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A deaf-blind dishwasher achieves his childhood dream: Movie actor
Robert Tarango, a deaf-blind kitchen worker, at the Helen Keller National Center in New York, Dec. 12, 2019. Tarango is perhaps the first deaf-blind actor in a lead role, starring in the film “Feeling Through.” Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Corey Kilgannon

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Doug Roland, a filmmaker, was walking home from a night out at 4 a.m. in the East Village when he saw a man standing on a deserted street corner in need of help.

After trying to speak to the man, Roland, 35, noticed he held a sign explaining that he was deaf and blind and needed help crossing the street. He then scribbled on a notebook that he also needed help finding a nearby bus stop.

“It was the first time I’d met a deaf-blind person and he just took my arm and trusted me, a total stranger on a New York street, to direct him,” recalled Roland, who instinctively used his finger to trace his end of the conversation on the man’s palm, with the man responding on notebook paper.

“There was a gift in every one of those exchanges,” Roland recalled. “In that chance encounter, there was an instant connection with someone from a community I knew nothing about.”

This occurred in 2011, but it stayed with Roland, who late last year released “Feeling Through,” an 18-minute film inspired by that serendipitous meeting.

The film is a window into the largely unknown world of deaf-blindness. A late-night encounter on a New York street leads to a spiritual connection between a troubled youth and a deaf-blind man.

It is typically screened as part of a presentation called “The Feeling Through Experience,” which includes a panel discussion and a 24-minute documentary about making the film.

Instead of having an actor emulate the leading character’s deaf-blind condition, Roland was adamant about finding a deaf-blind man for the role, both for the sake of dramatic realism and as a statement about the capabilities of someone with what might seem a debilitating condition.

Knowing of no deaf-blind actors, Roland wondered about casting the very man he met that night, but all he knew was his nickname, Artz, and he could not locate him.

Serendipity struck again and led him to another deaf-blind man — a kitchen worker from Long Island with no acting experience. The worker, Robert Tarango, 55, is perhaps the first deaf-blind actor in a lead movie role.

By accompanying Roland to numerous screenings and presentations across the country, Tarango has also become something of a spokesman for the deaf-blind community, dedicated to educating the public.

Moviegoers may be familiar with “The Miracle Worker” — the 1961 film about Anne Sullivan, the blind tutor to Helen Keller — but remain largely unaware about coping with deaf-blindness.

“The only deaf-blind person most people have heard of is Helen Keller,” said Sue Ruzenski, executive director of the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults, on Long Island. “Doug’s film is groundbreaking in bringing to the fore in the mainstream media someone who is deaf-blind.”

For help making the film, Roland turned to the center, which works to increase awareness and break stereotypes about deaf-blind people being helpless or leading cloistered lives. It provides training in skills such as personal care, cooking and using a Braille device to operate a smartphone or computer, and helps to integrate people into mainstream jobs.

“No one had ever approached us about making a film starring a deaf-blind actor, and I have to say I was skeptical,” Ruzenski said.

Roland said that the story line follows two seemingly very different strangers who, despite obvious communication obstacles, bond and help each other, and that its message was “our capacity to connect transcends our differences.”

The center began searching for deaf-blind men across the country whom Roland could audition. It also provided interpreters fluent in tactile sign language, a form often used by deaf-blind people that allows them to communicate by feeling the hands of the person they are signing with.

After interviewing more than a dozen people, Roland had not found the right fit. Finally, an employee at the center finally said, “How about Robert?”

It was not an obvious suggestion. For 20 years, Tarango’s life had remained focused on his job in the center’s kitchen and on negotiating his often long, complicated commute on public transit.

But those closest to him knew his effusive and charismatic personality. So on a lark, they brought him in from the kitchen — still in his apron, his hands wet and his face puzzled.

“He thought maybe he was in trouble,” recalled Roland, who through an interpreter told Tarango about the film project, which would require several days of shooting.

When Tarango, ever the dedicated worker, countered that it might interrupt his weekday kitchen shifts, staff members told him they would gladly excuse him from work.

“He said, ‘In that case, let’s take a month to shoot it, or a year,’” recalled Roland, who immediately saw that Tarango shared Artz’s brand of humor and charisma.

Landing the role was a twist for Tarango — who rather than speaking, communicates almost exclusively by sign language. His daily life had been anchored by his job washing dishes, serving food and stocking shelves. But now, here was an offer that was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

Growing up deaf but sighted in Arizona, Tarango idolized old-school leading men like John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster and longed to be a film actor himself — a hope that dimmed when he began losing his sight in his 20s because of Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder.

“Suddenly, I was being asked to star in a movie,” he said with the help of a translator.

Relying on translators while shooting the film in New York City a year ago, Tarango developed a bond with his co-star Steven Prescod, who plays Tereek, the troubled teen who helps Tarango’s deaf-blind character, Artie, to the bus stop.

“When I met him and realized there were people out there who were blind and deaf, I was like, ‘How does that even work?’” recalled Prescod, 27, who learned that Tarango, like many deaf-blind people, gets assistance from trained guides and use alternate ways of adapting and communicating.

“He helped me as an actor and definitely inspired me as I acted alongside him,” Prescod added.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Prescod was arrested at 16 on armed robbery and assault charges, and pleaded guilty to a deal that spared him a lengthy prison sentence in lieu of a rehabilitative theater program.

The program, he said, helped him create an autobiographical, one-man show that was viewed in Manhattan in 2014 by Prince William, who gave Prescod his contact information and an offer to help get the show produced in London.

At a recent screening of film the in Manhattan, Tarango was cheered heartily as he joined Roland and Prescod in a panel discussion.

Also enjoying the spotlight was Artz — Artemio Tavares, 39, of the Bronx — whom Roland finally located only after casting Tarango.

Tavares remembered their 2011 meeting clearly, but it was merely one of his constant encounters with strangers he approaches for assistance as he navigates the city alone by public transit, to shop, socialize and take classes.

The charismatic Tavares communicates with his own New York accent, gesturing boldly with the confidence of a rapper, and relies upon a friend or guide who knows sign language to experience such places like the Museum of Modern Art or Lincoln Center.

Tavares wears a button announcing that he is deaf and blind and keeps placards handy asking for help finding various bus and subway stops. He can sense an arriving subway train by the breeze it creates in the station, and once aboard, he can feel the train stopping at each station and count the stops until his destination.

Tarango also navigates public transit mostly by memory and the use of his cane, even while strolling along narrow train platforms.

Tarango lives independently with a deaf roommate. When he cannot get a ride with a co-worker, he has a commute that can take up to three hours each way and requires a cab, two buses, a train and a shuttle bus.

On a trip home one recent weekday, after taking a cab, two buses and the Long Island Rail Road, he approached a taxi stand, scribbled his address on a piece of paper, and handed it to a cabdriver.

He has several trips lined up to appear at screenings across the country with Roland, who is raising money to expand the film a full-length feature.

“Maybe I could transition to become an actor,” Tarango said. “I’ve worked in a kitchen for so many years, so I pray I can get picked for another role.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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