This weekend, Cassandra Oakes' dreams are coming true.
“You Can Do It: Advocacy and Self Determination, Keys to YOUR Future,” is the theme of a conference for people who are deaf and blind that is taking place this weekend at the Reed Conference Center in Midwest City.
After cancer took Oakes' friend, who was deaf and blind, she felt the need to take action to help the community of people who are deaf and blind in Oklahoma.
In 2011, Oakes, who is deaf and blind, founded the organization Sight-Hearing Encouragement Program to ensure that people who were deaf and blind would have an organization focused on helping them achieve their potential.
“It's to help people who really need help to develop a positive mind and attitude about their lives and about themselves,” Oakes said. “There are so many deaf-blind people who have just given up on life, and they're just depressed and frustrated, and they feel like there's no one to help them, and they're just trapped at home and shut off. They just close the door on their lives.”
The organization is co-sponsoring the conference to help fix that exact problem, and it plans to continue hosting events for people who are deaf and blind.
The Saturday portion of the conference begins at 9 a.m. Oakes said she hopes that a diverse group of people will attend the conference and learn about the gifts that people who are deaf and blind have within them.
Oakes, a mother of four and grandmother of six, started losing her vision in her late 30s.
Oakes has Ushers syndrome, the most common condition that affects both hearing and vision, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Oakes said it's important for people who are deaf and blind to not get caught up in negativity. People who are deaf and blind often suffer from loneliness, in part because they don't always know about the resources available to them, she said.
“They have a right to experience life just like anybody else, just like any normal people in the world,” she said. “It doesn't matter if they have problems or not. They need to be out, and I need to show people what they can do.”
People who are deaf and blind communicate through interpreters known as support service providers. These providers use voice and sign language to provide not only information on what's being said but also about environmental factors, such as what emotions people are showing.
Oklahoma has a lack of support service providers, said Jeri Cooper, an Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services deaf-blind specialist.
This weekend, 82 people will serve at the conference as support service providers for participants who are deaf and blind. More than 150 people from nine states are expected to attend this weekend.
People who are interested in becoming support service providers can learn more at the conference and also contact the rehabilitation services department to learn when trainings will be, Cooper said.
The Rev. Cyril Axelrod, a priest who is deaf and blind and from South Africa, will serve as the conference's keynote speaker, giving his presentation during lunch at 11 a.m.
Axelrod, speaking through an interpreter, said a person's disability is a gift from God.
Axelrod, who has been a priest for 42 years, lost his vision 12 years ago. He said when he lost his vision, nothing changed.
“I still go to do my work as a priest the same as always,” he said. “I've continued to help people to see value in their disability. If they're deaf or if they're blind, I feel like that is a gift for their life, and I want people to learn the worth that they have.”
Axelrod doesn't think about being deaf and blind. He thinks about other people's problems. Many people, regardless of what they're dealt in life, are imprisoned by their fear.
Axelrod said he feels a responsibility to help the world better understand the value of people who are deaf and blind.
“They're here for the good of the world and the well being of the world,” he said.