|Traveling to Finland is not a daunting prospect for the average globetrotting Dickinsonian. But how many would tackle such a trip if they lacked the ability to see or hear? Probably only Jeff Bohrman ’67.
Bohrman is used to being singular. While attending the college here in the 1960s he was the only deaf student. When Usher syndrome also robbed him of his sight 15 years ago, Bohrman worked to learn computer skills, becoming, he says, “the first deaf-blind person to get connected to the computer.”
He battles the sense of isolation that plagues many deaf-blind people, e-mailing friends and business associates, Googling for world news and recipes (a scanner converts the text to Braille), and “talking” in real time with friends—facing off across the kitchen table with laptop computers. Bohrman’s has a Braille device attached at the side so he can touch/read what his friends are saying. He types a reply that appears on his friend’s computer monitor. His is never turned on.
On a cool Columbus night this spring at a dinner party in his house, Bohrman laughed at the typed remarks made by one such friend, Harriette Robbins, wife of Darryl Robbins ’67. Darryl, a pediatrician, had reconnected with Jeff several years ago, after Jeff’s wife, slender, pretty Evie, had read in Dickinson Magazine that Darryl also resided in Columbus. The Bohrmans and Robbinses now dine together every few months, and when Jeff was inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities in November, Darryl and Harriette were on hand.
Bohrman moved to the Ohio capital 12 years ago, when he landed a job at the Ohio Deaf-Blind Outreach Program at the Ohio Speech and Hearing Center. He had been without work for three years after going blind at age 45.
A biology major at Dickinson, Bohrman had earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in pharmacology. He was working in Cincinnati for the federal government as a research toxicologist, developing a method to test workplace chemicals that cause skin cancer when he was faced with a choice.
“I could take disability or get fired.” He chose disability.
Bohrman initially felt that science was still his calling. But he has embraced his role as director of the Outreach Program and is out and about much more than he ever was as a scientist.
Twice in the last year he traveled to Washington, D.C., briefing members of the House of Representatives on rehabilitation services and the need for funding. Last July he succeeded in winning a budget increase for the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults. It’s a tough fight, because the current Bush administration, he says, is less receptive than the first Bush one, under which the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.
Bohrman also makes frequent trips around the country to lead daylong workshops for vocational-rehabilitation counselors and students seeking certification as interpreters. He teaches a class on deaf-blind interpreting at Columbus State Community College and frequently writes articles about technology for people who are deaf-blind.
And then there is his regular job directing the day-to-day work of the Outreach Program, which locates and serves deaf-blind children and adults, helping them to communicate and be as independent as possible in their work, school and social lives. Bohrman supervises five staff members and a budget of $350,000 and is so busy he doesn’t have time to ponder his own disabilities. It’s a career he plans to continue for another 10 years before retiring.
While he frequently gives talks on deaf-blind awareness and does sensitivity training, perhaps his most important outreach role is with what he calls “consumers,” the more than 4,000 deaf-blind people in Ohio, most of whom are over age 60. He also enjoys interacting with the third of the deaf-blind population that is younger than 60.
“I’m mentoring a young man, a senior at St. Rita’s School for the Deaf in Cincinnati,” Bohrman notes. “When he found out he had Usher, he came to me. He e-mails me a lot and asks me about occupations, saying, ‘Will it work for me?’ ”
One of the difficulties that deaf-blind individuals face—which Bohrman fully understands—is isolation.
“They can’t communicate and see what’s going on,” Bohrman explains. “If you go to a place where there are a lot of people in a room, you can’t go up to people, because you can’t see them. It’s a barrier to socialization.”
That Bohrman enjoys being social is evident on the night he hosted the dinner party for the Robbinses; his wife Evie, who is deaf; a visitor from Dickinson Magazine; and Vicki Spencer, an interpreter hired to help with conversation. As a guest spoke, Spencer would finger spell words into Bohrman’s palm. He would reply, speaking, and also using American Sign Language that she would then interpret for the guests. Because Bohrman has been profoundly deaf since birth his speech is not easily understood.
The Bohrmans have lived for the last 11 years in a neat, spacious, light-filled condo that this night smells of oven-hot food. That one of the condo’s inhabitants is deaf-blind is not readily evident. But touch the knobs on the stove or microwave and you will feel Braille.
The kitchen is truly Jeff’s domain. The night before, he baked an apple cake loaded with cinnamon. For dinner this night he has baked a salmon loaf from his grandmother’s recipe, fresh, cut-up vegetables and rolls. He selects one set of wine glasses, then replaces them in the top shelf of the cupboard, favoring instead fancier cut-glass ones.
At the dining-room table, Bohrman sits at the head, Spencer on one side, the magazine visitor on the other, the Robbinses and Evie further down the table. When a question is asked, Spencer spells the name of the speaker in his palm, so he will turn in the proper direction to address the speaker, eyes open. He’s an expansive storyteller, with frequent laughs and smiles, especially when he’s relaying his travel experiences.
While he travels internationally with an assistant, he flies solo in the United States. “I’ve flown to California and Texas. I’m not afraid to travel alone. I’ve had many interesting experiences,” he says, then pauses, a twinkle in his eyes, before continuing, “including a ride in a police car.”
As he tells it, one time a bus driver left him stranded in the center of a bus terminal. Bohrman began yelling for help. Finally, someone came up to him, and Bohrman spelled in the palm of the Good Samaritan’s hand, “Please take me to a taxi.” He knew something was odd when he got inside and realized there were no handles inside the car’s rear door. When he arrived at his destination, the driver wouldn’t take the fare. “I said, ‘You’re a policeman.’
“I like to play Russian roulette,” he says with a big grin.
Bohrman travels alone with a cane and communication cards that have Braille on the back, so he knows which ones to present to strangers. Occasionally, he displays the wrong card and ends up at an airport rather than his work. A card also instructs a taxi driver to spell the fare into his palm. He gets around not being able to see the denominations on currency by folding $5s, $10s or $20s in different ways. On rare occasions when he is too rushed to prepare his money he has to trust the driver to take the correct bills.
Hotel stays can be challenging as well. Once, Bohrman accidentally brought a suitcase with a combination lock. Having arrived after a long trip, he took a shower, then was unable to open his suitcase, since he couldn’t see the numbers. He was stuck in his towel until the next morning, because he couldn’t get a response from the front desk when he sent an e-mail from his laptop. Finally, he was able to reach a friend at the conference who could help. Asked how he feels after one of these fairly frequent mishaps he shrugs and says, “I don’t really get mad.”
The prospect of traveling to Finland in May gave Bohrman no pause. At the World Federation of the Deaf-Blind he was named regional representative for North America and gave a talk on cochlear implants. He’s on his second set, which allows him to hear environmental sounds, such as doorbells and ringing telephones, and to control the volume of his voice when speaking.
The jaunty table talk of travel turns to more somber topics. Bohrman meets head-on questions that would make some people uncomfortable.
He reveals that his parents knew from the time he was 10 that he had Usher syndrome and would become blind, but they never told him. “My family members were the type who didn’t talk about things,” he says, simply. “I found out at college that I had a vision problem” when one day in the union, he ran into a glass door and cut his head. He mentioned it to his mother, who said, “You probably just have tunnel vision.”
Though she never revealed his diagnosis, she subtly prepared him for the inevitable. “My mother was very insistent on my being independent, which is why I am still very independent today.” She also urged him not to get a driver’s license. One of the toughest things about going blind is giving up one’s license, so Bohrman feels he was spared a lot of anguish.
Though his early schooling was at a residential school for the deaf in Northampton, Mass., after eighth grade he attended the rigorous Germantown Academy in Philadelphia, where his family lived.
“I was the only deaf student, and they almost did not want to take me in because of my deafness,” he says. “We had applied for my admission to the school in the summer, and they did not let us know until one week before the school started, after my parents persuaded them many times to let me try there. As much as I don’t want to brag I still remember my first report card when the headmaster wrote, ‘Your confidence in Jeffrey is fully justified. This is a remarkable report.’ ”
At Dickinson, as at Germantown, there were no accommodations made for his deafness. Bohrman sat in the front of the class and lip read as his professors spoke. He did feel socially isolated, not able to join in class discussion and some group activities.
“It wasn’t that bad, though. I was a pretty good student and dated a few girls.” He also joined Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity. “The very interesting thing was that, during hell week, they made a few exceptions for me,” he says with a laugh. In return, “I taught my fraternity brothers dirty signs.”
A few years after Dickinson, Bohrman met Evalyn Rudman through some friends. They married nine months later.
Jeff was 29 and pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of the Pacific, and Evie was pregnant with the first of their two children, when he discovered he would go blind.
He’d been having some problems with his sight and had an appointment with a San Francisco eye doctor, who had sent for his records from Philadelphia. After glancing quickly at Bohrman’s eyes, the doctor abruptly left the room, leaving his records folder open. Bohrman peeked and saw the words “Usher” and “retinitis pigmentosa.”
Stunned, Bohrman went through all the stages of grief. Anger: “I couldn’t believe my parents would withhold this from me.” Denial: He didn’t tell Evie for four years. “I just couldn’t tell her,” he says.
When he did, says Evie, “I was in a state of shock for a long time. I was in denial.”
“She still hasn’t accepted it,” Jeff adds.
“I’m still hoping for a miracle, but he doesn’t have time to think about a cure,” Evie says, smiling at her husband.
“I’ve accepted it in a way, yes,” Jeff confirms in his calm voice. “My vision loss was over time, and I didn’t know when it would happen. I am at peace at the end of the road. I am blind now.” •
For more information about the Ohio Deaf-Blind Outreach Program go to: