St. Augustine's Rich Deaf History

What do Ray Charles, Ashley Fiolek and Marcus Roberts have in common?  They attended the Florida School for the Deaf & Blind (FSDB) in uptown St. Augustine.

National Public Radio's Fresh Air recently replayed a 1998 interview that Terry Gross conducted with Ray Charles.  Terry asked Ray if he went through a period of depression after losing his sight around the age of 7.  His response? "No. Because [...] by the time I started losing my sight for sure, I was going to a school for the deaf and the blind." Regarding the medical care available to him at FSDB, Ray recalled that there was "one hospital on the campus  [...] it was on what they called the white side. We had to go over to the white side if we needed to go to the hospital. I mean, that was just the way it was." Terry made a striking observation about the school's segregated status during Ray's enrollment: "It's kind of amazing, isn't it? [...] here you are going to school for people who are blind, and it's a segregated school...So you're segregated by color which you can't even see."

Ray first learned to play the clarinet at FSDB and then the piano.  He credits learning to play the piano with opening up several other opportunities. By the time he was 12 or 13, Ray could write an entire arrangement for a 17-piece band.  He felt that  "If you study piano, it gives you a whole outlook on a lot of different things that has to do with music."  Ray Charles Robinson died on June 10, 2004.

Ashley Fiolek is a deaf retired professional motocross racer who made appearances on a show called Switched at Birth and was featured in a Red Bull advertising campaign in 2011.  Switched at Birth has given several deaf actors career opportunities. Marlee Matlin and Sean Berdy are two deaf stars of the show.  

In the summer of 1998, the Fioleks moved to St. Augustine from Michigan so Ashley could attend FSDB - the largest school of its kind in the country. She participated in basketball, track & field and ballet.  


Marcus Roberts is an award winning blind jazz pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and teacher.  In 2014, 60 Minutes aired a segment about his life and work called The Virtuoso. Like Charles and Fiolek, Roberts attended FSDB in his youth.

This post will primarily highlight the deaf community.  It's a subject dear to my heart.  Since my childhood, I've had consistent connections with the deaf and hard-of-hearing.  These connections have enriched my life.

The first time I remember meeting a deaf person, I was four years old.  My parents hosted a deaf friend who was visiting from France.  Full disclosure - my family did not know sign language, let alone LSF (langue des signes française/French Sign Language). We must have communicated through handwritten notes, gesturing and lip reading.  Non-verbal communication comprises more of conversations than spoken language.  Body language and facial expressions convey a great deal of meaning and emotion.  I have fond memories of our deaf friend's visit, though they're vague.  About four years ago, I found a picture of the four of us sitting on our living room floor.  In the picture, I bypassed my parents and sat on our visiting friend's lap.  I found that heartwarming as I reminisced on a special week of so many years ago. Though my memories of him are faint, I was clearly fond of him.  It would be the experience of a lifetime to cross paths again with him somehow.  I've recently taken up the project of studying French Sign Language with the goal of becoming conversational in six months.  A discussion of the several dozen international sign languages could easily be the subject of its own post. Some estimate that there are as many as 300! Feel free to ask me about it sometime ;-)

When I was in elementary school, I ate lunch with hard-of-hearing students almost everyday.  Later, during my middle school years, I had the pleasure of making friends with a deaf family that attended worship meetings with me.  The program was interpreted into American Sign Language from English.  Around that time, I had the opportunity to take a private sign language class, but it never began due to insufficient enrollment.  I regret that my fluency in ASL was delayed for many years following this (more on that later).  Our dear deaf friends eventually relocated to a different state. Amazingly, we attended the same ASL convention in central Florida 16 years later and enjoyed a wonderful reunion during which we could communicate in sign language for the first time.  It was completely unexpected and thrilling to reconnect with my long lost friends.  We hadn't forgotten each other after all those years.

After moving to Florida, I made friends with several sign language interpreters and additional members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. 

The topic of deaf culture is incredibly important to me.  When I launched this blog over the summer, I knew that in time I'd publish something special about the deaf community.  It is my hope that I do the subject justice and the deaf community appreciates my efforts here.

Much like any other culture, there is great variance among the deaf in terms of upbringing, educational background, personal preferences and so forth.  The term "deaf" may apply to those who have moderate hearing loss (AKA hard-of-hearing).  The deaf do not necessarily view their hearing loss as a disability.  Rather, it is a communication barrier that doesn't necessarily prevent them from doing anything that a hearing person can do.  Among the deaf are accomplished educators, musicians, actors, interpreters and athletes.  To use the term "deaf and dumb" is frowned upon and offensive.

A common misconception about the deaf is the assumption that reading a spoken language comes easily for them.  But imagine traveling to Greece and being placed in a sound proof glass booth, for instance.  Assume that you have never heard the Greek language spoken. While standing in the booth, native Greek speakers attempt to communicate with you through the glass via written notes.  Communication would be strained at best, right?  Attempting to read Greek texts after having never heard the language spoken would be very frustrating.  For these reasons and others, sign language is a beautiful, efficient means of communicating. ASL follows a syntax similar to that of the romance languages and has rules of grammar, tense, punctuation and so forth.  The scenario mentioned earlier is based on part of an interview with a sign language translation specialist who has decades of experience. His name is Bobby Dunbar, and he works in New York.  

While living in St. Augustine, I have made friends with several deaf alumni of FSDB and other deaf locals who relocated to St. Augustine in adulthood.  Several of my hearing friends are sign language interpreters.  Last year, I began working in the interpreting field myself. It has proven to be an enjoyable, rewarding profession.  I'm a "right brain", so I've always been inclined toward language, music and the arts.  Sign language is fascinating and the opportunities to become more proficient in it are endless.  For instance, the tone conveyed by different eyebrow movements while signing could easily be assigned its own chapter in a publication.

I especially love walking St. Augustine's historic streets and bumping into deaf students, professionals and business owners from various backgrounds.  For me, it's like spotting a celebrity that I respect and admire.  I almost always go out of my way to stop and chat with new deaf people.  I have found the deaf to be patient and kind with me as a hearing person. When I was first diligently learning ASL over five years ago, my deaf friends taught me effectively and with joy.  It has been such an important, full circle experience to finally be able to communicate clearly with a community that has enriched my life for so many years.