It takes longer than normal to set up for the interview with Andy Stender. Even though he is in a familiar place—the conference room at Vision Corps—he stands in a vast unknown. A pair of translators work with him, standing close—in that area of personal space many may describe as uncomfortable—their hands, all six, mix and meld in communication. Andy and the translators make their way to a set of plastic seats; they are repositioned and positioned again until Andy sits facing out toward me, Ashley and Nicole aligned to his left acting as speakers and microphones, eyes and ears, until Andy is acclimated enough and everyone is comfortable. Every action we make—positioning cameras, moving items in the background— needs to be explained to Andy who waits patiently for questions. He asks me to go slowly and be patient and then starts without a prompt.
“My name is Andy. Andrew’s my full name, but I go by Andy,” he says, though the voice is not his. Speaking directly to Andy, my words go through Nicole. Signing his own responses, Andy’s words come to me through Ashley. Andy is deaf and blind, or deafblind, and relies on interpreters fluent in Pro-tactile American Sign Language to communicate.
“I was born deaf and I grew up deaf and by 37 I was totally blind. It was a 20-year progression,” says Andy, now 55-years old.
Andy was born with Usher syndrome, a hereditary condition affecting both hearing and vision. Type I Usher-afflicted are born with profound hearing loss or deafness and slowly lose their sight starting with night-blindness and a loss of peripheral vision eventually leading to complete blindness.
“When I was a small boy growing up, I could see. I loved sports, football, cross country, basketball…” and he goes on and on.
He grew up in Norristown and stays in touch with friends from the area via adaptive technology. His grandparents owned a farm, where he fondly remembers the barn and the huge line of trees and the stone wall around the property—the barn still stands, but the rest is gone.
“I can guess what that looks like. It’s hard for me to imagine that… I remember colors. I remember driving around in cars and knowing where things are at,” says Andy.
Andy spent eight months at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults in New York. He was prepared to lose his sight, but he also spent a lot of his life just making ends meet by working a variety of jobs, like one at a food processing center in Philadelphia packaging Slim Jims.
“My vision was starting to decline… I started the process of learning how to navigate the world as a deafblind person. It took time,” says Andy, who says he still dreams in color.
Realizing a need to do something more, he enrolled at Temple University and studied horticulture. As his eyesight worsened, he realized he would never be able to graduate and withdrew from the program after four years of study.
In 2000, he moved to Lancaster and the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation helped place him in a job with Vision Corps.
“I feel comfortable here. Lancaster has been a great community for me,” says Andy. “(Public) transportation is so important for people who are deaf and blind.”
Using Red Rose Transit, Andy travels to and from work at Vision Corps where he assembles helmet liners. At home, he enjoys working on his display of O-scale model trains when he is not volunteering at Longwood Gardens.
“Right now it’s a mess, but I enjoy model trains,” says Andy.
If you meet Andy on the street and want to say “Hi,” print on his palm. Trace the shapes of letters onto his palm to spell out your greeting. Eager to make conversation, he may pull out a pen and a pad from his pocket and write to you. Despite the obstacles in his life, Andy keeps a positive outlook, especially now with a good job. Work has kept him from turning toward substance abuse, something he dabbled with years ago.
“Depression is a real thing, especially with people who have had vision loss. It’s kind of like if your TV broke and the picture doesn’t work anymore. That’s frustrating. And there’s no surgery to fix it,” says Andy. “I had to have a new life after (losing my sight). The old life is in the past. I’ve had to make accommodations and move forward in the new life. I have to live one day at a time, and I want to enjoy where I am at.”