bus was due to leave any minute so I had the kid run on ahead to make sure it didn’t leave while Frank and I made our way over there.
The bus was still waiting with its door open when we arrived and I briefly introduced Frank to young Ian so they could have a quick handshake while I made sure the driver understood he had a deaf-blind passenger. Ian scooted back to his job at the ticket counter and I wished Frank a safe remainder of his journey home. Before he headed up the steps I received one of the fiercest hugs I of my life.
We never know when one of the random talents or skills we pick up during our lives will suddenly become useful or even crucial or when we might be in just the right place at just the right time. We just never know.