Deaf and Blind, BCC’s Most Unique Artist

Posted by Torch Admin in News on January 14, 2014 9:07 PM / no comments

By: Nathan Fishman, Staff Writer. Apr. 8, 2013.

When you walk down the West Hall's Third Floor, you may notice a wall of beautiful paintings. While all of the paintings are masterfully crafted, there is one painting whose backstory is as unique as the piece itself. This painting is of a wine bottle on a dark background. The artist is Jon Gabry, a blind and deaf student. He not only survives in the face of adversity, he thrives in it.

But let's put Jon in perspective. Of the approximately 17,000 students who attend Bergen Community College, 15% have disabilities, said Ms. Tia Ivanko, head of Deaf Services at BCC. In BCC, the percentage of students with disabilities is greater than other community colleges, which average out at 10%. Of all disabled students in BCC, Jon Gabry is the only student who is both blind and deaf.

Jon was initially completely blind, but last year he underwent a retinal surgery that has allowed him limited vision. He says he can see approximately 1-2 feet of distance. However, his vision is still a peripheral sense for his amazing tactile senses, or the ability to see by feeling the environment with his hands.

Amazingly, Jon is completely independent; he only needs two translators in his classes to tell him what his teachers are saying. He memorized the layout of the campus before he started attending BCC, so he knows exactly where his classes are.

Most deaf people in the United States use American Sign Language. Those who are both blind and deaf use Tactile ASL, which is similar to regular sign language, but the person who is "listening" is feeling the hands of the signer while the signer is "talking." To communicate with people who are not familiar with Tactile ASL, a Braille machine is used, which is a keyboard with a mechanism at the bottom that translates into Braille. It interfaces with a mobile device, so other students who want to talk to him text him what they want to say. The text is translated into Braille on his machine, which he can then respond to using the keyboard. The Braille machine sends Jon's message back to the mobile device as text. This is how Jon participates in group work, asks the teacher questions, reads books, takes notes, and completes his homework.

Jon was an artist long before his retinal surgery. In fact, when Jon was in high school, he received The State of New Jersey Award of Fine Arts in 2007.

Jon mainly paints by feeling the object that he is painting, such as the wine bottle in the accompanying photo, and remembering its proportions. For example, when feeling the bottle, he may note that the bottleneck is approximately one-quarter of the bottle, and will paint the bottle accordingly. Now that Jon has a little bit of vision, he gets up really close to see exact details of what he is painting. When I sat in on Professor Mindell's lecture, Jon's current art professor, he mentioned that in art sometimes "less is more." That means that what is left out of a painting is as important as what the painting contains. Jon not only is able to paint such accurate pictures, but his ability to detect detail is so acute that he can deliberately leave details out. In addition, the fact that Jon can paint by feeling his environment shows how powerful Jon's memory is.

The most important thing to take from Jon's work is that when his art is complete, it doesn't look deficient because Jon is blind; his artwork is at the same caliber and mastery as any other art student here at BCC. In other words, Jon's art isn't "good for a blind man"; it is just as good as any sighted man's work.

Jon is part of the deaf-blind subculture of the deaf and the blind communities. Both deaf and blind people have their own cultures, backgrounds, and languages. He integrates both cultures as a member of the deaf-blind community. In addition, he is friendly and easily approachable to everybody, deaf, blind, or otherwise.

Jon's story is very inspiring, and upon being asked for something he wanted everyone to know, he said "Everyone should take an interest in the arts, and math." I implore those reading this article to go check out Jon's art in the West Hall.