Chicago's Very Own: Geraldine "Jerrie" Lawhorn

Geraldine “Jerrie” Lawhorn is one of God’s miracles. The 95-year old woman is both blind and deaf.

“My sight and hearing was normal before seven but in school, the teacher noticed that I was having trouble trying to read,” says Lawhorn.

Two  years later, she was blind. Shortly after, as a student at John Marshall High School, Lawhorn became deaf.

“We went to several doctors about the hearing and they said they didn’t know and hearing aids didn’t help,” says Lawhorn.

Since she didn’t go deaf until she was a teenager, Lawhorn speaks very well. Her parents did all they could to help her succeed, especially, when it came to her love for music. After high school, Lawhorn attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Lawhorn excelled at the conservatory, where she recited monologues, wrote poetry, and performed piano pieces.

She went on to become the first African American deaf-blind person to earn a college degree. She is an accomplished pianist, poet, teacher, and author. In 1991, Lawhorn published her autobiography, On Different Roads.

“I’ve read the book about her life, you know and I also read a short story that she wrote that kind of fictionalized it and I think a lot of it was she had such wonderful family and school support when she became deaf-blind,” says Diane O’Neill, Lawhorn’s interpreter and longtime friend.

Lawhorn now teaches elements of poetry for the Hadley School for the Blind, where she enjoys developing poems with her students. Although she is unable to see or hear, communication is not a problem. Lawhorn has a number of ways to communicate with her students including email.

She also uses a device called the Teletouch machine, which allows the sighted and hearing to type messages to Lawhorn. She then feels the letters pop up in brail on a metal circle. To some, she’s like a modern day Helen Keller and she doesn’t let anything prevent her from succeeding.

“I think she’s just a remarkable person and a role model for anybody.

It doesn’t even matter if you have a disability. She’s my role model when it comes to becoming older because she doesn’t let anything stop her, she’s still working,” says O’Neill.

Her dedication as a teacher has earned Lawhorn the 2011 Teacher of the Year Award from the Winnetka Northfield Chamber of Commerce.

“Well, I was very surprised; I’ve been a teacher a long time but never thought of myself as being outstanding. I thought of myself as being fortunate and I was quite honored to be teacher of the year in Winnetka,” says Lawhorn.

Lawhorn has been an instructor at The Hadley School for the Blind for more than 40 years.

Jerrie Lawhorn, she’s one of Chicago’s Very Own.

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