By Alice Kemp
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — The classroom is completely silent. Everyone’s eyes are locked on one person in the center of the room, using her hands to send a message. When she is finished, Paige Berry asks her students to interpret her message.
Berry is Virginia Commonwealth University’s sign language teacher in the Rehabilitation Counseling Department. She has worked for VCU for 29 years and dedicates her life to communicating with people who are deaf or deaf and blind.
Berry originally started out with a business curriculum. A simple experience changed her life.
“After I graduated from high school, I worked at a hospital in Staunton, Va., with a girl who was deaf,” Berry said. “I wanted to be able to communicate with her, so she began teaching me sign language.”
Several years later, without any formal training, she went to work at the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, Va., as a secretary in the deaf program. Discovering a passion for this work, Berry moved to a counselor aide position, where she helped coordinate services for students and served as an interpreter for classroom instruction, medical appointments and other activities.
Her passion and skill did not go unnoticed. Nancy Costello, a rehabilitation counselor for the deaf program at the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center, approached Berry and encouraged her to pursue a degree in rehabilitation counseling.
“This was a scary, yet exciting adventure for me,” Berry said. “After taking all of the classes I could at the community college level, I left my job of nine years at WWRC and moved to Richmond to attend VCU.”
While working through school as a freelance sign language interpreter, Berry got her bachelor’s and then master’s degrees. After graduation, she stayed with VCU and taught as an adjunct instructor for sign language.
During her studies at VCU, she was exposed to deaf-blindness through many of her interpretation assignments.
“This experience created a new and fascinating interest for me,” Berry said.
To pursue this interest, she joined the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired in Richmond as the program director of deaf-blind services in 1982, the same year she graduated. In 2000, she moved to the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults, which is based in Sands Point, N.Y.
Berry still works with the Helen Keller National Center today. She serves as the national coordinator of services to senior adults, age 55 and older, who are deaf-blind or who are experiencing the loss of vision and hearing.
“I love working with senior adults,” Berry said. “My grandmother, who was extremely hard of hearing, raised me. So growing up, I was used to being around people who were older.”
Her strong dedication and service to deaf-blindness was formally recognized in 1996 when she received the prestigious Anne Sullivan Macy Award. The award is named after Helen Keller’s instructor and companion and was presented by the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.
“The award was special to me because the recognition was not only from my colleagues in the field of deaf-blindness, but from people who are deaf-blind,” Berry said.
Being an advocate for people who are deaf and blind has added depth to Berry’s life, and she is thankful for it. One of the first deaf-blind people she worked with was Rozelia Rivers. Rivers influenced Berry’s career the most and taught her valuable lessons about deaf-blind people.
“She allowed me to make mistakes; to be politically incorrect; to run her into walls and laugh about it,” Berry said. “She taught me that living with deaf-blindness is a challenge, not an excuse to stop living your life.”
Berry’s biggest accomplishments with teaching are overcoming communication barriers and building relationships.
“Once the students meet a person who is deaf-blind, their often pre-conceived idea of what that person can do, how they live and how they communicate is quickly changed,” Berry said. “This experience is often life-changing for the student. But more importantly, it changes the life of the person who is deaf-blind.”
Main story: Class Sheds Light on Deaf Culture
CNS reporter Alyx Duckett produced this slide show about the American Sign Language course.