Piano man a voice for deafblind

2008-06-27 00:00

After spending just a few minutes with Brian Titshall, chairman for Deafblind SA, KwaZulu-Natal, you’ll easily forget that this vibrant bear of a man with a hugely infectious laugh is blind.

He’s adamant that he doesn’t want us to publish “pathetic” images of children who are blind and/or deaf. Rather, he says, show what they are capable of, given the right support. In this case, one couldn’t ask for a more shining example than Titshall.

As a young boy, Titshall lost the use of his sight through Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative disease of the retina, also known to cause hearing loss. A gifted pianist, his abiding love of music steered him toward a career as a piano tuner. After completing a diploma in piano tuning, he was employed in a music shop. He was subsequently retrenched, which prompted him to “take a deep breath and go it on his own”. Titshall now lives on a 150-year-old farm in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands from where he, together with friend and colleague Lettie Scheuer, operates a successful business tuning, repairing and selling pianos, mainly servicing the private schools in the surrounding district.

Scheuer is also a piano tuner and voluntary secretary for Deafblind SA (DBSA). Five years ago Titshall attended a meeting at DBSA to find out more about his condition which led to his chairmanship on a voluntary basis. “I felt I was in a position where I had accepted and dealt with my condition so I could move on to help others,” he says. Titshall’s role in the organization is to facilitate or “make things happen”, whether it’s arranging eyetests, sourcing donations of computers and specialised software, or organising bursaries for deafblind schoolchildren, among other tasks.

“One of Deafblind’s biggest challenges is to actually find people who are deafblind,” says Titshall. “We are aware that there are thousands of children and adults who are either deafblind or have residual sight and hearing and suffer in total isolation without knowing that there is help out there — particularly those in rural areas. Once we have identified the various needs we provide help as much as we are able. This could be in the form of sight and hearing testing, specialised training/and or schooling, computer equipment, glasses and hearing aids — or whatever else may be required. Training methods and modern technology enable even those who are profoundly blind and/or deaf to communicate and have access to information.

“However, as we are an organisation reliant on private funding, money is always a problem. At the moment I have three children waiting for eye tests — these cost R200 each and then we need to find money for glasses. Audio tests cost even more and the cheapest hearing aids cost around R7 000. Having said this, I am grateful that we do have the use of specialists who generously give their time.” DBSA sponsors specialised tuition for schoolchildren with sight and hearing disabilities.

While Scheuer is sighted, her son Dirk is blind, having lost his sight as a result of septicemia as a small boy. With the aid of screen-reading software, he runs a successful business as a computer technician for the surrounding farms, schools and businesses.

“I feel that the public still have problems accepting that blind or deaf people are capable of doing the same as everyone else. Just imagine if I came to tune your piano with a trumpet sticking out of my ear!”

Titshall gives one of his infectious belly-laughs. “From talking watches, vibrating alarm clocks to screen-reading programs for computers, technology has become so advanced the only thing that deafblind people cannot do is overcome the lack of mobility — such as driving. Unfortunately, we are not a welfare state and very behind in terms of providing this technology.

“Industry could be playing a much bigger part. In the UK, for instance, all the banks use the induction loop system, a frequency based device that channels enhanced sound into the hearing aid and eliminates background noise allowing clients and/or staff who are deaf to communicate clearly through the glass barrier.”

• Originally published in Ideas, Dit Magazine, October 2007.

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