Year in Review: Deafblind woman finding new joy in life and art

Heather McKay and her daughter Talice Connelly. Cathy Dobson

Editor’s Note: This week we’re running our favourite people features of 2021, a reminder that even in difficult years good things happen. This one first appeared June 24.

Cathy Dobson

Every morning, Talice Connelly organizes her day.

In a row of empty baskets she places specific items to indicate what she plans to do. A sweatband in one means a walk; craft scissors in another reserves time for artwork.

She also takes the lead on household chores such as cooking and laundry.

What might sound mundane for many isn’t for Talice, 42. She’s been deaf and blind from birth.

“When I first saw her cut vegetables I was amazed to see someone who is blind use a sharp knife and cut everything so uniformly,” says Anne Marie MacDougall, who co-ordinates the five intervenors who facilitate her day.

Intervenors are the eyes and ears of the deafblind and help Talice 24/7 to live in her own townhouse.

She was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Sarnia with cataracts on her eyes and a limited ability to hear only very high or very low sounds, said her mom Heather McKay.

“I had German measles (rubella) in my first trimester and she was born deaf and blind with some organs in the wrong places,” she said.

Numerous surgeries improved Talice’s eyesight and allowed her to see shapes and colours, but only for brief periods. She has been legally blind for life and ultimately had to have her eyes removed.

Her mother was determined to provide as much life-quality as possible.

Talice’s health is challenged and communication is always a hurdle, but in recent years she has started to enjoy things more and connect more easily. She smiles often, said her mom.

“Every deafblind person is totally different. But I believe that when you lose some of your senses the others become enhanced. That’s why Talice can sense when someone in the room is angry or sad or laughing.”

“She is very smart and very adaptable. Her cognition is fine,” added MacDougall who has worked with Talice for years.

“She literally changed my perspective on life. With all her challenges, she’s so happy.”

Shortly after Talice was born, her mother learned to sign so she could teach her daughter to communicate with her hands.

“She learned ‘food’ right away.”

Though she’s never heard a melody, she loves to feel the vibrations from live music and move to the beat.

McKay advocated for her daughter to attend the W. Ross McDonald School for the deafblind in Brantford, where Talice was educated from the age of six to 18, followed by a year of life skills training.

Though she’s lived at Sarnia’s Faethorne Place in her own home for 17 years, she struggled with heart problems and low energy levels.

But three years ago, her life changed drastically for the better.

Major heart surgery at Toronto General Hospital replaced two heart valves, which not only resolved critical health problems but also lifted Talice’s mood and made her more social and outgoing.

“The surgery gave her a new lease on life,” said McKay.  “She is an amazing woman and I am so proud of her.”

Before Talice communicated only when necessary, using Exact English to sign it was time for water, food or a nap.

But post-surgery, she communicates much more and is happy “90% of the time,” said MacDougall.

“The girls who help Talice are really in tune with her,” said McKay. “I can’t say enough about them.”

The pandemic stopped Talice from doing many things she loves, including shopping and swimming at the beach.

But the lockdowns have also spawned a new appreciation for art. She has always enjoyed crafts and today spends a lot of time painting.

This year, she even started selling her art on her personal Facebook page.

“Her intervenors will help blend paint colours and dab it on the canvas, then Talice takes over,” her mother said.

“She makes amazing tactile paintings using driftwood and is even getting custom orders.

“She is doing so well. I am so happy for her.”