“The Sign for Home” Examines Life and Challenges for a DeafBlind Individual

Recent high-profile cases have shone a spotlight on issues regarding disability and independence. To what degree should one make decisions about one’s life, even if not fully able to perceive the world in what is deemed a “normal” way. Should family be able to basically dictate how a person is to live, simply because they believe they are protecting the individual from harm, thus possibly denying access to choices that other adults expect to have?
In his debut novel The Sign for Home, Blair Fell addresses this issue in a novel way. First, we have Arlo, a DeafBlind individual who resides with his devout Jehovah’s Witness uncle and receives information via a Tactile American Sign Language (TSL) interpreter who professes to believe the same. Arlo, wishing to explore possibilities in writing, enrolls in a class at a Poughkeepsie (NY) community college where he meets Cyril, another interpreter who accidentally or on purpose opens Arlo to a whole new world.
This writing class, taught by an unusual professor from St. Kitts, leads Arlo to explore parts of his past that he had been forced to shut away because his uncle deemed them sinful. These included an encounter with a deaf girl while he attended the School for the Deaf that led to his being sent to live with said uncle in the first place.
As the story unfolds, we learn that things with this girl are not as they seem. Arlo had been told one story about “the event” that ultimately ended their blossoming love affair, but… well as it turns out everyone has their secrets and lies. As the truth is revealed and Cyril and his associated cast of characters make Arlo more aware of possibilities regarding independence, he begins to push back against his uncle and Molly, the initial interpreter. This eventually leads to his seeking total freedom from his uncle’s guardianship.
Arlo and Cyril are primarily featured, with Arlo’s perspective being second person present and Cyril’s first person past. Both of these methods allow the reader to connect deeply with what is going on, offering a different set of feelings based on each. The former seems designed to ensure that one feels the experience of DeafBlindness and coping with a world neither heard nor seen insomuch as one can truly experience this, while the latter aims to allow access to the complicated emotions involved in helping Arlo deal with change.
At points during this novel, I as a DeafBlind person worried that the portrayal of Arlo made life for those living with these disabilities seem too simplistic and/or sad. Arlo knew little about how to operate in society when it came to moving around by himself and being willing to explore the wider world. The first part of this of course is that for some individuals who are DeafBlind, just as for those with other challenges, this is a true outcome. If one is not exposed to people and services such as Orientation and Mobility and Vocational Rehabilitation that are designed to help a person with a disability learn what is needed to thrive, one might indeed have a hard time. Even so, I appreciated that Fell included people who were functionally independent and who knew enough to teach Arlo, Cyril, and all in their circle some basic strategies to make his life easier. It is realistic, after all, to show that one might struggle with life as a DeafBlind person, but I believe it is equally if not more important to show that life can still be lived well with this or whatever condition one finds oneself.

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