Don Petty

Living Life Without Sight or Sound
Don Petty is a normal guy. He yells at OU football games on the TV, lifts weights at Aspen Athletic Club on Danforth, and spends hours facing a computer screen. However, there are a few differences. Melanie, his wife of 15 years, signs the play-by-play scrolling comments of the game while his eyes remain inches from the screen so he doesn’t miss a move. Don is blind and deaf.

At 9 months old, Don lost his sight after being ill with encephalitis. He gradually lost his hearing and by high school became legally blind and deaf. His parents pushed him to try anything, not holding him back in any way. He learned both Braille and sign language (signed into his hand). With the help of interpreters, machines and persistency, he graduated from OU in 1980 with a degree in journalism and dreams of becoming a sports writer. One of his favorite jobs was writing a newspaper column in the 1980s.

Don met his wife, Melanie, when she answered an ad he put in the newspaper for an interpreter. She volunteered to interpret TV on Sundays. They became friends, enjoying a lot of the same activities, like taking day trips around Oklahoma exploring little towns. They married four years later.

The doorbell rings and a light flashes above Don’s head to let him know someone is at the door. His office is full of machines — from computers and copiers to typewriters that translate into Braille and 4-inch tall letters on a computer screen. To communicate with people who do not know sign language, Don supplies a special Tellatouch typewriter that translates for him. A sighted person types in a message and the machine puts out Braille one letter at a time. Don reads the Braille words with his fingers and writes or speaks back. The Braille code is arranged in cells of six dots, which makes Braille faster to write than using a regular typewriter.

A person using Braille writes from right to left, then the heavy sheet of paper is turned over and read from left to right. A Perkins Brailler sits on another table in Don’s office, and then a Telebraille, which allows communication by phone, interprets his messages verbally to another person. From time to time Don is asked to try out new machines on the market, a task he enjoys.

Don’s clear blue eyes are calm as he searches the tiny area toward his side where he has a small amount of sight. His inquisitive mind never stops asking questions to everyone he meets, interrogating like a journalist, curious about the world. To answer him yes, you knock with a fist on his arm, and to answer no, you tap two fingers.

Like an average person, Don has his own interests. He enjoys investigative research on the web and reading e-mails, volunteers for “You Are Special” and would like to become a Big Brother someday to a child. Like many of us, Don is still actively learning. He has a private tutor, a deaf and blind specialist from the Oklahoma Library for the Blind, who helps him learn how to make his signs more clear.

Sports are still an important part of Don’s life. An avid athlete, he played football and basketball when young. He competed in swimming by waiting for others to begin then following the bright line painted on the bottom of the pool. He has trophies to show for it. Now he regularly goes to the Aspen Club.

“I am into weightlifting but it doesn’t show,” he said.

He reads the newspaper and magazines on a closed circuit TV that magnifies the words. He labors over Sports Illustrated and the Daily Oklahoman sports section before reading the regular news headlines. As an OU graduate, he is a dedicated Sooner fan.

“I don’t feel like I’ve climbed any mountains, just doing what people try to do, working, playing with the dog,” he said. “I think the better story is in technology …”

One of Don’s wishes is for someone to watch movies and summarize for him what the movie was about. With his social life limited, e-mail has become an important way to communicate with the outside world. His mind is like anyone else’s, but his body situation is special. It takes a lot of volunteers for a blind and deaf person to live a normal life and there never seems to be enough help around. Don’s circumstances may appear overwhelming, but he makes an extraordinary effort to live as fulfilling a life as possible.

The most challenging thing for Don Petty is trying to convince the sighted public that he is like them. But then — when normalcy is so demanding — maybe he’s a cut above. Don’s e-mail is and he would love to hear from you.

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