As Jason Corning and his husband, Jason Lin, prepared to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Lin hesitated. His fear of heights tugged at him.
“Are you sure?” Lin asked again.
“Why not?” Corning told him. “You will never know what it’s like unless you try it.”
One spouse encouraging the other might not seem extraordinary. But that day, as Lin and Corning stood in blue and gray jumpsuits about to ascend the world’s tallest steel arch bridge, only one of those men could hear and see.
Corning has been deaf and blind since birth.
“People just focus on his disability, but for me, I don’t think there’s anything that could stop him,” Lin, 28, told me when we spoke recently.
I had called him to speak about a different type of bridge his husband was now climbing. Several months ago, Corning left his job with the federal government and decided to start his own company, one that aims at creating more accommodating spaces for people who are deaf, blind or both.
If you want to see an example of what that looks like, just walk into the Starbucks that opened in recent days in Washington. It is the first in the country designed for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. There, customers can write or use American Sign Language to place their orders and their names will appear on a screen when their lattes and mochas are ready.
Since its opening, the place has drawn excitement and praise — and probably a lot of profits because it is just blocks from Gallaudet University, the world’s oldest university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. It deserves all of that. A Signing Starbucks is a significant step toward inclusiveness.
But here’s the thing: The deaf community doesn’t only drink coffee. And within the deaf community, there are people who are partially or fully blind. That’s where Corning hopes his company, Three Monkeys Communications, will come in.
Corning, 32 and president of the Metro Washington Association of the Deaf-Blind, started the company in July and said he plans to fly across the country to places that want to learn how to better accommodate the deaf-blind community.
Many times, when we think about losing critical senses — and it is a risk we all face as we age — we envision the ways our world might collapse inward. How instead of seeing 20 feet in front of us, we might be able to see only two inches in front of us, or less. How instead of hearing someone shout our name from across the street, we might hear words spoken in our faces as whispers, or not at all. How it would feel safer to stay within the same familiar space. What struck me about Corning’s company was its aim to expand the world for people who have limited or no use of two senses that many of us couldn’t image functioning without.
I visited Corning at his Maryland townhouse recently to find out more about him and the company he runs from his second-floor office.
I was nervous. I had spoken to him through an interpreter over the phone, but I had no idea how we were going to talk in person. I don’t know ASL, and even if I did, I wasn’t sure if he would be able to see me signing. Deaf-blind, contrary to how it sounds, does not always mean a total loss of both senses; it is defined as a significant impairment of both.
When I arrived, Corning shook my hand, introduced me to his service dog, Niko, a 5-year-old yellow lab, and it became immediately clear how we were going to get through the interview. Corning was going to have to teach me what he hopes his company can teach others: how to adjust.
Corning, who has a master’s from Johns Hopkins University, communicates mostly through sign language and a “Pro Tactile” method that involves touching. He also types on a computer. Although he is legally blind and needs Niko to guide him when he walks, he can read letters on a screen if they are magnified in front of him. Using a cochlear implant and a hearing aid, he can also hear slightly if a person speaks loudly and clearly in front of him in a quiet environment.
For my visit, Corning asked Tony Daverso, a support service provider, to join us. Daverso, who is also deaf, is trained to use Pro Tactile, which can convey to a deaf-blind person what ASL can’t: facial expressions and body movements.
When I smiled, Daverso used a finger to trace a smiley face on Corning’s arm.
When I nodded, Daverso moved his fist up and down quickly on that same arm.
When I had questions, I wrote them in my notepad and Daverso conveyed them to Corning, who then replied verbally.
“Why do you believe this company is needed?” I asked him at one point
“We have a lot of deaf-blind people who have a hard time finding a job,” he said. “And a lot of people don’t know how to work with deaf-blind people.”
Lin didn’t speak any sign language when he met Corning six years ago. They met online and grew to know each other first through email because Lin lived in Taiwan. Lin said Corning eventually taught him to sign, and he surprised Lin with his independence.
A moment in their relationship that stands out to Lin came a few months before they decided to get married in 2014. Corning flew by himself to Taiwan to meet Lin’s parents.
“That really impressed me, for a deaf-blind person to do that,” Lin said. “It really opened my horizons.”
In their home, Lin said, Corning does most of the cooking, and if there is a problem with their computer, he is usually the one to fix it. He also handles their travel arrangements and has made plans to go to the Philippines and France by himself next year.
Lin said that because of his job managing software for a nonprofit organization in Annapolis, Maryland, he doesn’t often have time to travel with Corning. But recently, he joined him on a trip to Wisconsin, where a camp was held for the deaf-blind community. One night featured a talent show for children. Some sang; others told jokes.
As he watched the performances, Lin said, it occurred to him why Corning’s company is needed.
“They just want to be like everyone else,” Lin said. “They just need some recognition from other people — people telling them, ‘You can do it.’ “
Maybe, he said, given the chance, they can even show that there are some things they can do better.