The Gift of Listening


It’s 1981. Jake is 10 months old. His parents notice a red dot near his right eye, and soon the eye is so swollen that they take him to the hospital. The doctor diagnoses spinal meningitis. Jake’s eye gets better, but as a baby and toddler he’s not responding normally to others.

It’s 1982. Jake is two and a half when doctors confirm what his parents have been telling them: He’s almost completely deaf, and likely has been since he was 10 months old. It’s 1983. Jake is three. Though they live in Arlington, his parents enroll him in the Northwest School for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children in Shoreline, where Jake spends the next 11 years. With two teachers to six kids in each class, Jake finds a small community, caring teachers, kids like him.

It’s 1994. Jake is a freshman at Arlington High School, his first time in public school, one of only four deaf students in a school of hundreds. “I only made it through four years of high school with the love and support of my parents and brothers,” says Jake, who sought refuge in reading, fishing, video games and acting. “Acting is my thing,” he says.

It’s 2020. Jake is signing with Debbie, a deaf and blind resident of one of our Disability Services homes in Lake Stevens. He’s served as a Direct Support Professional at VOAWW for over a year now, helping Debbie, Steve, and Nick live as independently as possible. Today he’s my interpreter: I pull down my mask so he can read my lips, then he signs my questions to Debbie’s hands, who signs back to Jake, who shares her answers with me. She takes a break from reading her braille NY Times to chat, and I learn that her downstairs room is decorated with dolphins, and she loves Hawaii, Harry Potter books, and white wine. She makes her own coffee at the Keurig each morning, and she folds her own laundry, carries it down the stairs and puts it away.

“I want to be a disability advocate,” says Jake, who enjoys his work and the relationships he’s built. He still auditions for parts in his spare time. And, during his 7am to 2pm shift, he always takes the time to connect with Debbie, to talk and to listen in a way that few of us can.

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