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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — September 2021: Geraldine “Jerrie” Lawhorn

Geraldine “Jerrie” Lawhorn was a leader in the American deafblind community, a performer, actress, pianist, and an instructor. She was also the first deafblind African American person to earn a college degree in the United States.

Ms. Lawhorn was born on December 31, 1916, in Dayton, Ohio, to musicians Pearl Walker and William Bert Lawhorn. She was about eight years old when doctors discovered she had an eye condition. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Lawhorn learned Braille, but remained in classes with sighted students. Her integration at school was challenging in that her classmates booed, stigmatized, and discriminated against her.

Despite this adversity, Ms. Lawhorn persisted with her education, graduating with honors from Marshall High School. Upon graduating, Ms. Lawhorn became interested in writing and public speaking and won several prizes for her short stories.

At 19 years old, Ms. Lawhorn completely lost her hearing which prompted her to learn a new mode of communication: the One-Hand Alphabet. She did not allow this new challenge to deter her from writing. In fact, she continued entering and winning writing contests. She took a course at Columbia University and then went on to write a novel entitled The Needle Swingers' Baby.

In 1942, Ms. Lawhorn was admitted to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she studied for four years. She performed monologues at the United Service Organization’s programs. She launched a one-woman show entitled Projected Hearts, and performed at Carnegie Hall.

After years as a performer, Ms. Lawhorn was offered a teaching position at the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She would serve as an instructor for the Hadley Institute for over 40 years.

Obtaining a college degree was a lifelong goal for Ms. Lawhorn, but she had encountered incredible discrimination related to her disabilities and ethnicity whenever she had attempted to achieve this goal in the past. Through a friend, she learned about the University Without Walls program that many colleges offered. She applied to this program and was accepted at Northeastern Illinois University.

On March 23, 1983, Ms. Lawhorn earned her Bachelor's Degree in Rehabilitation of Deafblind Adults from Northeastern Illinois University. At the age of 67, she became the first deafblind African American person to graduate from college. She became only the sixth deafblind person in the United States to earn that achievement.

Ms. Lawhorn was featured on several nationwide television shows in celebration of her achievements. She was known for her optimism, tenacity and encouragement of deafblind people. In 1991, she wrote her autobiography entitled On Different Roads, which was a source of inspiration for the 2005 movie Black by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.


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