IN TOUCH WITH EACH OTHER / BOB AND MICHELLE SMITHDAS, BOTH BLIND AND DEAF, LEAD LIVES FULL OF LOVE, WORK, HOBBIES AND HUMOR

I only know that when I touch a flower,

or feel the sun and wind upon my face,

or hold your hand in mine, there is a brightness

within my soul that words can never trace.

I call it Life, and laugh with its delight,

though life itself be out of sound and sight.

THE WORDS are from "Shared Beauty," a poem written by Robert J. Smithdas

and dedicated to his wife, Michelle Joanne Smithdas. The Smithdases are both

deaf-blind. They have never seen one another, nor had either heard the other's

voice until 1993, when Michelle underwent a cochlear implant and now is able to

hear some sound.

To say the couple is extraordinary is to say the sky is little more than a

backdrop for the sun, the stars and the moon.

He is an author, poet, lecturer, teacher, advocate for the deaf-blind,

deep-sea fisherman, gardener, art collector and gourmet cook ... for starters.

She is a teacher, writer, advocate for the deaf-blind, lecturer, exercise

buff and cake baker.

Both hold bachelor's and master's degrees. Both are recipients of honorary

doctorates and numerous awards for their work in the training and

rehabilitation of the deaf-blind.

Bob Smithdas is the director of community education at the Helen Keller

National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point. As part of his

mission to raise community awareness of what the deaf-blind can do when given

the proper opportunities, he gives lectures, arranges tours of the center and

edits a national newsletter. Michelle Smithdas is an instructor at the center;

she teaches deaf-blind Braille, vocabulary, sign language and other

communications skills. She is writing an instructional Braille book for the

deaf-blind, because most Braille books are geared to the blind only.

The couple lives a relatively self-sufficient life at their Port Washington

home. They travel extensively and enjoy a social circle that includes not only

the deaf-blind, but sighted and hearing friends as well.

Their mission is to teach the deaf-blind to live and work to the best of

their capabilities and as independently as possible, and the way in which they

have overcome adversity in their own lives is the best lesson they can offer.

The fact that both have but three of the five senses that most of us take for

granted each day is a remarkable testament to the resilience of the human

spirit.

When I was a child, I used to stand

with a broken mirror in my hand

watching my laughing image pass

in and out of the shining glass.

If I could hold it here once more

and look into it as before,

I wonder if I still would see

a faint resemblance of Me?

- from "Mirror," by Robert J. Smithdas

Bob Smithdas, 76, was born near Pittsburgh. When asked his age, he

responded with his signature dry wit.

"I usually say I'm 1,000 years old. It seems to please people."

He lost his vision and most of his hearing at the age of 4, when he

contracted cerebrospinal meningitis; his hearing regressed to the point that he

was totally deaf by his mid-teens.

"Unable to hear the sound of my own voice, I gradually lost my feeling for

the pitch and stresses that give speech its human character," he wrote in his

1958 autobiography, "Life at My Fingertips." Any difficulties with speech have

never been a deterrent to his amazing success. He articulates each word

precisely and lectures extensively before audiences nationwide.

Bob Smithdas learned Braille and by his teens was an avid reader who

"finished three or four books in a weekend." At 12, he began to write "not very

good poetry, just rhymes," he said. He is a member of the Poetry Society of

America, and was honored as their poet of the year in 1960. He learned to

communicate through POP, the print on palm method of printing block letters on

the palm of the hand. He is one of few deaf-blind persons skilled in the use of

Tadoma, which enables him to place his right thumb on the lips of the speaker

and his fingers over the vocal chords to interpret what is being said.

With the assistance of sighted, hearing friends who attended class with him

and transcribed all his textbooks into Braille, Smithdas graduated cum laude

from St. John's University in 1950. He was the first deaf-blind person to earn

a college degree after Helen Keller. In 1953, he became the first deaf-blind

person ever to earn a master's degree, which he completed at New York

University in the field of vocational guidance and rehabilitation of the

handicapped.

Michelle Smithdas was born in California. She was born with limited hearing

and was profoundly deaf by the age of 16. During the midwinter holiday of her

senior year at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world's only

university for the deaf, Michelle suffered a snowmobile accident, which

resulted in head injuries and her loss of vision.

"It was devastating at that time and at that age," she said.

Despite the tragic turn in her life, she completed her bachelor's degree.

(Some years later, she became the first deaf-blind person to receive a master's

degree at an Ivy League university, earning a master's in education of blind

and visually impaired at Columbia.) In 1972, she entered the training program

at the Helen Keller National Center on Long Island, where Bob Smithdas was

already the director of community education.

Oh, when I reach to take you by the hand,

it is because I need to understand

that I am not alone in this broad land.

- from "Touch," by Robert J. Smithdas

"On my first day, I met Bob in the dark hallway. Most say love at first

sight, but for us it was love at first bump in the dark. He was so good to make

sure I did not fall down," Michelle Smithdas said. The couple was married on

Dec. 13, 1975.

"I would say my husband is very handsome. He is very strong and very

intelligent. I am not totally blind," she added, " so I can sometimes catch

parts of him with my little bit of vision. I put the parts together like a

puzzle."

"I cannot describe my wife on a visual basis," Bob Smithdas said. "But she

is very sweet, a lot of fun. She is petite and delicate and when she laughs she

has a big smile. I go by my feelings, and they are strong for Michelle."

The couple communicates by finger spelling their words, letter by letter,

in the palm of the other's hand.

They delight in one another as if they were newlyweds. She often defers to

him.

"It's very important that you listen to Bob," she said.

"Now you realize that she is a good wife," he said.

The couple has no children.

"No," Michelle Smithdas, 53, said. "Bob is enough. He is a big child."

Who does the cooking?

"Bob cooks most of the time. He loves it and he is an excellent cook," she

said.

"Yes, I must be good. No one has died from my cooking," he said. A

Polynesian chicken dish is his favorite. He also enjoys cooking Italian, Czech,

Chinese and German foods.

"I could write a cookbook, I guess," he acknowledged.

Friends and neighbors assist with food shopping and transportation.

"I take them to the doctor," said Lynn Dallesandro, who stopped by to

visit. She first met the Smithdases when she worked as a volunteer at the Helen

Keller center in 1976. She is a nurse and able to explain things to the couple

during doctor's visits.

"We've become very good friends; they are awesome," said Dallesandro, who

learned to finger spell in order to communicate with them.

Her communication skills served well last year when Bob Smithdas underwent

quadruple coronary bypass surgery. It has not slowed him down.

"Bob is an ox," said Joseph McNulty, executive director of the center. "The

other day, there was a freezer delivered to their house. Because the

deliveryman couldn't communicate with Bob, he left the freezer in the garage.

Bob went back there and moved the thing into the house by himself."

Bob Smithdas was a wrestler in college. He now enjoys swimming and walking.

"And I squeeze Michelle for exercise," he joked. He also does a lot of

bending in the garden.

"That reminds me, I have 50 bulbs to plant," he said.

His other interests include tinkering with old cars, the stock market and

deep sea fishing. He recalls with fondness the 90-pound tuna he caught years

back.

Michelle Smithdas is an exercise enthusiast. She keeps a rowing machine and

a stationary bike at home and watches her weight on a Braille scale.

The house in which the Smithdases have lived for 24 years is replete with

computer technology. Their telephone takes typewritten input and provides

Braille output, as does Michelle's computer. The couple wears pagers, which

vibrate differently for the telephone, the doorbell or when one asks the other,

"Where are you?" The stove and microwave have raised buttons to indicate

temperature settings. Bob carries a sensor that vibrates to indicate an object

ahead. They have vibrating sensors to indicate if the lights are on, to tell

when to stop pouring liquid into a cup, and to recognize the denomination of

bills. As part of Bob Smithdas' job at the center, he makes devices like these

accessible to clients. He loves tinkering with gadgets, and is constantly

working to improve on them.

Perhaps the most dramatic technological change in the couple's lives has

been the cochlear implant that Michelle Smithdas underwent in 1993. The device

communicates some sound to the brain through electrodes in the middle ear.

"When I decided to try it, there was controversy between the deaf culture

people and those going for the cochlear implants," she explained. "I was afraid

some of those in the deaf culture would not continue to be my friends. Some

people say you should accept what you were given by God, but I feel God wants

an individual to use the advances in technology. Being a deaf-blind person can

be quite isolating. You can only imagine what it is like to be sitting in a

room, not seeing anybody, nobody stopping by and nobody calling on the

telephone. So I decided to give it a try ... and it is wonderful."

While supportive of his wife's decision to undergo the procedure, Bob

Smithdas has never taken tests to determine if he could be similarly helped.

"No, I was pretty well seasoned in my own way of life. I didn't see the

urgency in the cochlear implant," he said.

Always the small beginnings of great things:

always the pioneer who breaks the trail

across uncharted reaches of the mind

or through a trackless wilderness unknown.

- from "Helen Keller's Legacy"

by Robert J. Smithdas

An acquaintance of the Smithdases wrote a movie script some time ago that

features the couple's lives and work and the level of achievement the deaf-

blind can reach. Bob Smithdas hopes the money needed to produce the film can be

raised.

"They've produced 'The Miracle Worker' over and over again. But, it's not

telling the story of how the deaf-blind succeed today. It's important to know

how we live in a modern environment. We feel blocked by the shadow of Helen

Keller," he said.

"Many deaf-blind have gone on to college. They are teachers, computer

programmers and other types of specialists. A friend of mine is a mathematical

whiz and owns his own computer business."

According to McNulty, the Helen Keller National Center is unique in this

country. It focuses on clients' abilities rather than on the fact that they are

deaf and blind.

There are usually 40 students at a time; their length of stay usually

ranges between several months and a year depending on their particular needs.

There has not been a nationwide count of deaf- blind persons since the

1970s, when it was between 50,000 and 70,000 individuals.

"And that was well before the graying of America," said McNulty. "We are

trying to develop a national registry."

The Helen Keller center exists in large part because Bob Smithdas went to

Washington, D.C., in 1967 and helped obtain federal funds. He testified that

without sight or hearing a person could still achieve great heights ... he

served as the perfect example. A temporary facility was opened in New Hyde Park

in 1969.

At a gala fund-raiser tomorrow, Bob Smithdas will be presented with a

lifetime achievement award. The event will mark the 25th anniversary of the

opening of the Helen Keller National Center at its current site in Sands Point.

The presenter will be Barbara Walters, who first interviewed Bob Smithdas more

than 25 years ago and describes him as "the most memorable person I have ever

interviewed." Walters interviewed the couple together in 1998.

In the November 2001 issue of Ladies Home Journal, Walters named Michelle

Smithdas as "the most empowering woman" she's ever met.

"I never knew I was married to such a powerful woman," Bob Smithdas said,

laughing, as he offered his arm to Michelle and the couple walked out together

into the radiant glow of a warm, autumn afternoon. They couldn't see it, but,

no matter, they seemed to have eyes only for each other.

Ellen Mitchell is a freelance writer. She wishes to acknowledge the kind

assistance of Sue Ruzenski, director of the direct service program at the Helen

Keller center, and John Mascia, director of field services, for their

interpretive expertise.

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