After he was safely in his own bed, Billy realized something was completely wrong.
He remembers his first words: “What happened to all the birds?”
He was deaf.
Billy Rogers was 7 years old when he returned home from the hospital,
too young to know he was lucky to be alive. Spinal meningitis is often fatal
among infants and juveniles.
Billy was my stepbrother, and I was only 5 years old, so I don’t recall
any vivid pictures of that day when he went from hearing everything to hearing
nothing at all. To our elders it must have been one of the most somber days
of their lives.
I was living with foster parents, and nobody spoke openly about such
a dreadful thing as deafness, especially in one so young and promising.
Now in our 70s, Billy and I sat together on a recent afternoon to talk
honestly about what it means to be profoundly deaf, which means unable to hear
When I lean in and ask him to repeat something, he chuckles, “What’s
the matter, are you hard of hearing?”
I ask him if he has a word of advice about how the state of Kentucky
ought to respond to the needs of the deaf.
“Education is the key,” says Billy-William Boyd Rogers-who grew up to
become a farmer and then the first executive director of the Kentucky Commission
on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Billy was sent to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. Each summer
when he returned to Kentucky we became reacquainted through the “deaf alphabet”
and lipreading. I understood then, even better now, the importance of listening
carefully, focusing attention, being patient when communicating with a deaf
person. I remember hearing cruel taunts of “deaf and dumb” among children who
chose not to understand and who believed they needed somebody to ridicule.
“Just because speech is impaired doesn’t mean a deaf person can’t think,”
“What are some of the more important things the hearing should understand
about the hearing-impaired, especially children?”
“They should realize that they are normal people and shouldn’t leave
them out of things. Children should learn language as soon as possible. The
first year is critical.”
“Yes, absolutely. It makes all the difference in the world.”
Using census records of 1990, the Commission on the Deaf and Hard of
Hearing estimates hearing loss to run as high as 10 percent in the Commonwealth.
“How many can be expected to become hard of hearing or profoundly deaf?”
“More and more,” says Billy, who graduated from University High in Lexington
in 1948. Although he couldn’t hear the referee’s whistle or the roar of the
crowd, he played on the U-High starting basketball team and went on to earn
a degree in agriculture from the University of Kentucky.
Billy has campaigned for captioning on television and was active in
the establishment of the Kentucky Relay Service (a telephone operator relays
messages to and from deaf and hearing-impaired people to others through an operator
by calling 1-800-648-6057).
William B. Rogers urges young hearing-impaired students to attend schools-public,
state, or private-where they can be with others like themselves to benefit from
“I’m bilingual and bicultural,” he smiles.
Billy has led a good and fruitful life, a role model for many others
who are deaf and who have a right to full membership in the community of sound.