Communicating Without The Spoken Word

Oct 17, 2019

Katie Byrnes was born deaf, but this didn’t stop her from finding ways to relate to others.

Her parents, Jayne and John Byrnes remember Katie’s earliest signs of communicating, her intelligence and love of music. Even though Katie passed at the young age of five-years-old, she had an incredible impact on the deaf community.

John first noticed that Katie was trying to communicate non-verbally by the way she moved her eyebrows.

"Her wiggling of her eyebrows led the developmental pediatrician in the hospital to tell us that there's something going on inside that girl," John said.

Photo of Katie Byrnes.
Credit Byrnes Family

In order to share their love of music with their daughter, Jayne and John would put stereo speakers on the floor.

"We would turn the music loud so it would blast our house," Jayne said. "Katie would actually sit on top of  speakers and feel those vibrations."

Katie would also experience music when members of the deaf community showed up at her house to sign Christmas caroles, an event that became a yearly tradition.

When Katie passed, John and Jayne wanted her funeral to be a celebration of her life. On that day, her parents were able to appreciate the many lives Katie had touched.

"For a little five-year-old, we were amazed that over a thousand people came to her celebration of life," John said.

In addition to friends, family, doctors and nurses, the deaf community choir attended to sign the songs and prayers at the funeral mass.

"Katie's deafness introduced our family to the deaf community and expanded our awareness about other ways of communicating besides the spoken word," Jayne said.

Jayne and John Byrnes were recorded during StoryCorps' recent visit to Columbus. To hear more stories from your neighbors, be sure to subscribe to the StoryCorps COLUMBUS podcast on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

TRANSCRIPT

Leticia Wiggins, Host: Welcome to StoryCorps COLUMBUS. I'm Leticia Wiggins, as many NPR listeners will know. StoryCorps is the national nonprofit that collects and preserves stories from across the country and its mobile recording studio.

A select few of those interviews are edited for weekly broadcasts during Morning Edition. StoryCorps COLUMBUS will bring you interviews from central Ohioans who share their stories during StoryCorps, his recent visit to our city.

Today, a story about communicating without the spoken word.

Katie was born deaf, but this didn't stop her from finding other ways to relate to others. Her parents, Jayne and John Byrnes, remember Katie's earliest signs of communicating her intelligence and love of music.

Even though Katie passed at a young age, she had an incredible impact on the deaf community.

Jayne Byrnes: So, John, when did you first notice Katie was trying to communicate with us and particularly with you?

John Byrnes: Her first communication, strangely enough, was wiggling her eyebrows. Because she was deaf and couldn't make any sounds or sounds, didn't register with her.

She would observe us and we'd be looking down and particularly me, I'd with my horn-rimmed glasses.

When I would see her, I'd come in with an excited expression and my eyebrows would pop up above my glasses.

Her her wiggling of her eyebrows led the development of pediatrician in the hospital to tell us that, you know, she said this girl's there's something going on inside that girl who wants to really communicate with us and was really a bright little girl who did not have the ability to speak but communicate in other ways.

Jayne Byrnes: So music was very important in our lives. But here was Katie. She was deaf. She couldn't hear the music.

So what we would do is we would get the speakers off the stereo. We would put them in the great room. We would sit her on top of the speakers and we would turn the music loud.

So that would blast our house and actually shake our house. And Katie actually would sit on top of the speakers and feel those vibrations.

And so it was around December when Katie was just turned two years old, when our neighbor had invited us to come to an event at her church so we could watch the Christmas pageant with the little children. Jack and I went, you stayed home with Katie.

Jayne Byrnes: And I remember leaving that church quite sad because Katie would not hear Christmas carols. But it was fascinating.

Jayne Byrnes: Two days after that event, I got a phone call from Pam from the deaf institute and she said, "Are you going to be home on Wednesday night? We'd like to come over."

I didn't ask who we was. And so they came over on Wednesday. And along with Pam and Brian came a large group of deaf people who came. And their purpose in coming was to sign carols for Katy. Christmas carols, actually.

And Katie loved that evening to remember that how much she loved that evening when the deaf came and signed Christmas carols. And that actually became a tradition in our family for many years where the deaf would come and we would sign carols.

John Byrnes: When we had some time, you know, had the few days for the her death to settle in and we did plan her funeral and we wanted to truly celebrate her life and not focus on the sadness of her death.

We had the deaf community choir come in and sign the songs at the at the mass and various prayers that we had.

Her pallbearers represented different aspects of her life. A teacher, your favorite teacher. Who she had a crush on a, therapist, nurses, the doctor and a family friend who had been with her throughout and helped her learn and become part of the deaf community. So all very symbolic. For a little 5-year-old, we were amazed that over a thousand people came to our celebration of life.

Jayne Byrnes: Katie's deafness introduced our family to the deaf community and expanded our awareness about other ways of communicating besides a spoken word.

Leticia Wiggins, Host: Jayne and John Byrnes were recorded in the StoryCorps booth during its recent visit to Columbus.

StoryCorps COLUMBUS is a production of WOSU Public Media. It's produced by me, Leticia Wiggins, and edited by Mike Thompson. Additional podcast editing by Michael De Bonis. WOSU's Digital Content Director is Nick Houser, our Chief Content Director of Arts, Life and Culture is Brent Davis.

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Thanks for listening.