Time in touch ~ Time with Deafblind Billie Sinclair
Billie Sinclair was the first Deafblind person I had ever met. He was seventy four years old when I first met him in 1992. When I was introduced to him, one of the staff members had asked him if he could guess where I was from. It was a hot summer day… I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans whereas he was immaculately dressed. He gently put his hands on the top my head and let his fingers slide along my thick long hair, feeling and analysing its texture in a polite and respectful manner. He then touched my shoulders, arms, felt the skin inside my forearms and quickly fingerspelt T-H-A-I. What a shock! How could this man, unable to see, guess that I am half Thai?
Billie was born in Scotland in 1918 with all his senses. At the age of three, he caught measles on the ship on his way to Australia and lost his hearing. At the age of twelve, a bookcase fell onto his head and he lost his sight. He went to a special school, read lots of travel books in Braille, and later weaved beautiful baskets which he sold. He saved his money, hired interpreters and travelled around the world. Billie had been to Thailand where he met many people through touch. He had also been to Japan and other Asian countries but had recognised my skin texture as Thai! Being blind, neither looks nor the colour of my skin could distract him. He saw through his fingers, felt through his fingers and expressed himself through his fingers. His touch and his time in touch were his life.
Billie was a gentleman who touched the hearts of many people. He was always well dressed, always polished his shoes and always wore a shirt and tie. He was also always cleanly shaven, by touch – of course – as mirrors were of no use to him.
Going out with Billie meant describing and tapping everything into his hand, letter by letter. His left hand was a ‘blackboard’ and he was always curious to know everything! What we saw and heard, what things looked or sounded like, how things felt, who was on stage, who was around, where we were going and where we were… At restaurants, he wanted to know the ENTIRE menu, not just two or three dishes and he would shrug his shoulders if I’d stop listing after three dishes… One needed a lot of patience with Billie but he was so gentle and quite patient himself. As long as we explained the situation to him and he knew where he was, he was fine… though sometimes he would forget that he was not alone in which case we would remind him that others also needed attention. There were twenty four Deaf residents at the hostel, four of whom were Deafblind. Some suffered dementia or Alzheimer and needed to be reminded about their medication. Some were a bit more mobile and autonomous than others but all needed a certain level of care.
Those were the good old days… when the Deaf Society, hostel and nursing home were on the same property in Stanmore, NSW. When special events were happening at the Deaf Society, Deaf people from all over New South Wales would attend and many popped in to visit the members of the hostel and nursing home. People of the Deaf community were catching up, fingers were gracefully moving through space everywhere you looked, the atmosphere was full of life and, so enriching! Hostel members also kept company to their friends in the nursing home, bringing them news from time to time. Many have told me that once they are ‘too old’ and too frail to live at the hostel, that they would end up next door at the nursing home. That was their belief at the time. Unfortunately, the Deaf Society had to move to a location more central to New South Wales and everybody was relocated. I was told that some were separated from their best mates and some could not re-adjust to a hearing environment.
At the hostel, the residents often went on group outings with one staff and volunteers. I was a volunteer, encouraged to get a licence to drive a small bus. This never happened but I did eventually do some care work and also replaced the community worker during her maternity leave. Working with the residents of the Lonsdale Hostel was a time I really enjoyed. At restaurants, while one staff was signing explaining the menu, I would tap the menu into Billie’s hand. By the time the waitress had noted everybody’s order, Billie had made an informed decision… and I would be dizzy from tapping away letters and dishes! Billie really loved his food and, sweets and deserts were very important to him.
Billie liked being driven through the Sydney Harbour tunnel because the road was smooth. He also enjoyed going to the Sydney Children’s Museum in Merrylands because everything was hands-on. Picnics and outings with other Deaf people were always fun… anything to take him out of his hostel environment and stimulate his brain! His sense of smell, however, was not developed as were his fingers. He would know if someone had smoked a cigarette in a room – not from the smell of tobacco in the room – but by touch. Through the tip of his fingers, he would feel a glass left on a table and could feel the nicotine which had left a thin film, an invisible coating, on the glass! Likewise, he would know whether someone had smoked in a room by touching the curtains: Billie could feel the nicotine in the fabric!
I once asked him if there were smells he did not like, to which he replied “Dogs”. For that reason, he did not enjoy very much socialising with blind people who had dogs. He told me he preferred being with hearing people (who knew Deafblind fingerspelling) or Deaf people, mainly for communication reasons. Few from the blind group knew Deafblind fingerspelling but would not be able to spend too much time with him and the conversations were limited… besides, Billie needed a person to guide him in unfamiliar environments.
As for pleasant smells, he liked scented bath beads from the Body Shop… Apricot, rose and musk were his favourites and I would offer him a couple bath beads from time to time. He was very surprised when he found out the cost. Well, Billie, you enjoy your ice creams… each one of those costs as much as a bath bead, lasts half the time and is not good for you as is the bath bead, I would tap to him. And he would shrug his shoulders and nod yes, yes!
Billie read a lot and fingerspelled using English grammar. When a Deaf person tapped in his hands in AUSLAN (Australian Sign Language), Billie replied fingerspelling in English though I have seen him signing in AUSLAN. He did say to me once that he thought AUSLAN was like a ‘bastardised’ form of English and that he preferred English. I guess this means that culturally speaking, he was hearing, not Deaf.
When we played (Braille) Scrabble, Billie always won. He won the first, second and third time we played together. Oh Billie… can’t you let me win, just once, please? Whereas I could see the letters and the words on the board and could easily visualise letters to fill in the gaps on the board, he, on the other hand, had to remember every single letter and words and their positions on the board! Every now and then, he would touch a letter, starting from the corner of the Braille board to re-orient himself and to remind himself of the placement of certain letters. His memory was amazing! And, whereas most of us could only read right side up or sometimes even upside down, Billie did not need an orientation to play. The board could be facing ANY direction, he didn’t need to turn it towards him to be able to read. He enjoyed winning and was very proud of his knowledge.
He enjoyed outings, picnics and walks, touching and feeling new things. One day, we were coming back from an outing and he and I were sitting in the back of a car… chatting away. He was fingerspelling and I was tapping into his hand, until it was too dark outside and I could no longer see the letters he was signing to me. But darkness did not stop him from chatting! He gently took my left hand… and started tapping into it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. He was giving me a light into what I thought was a dark world… We shared his rich world… only darkened because most of us don’t know his language and can’t share our light with him. We shared his time in touch.
Billie changed my perception of life.
I volunteered at the hostel for a couple of years and then had to move on. I recently found out Billie Sinclair passed away in March 1995. I would have liked to see him again before he left us. His spirit is still alive… and so are his baskets. Thank you Billie, for everything you have taught us. You were like a grandfather to me and to many others. Your time in touch opened many eyes and you will always be in our hearts.
A film, THE JOURNEY, by Christopher Tuckfield illustrates the
“extreme alienation from society and how people cope with it. In Tuckfield’s “The Journey,” Billie Sinclair, a 74-year-old blind and deaf Australian basket-weaver lives an admirably full life, which includes travel, communion, love and music." Los Angeles Times… Today At Afi Festival June 25, 1993.
I would be interested to purchase a copy of the DVD, if it is on the market, as the documentary was shot while I was volunteering at the hostel in 1992. If anyone has information, could you please bmail or email me. Thank you so kindly.
I took this photo because of Billie’s attention on the little duckling that had just been picked up and passed around, bringing joy to many. As well as gently feeling and discovering the little bird, he was also feeling the other volunteer’s hands holding the duckling. It is only when retouching the scratches that I noticed Billie’s middle finger on her ring… and this brought another dimension to the image, a smile to my face and tears to my eyes.
deaf with a small ‘d’ means a person with a hearing impairment, unable to hear but belonging to the hearing community. Deaf with a capitalised ‘D’ is a person unable to hear who belongs to the Deaf commnunity and who uses AUSLAN as their language to communicate.
Canon Ftb, Kodak color film shot in 1992, with a few scratches on the negative. Neg scanned at 7200 dpi. Retouched and converted to BW using channels in CS2.
My memories of some time spent with Deafblind Billie Sinclair, an Australian man who earned his living weaving baskets and travelled around the world.