Sabina Santilli, the woman who let the deaf-blind people out of the darkness

Sara De Carli

In 1962, the world discovered the existence of deaf-blind children. It happened through the claustrophobic and touching images of the movie “The miracle worker” (“Anna dei miracoli”, for Italian audience). That movie told the story of the childhood of Helen Keller, the first deaf-blind woman who, thanks to her studies and her teacher, redeemed her condition and realized what now we call the right to an independent life.  She went to college, graduated, traveled the world, set up an ante litteram advocacy movement to promote the rights of disabled people. In short, she became a symbol.

Just a year later, a book was published. It told the story of another little girl, Laura Bridgman. Charles Dickens had spoken about her in his “American Notes”. Laura was the first deaf-blind person to communicate with the outside world and to receive an education, about fifty years before Helen Keller, although she did not reach the same level of independence, activism, culture, and fame. The book was called “The child of the silent night”.

In the same years, in Italy with extreme patience, Sabina Santilli set up an informal network of contacts among Italian deaf-blind people. In 1964, that network would lead to the birth of the Lega del Filo d’Oro, the first Italian association for deaf-blind people. She had been a “child of the silent night” too, just like Laura and Helen. Even if she disliked that expression saying: “‘Children of the silent night’ is a beautiful poetic expression, but it’s incorrect”.

Sabina was born on May 29th, 1917. She is the founder of the Lega del Filo d’Oro, a very well-known organization: for sixty years, it has been involved in the rehabilitation of those who cannot see or hear. Sabina is the Italian Helen Keller, but few people know her. And the rhetoric ends here. Because to tell Sabina as she was, to be faithful to her, you must clear your mind and language. She had already liquidated the pietistic hagiography on June 2, 1968, while the radio announced Keller’s death: «While the world speaks of ‘miracles’ about her, we are right to say (not without an ironic chuckle) she was only the first example. In fact, it is normal a deaf-blind person can be a normal person, if helped in time and appropriately.” This was Sabina’s dream. Today, it’s her legacy.

Sabina, reads and writes in kindergarten

In 1917, when Sabina was born, her village had just lost more than half of its inhabitants: the epicenter of the Marsica earthquake was in the Fucino basin, eleventh level on the Mercalli scale with 30 thousand deaths. San Benedetto dei Marsi had 2,700 victims out of 4,200 inhabitants. Pacifico Santilli and his wife Elisa lost two children and their home, after that episode they had seven other children.

At seven years old, in only three days, Sabina lost her sight and hearing. It was the Holy Friday in 1924. Sabina was attending the second grade at the village school and was already attending a seamstress to learn sewing and knitting. She was so smart that since kindergarten she could read and write and, considering what happened, it was a blessing. In January, after just three months in first grade, the teacher promoted her directly to second grade.

On Holy Monday of 1924, Sabina got ill. On Tuesday morning, the teacher sent her home: she was crying due to a headache. She had meningitis. «On the evening of Holy Thursday, from my mother’s bed, I took one last look around. The next morning, on Holy Friday, I heard the last cry followed by the slamming of a door. Since then, nothing more. It was pitch black without a voice».

Sabina herself remembered that moment. She did it in 1982, answering to the request of her friends of Caritas of Avezzano, with whom she collaborated. She didn’t do it frequently, nor easily. On that occasion (and exception), she made this premise: «I will talk, as I was requested, about my personal experience, hoping that it will be a further encouragement for my disabled friends to realize themselves, whatever the handicap they carry, and for friends in good physical integrity, it will be an opportunity to better appreciate the inestimable value of the gifts they possess and take from it a reason for greater serenity in their lives”.

The Marsicano billy goat

She wrote so many pages, but about the story that changed her life Sabina left only three dry lines. «I recover myself in the blue light of the Policlinico Umberto I in Rome. After a month, I returned home barely feeling the light of the day. For over two years, I tried to do everything I did before, not accepting that I was blind and deaf, despite the facts constantly gave me confirmation of the harsh reality”, Sabina remembered. «However, this was an incentive for me not to atrophy and to actually do everything for remaining on the same level of the other girls». She was stubborn, courageous, enterprising, strong-willed. Or using her own words, «with an irrepressible tendency towards industriousness but with a stubborn taciturnity (this was the reason of the nickname “billy goat”), always laconic in giving the strictly necessary answers, she hadn’t time for idle chatter.”

At just seven years old, Sabina already had a plain method, a style and an objective in mind. Not regret, not compensation, but equality with “others”. Equality to claim but also to conquer. The next three years passed like this, getting used to the new condition. Her sister Loda remembered how “mom encouraged Sabina to practice all her activities and did everything to keep her busy”: she peeled her own fruit, washed the dishes, sewed clothes for her dolls.

She didn’t come back to school. In the family they communicated with gestures. Until Sabina herself came up with a solution: a short time had passed since the misfortune, her mother’s sisters had come from Collepietro to visit the family. Sabina understood that there was someone in the house, but she couldn’t know who he was. She tried to say all the names of her neighbors, but her brother always made a negative gesture with his hand. So, she told Ettore, her older brother, to bring her the school notebook and a pencil: “you write the names and I’ll hold your hand”. «It was the discovery of all the ‘Christopher Columbuses who left the beautiful Europe!’», Sabina recalled. «This was the mean of communication for the indispensable, as well as it was the occasion to delay reflecting on my situation. However, in the end, I had to tell myself frankly: I was blind and deaf.”

When she was ten years old, Sabina was the first pupil of the newly founded Augusto Romagnoli Institute for blind people, in Rome. She went to the institute in a carriage, with dad and mom. She learned Braille and the Malossi method. As for Helen Keller, education was a miracle for Sabina, even if Augusto Romagnoli preferred to say that Sabina was “a miracle of will”. The idea of early rehabilitation, so central in the Lega del Filo d’Oro project, was born with the direct experience of Sabina.

At 31, Sabina was an autonomous and independent woman in her daily activities: ironing, cooking, washing dishes, sewing, looking after her nephews. Merely, she is a woman of her time, and it was more than extraordinary.

In fact, from her home in San Benedetto dei Marsi Sabina she began writing letters to all the deaf-blind people she knows and trying to find the unknown ones. In those days, deaf-blind people were “the great unknowns”: “they are scattered throughout Italy, in the Cottolenghi (an Italian expression for institutions for seriously disabled people), in unsuitable shelters or in their families.”, wrote Sabina, “Only very few of us have the privilege of living in an inclusive family where we are well-liked and respected in our personality as normal individuals and as active members of family life. Unfortunately, the most of blind-deaf people are abandoned to themselves, in the most absolute isolation, immobility and frustration leading them to physical and psychological atrophy or, even worse, to nervous exhaustion, desperation and revolt, especially the most lively and intelligent subjects due to the impossibility of communication with the people around them”.

Sabina wrote in Braille by hand, one dot after another, inventing a system of folded paper for writing straight. She explained how to iron or grow flowers, she encouraged to get active and take up new interests, because «what a bad life is only eating, getting dressed and going for a drive. And where do we put our mind? Without mental and spiritual activity, I feel myself completely dead.” There are letters seeking specific help for a specific person, in the area in which he or she lived, letters knocking on the doors of associations, institutions, parishes but also on the doors of people close to the deaf-blind people, volunteers ante litteram, to explain the condition, ask help, claim a right. The style changed, the context changed, but the letters of the 1950s were not so different than those of the 1990s: it is always a question first and foremost of approaching individual people with infinite patience and «with tact and prudence bringing them to other interests, giving them the opportunity to understand, indirectly, that being completely blind and deaf is not the end of the world.”

In 1964, from her small village in Abruzzo, Sabina created a network of 56 deaf-blind people. But it’s still not enough for her. Sabina knows clearly that Italian deaf-blind people needed their own association: in this way, she was certain, they would “flourish again”.

We are ourselves

The Lega del Filo d’Oro was officially born on 20 December 1964. Sabina chose the name (“the League of the Golden Thread”) and took it in her heart for a very long time, «it appears fantastic, it is the symbol of good friendship, without which a man deprived of sight and hearing is fearfully isolated, relegated to an ‘Earl Ugolino’s tower’”.

Sabina was the first president. While she was realizing her dream, Sabina broke a taboo: in Italy, she was the first blind person to sign a legal document and even to be in charge as chief of a public association. To do it, the notary equated the case of Sabina, by law she would have been incapable of understanding and wanting, to the situation of a foreigner needing an interpreter. A blind-deaf president was certainly a choice of very high symbolic, surprising and innovative value, but Sabina has always had the idea to avoid of creating this concept as the founding feature of the association. It had to be always explicitly characterized by coexistence and co-responsibility of multiple subjects, at all the levels: deaf-blind people and their friends as professionals, volunteers, family members, benefactors. However, the novelty remains, it amazes and strikes. Starting with the deaf-blind people themselves, who found in Sabina a further stimulus to the courage to dare and take control of their lives, to become protagonists. Today, we would say it was an implicit lesson of self-empowerment.

The rest is the history of the Lega del Filo d’Oro. A choral story, a story of excellence, a story of innovation and dignity. The last document contained in Sabina’s private archive is a letter of 19 August 1993. Sabina wrote to the secretariat of the Committee of deaf-blind people of the “Lega”. It is an operational letter, with an exchange of organizational information for the Helen Keller World Conference which would be held that year in Italy, in Numana. In a sharp postscript, Sabina notes: «a clarification: in good Italian we don’t always say “deaf-blind people”, because we know that deaf-blinds are people». How far Sabina’s dream has come… but using the final usual Sabina’s expression of each letter, “good courage, and go on!”.

Article published on and here in part reproduced under permission of the publisher. It is composed of extracts from the volume “My fingers told you. Sabina Santilli and the Lega del Filo d’Oro” (2012), by Sara De Carli, with which the Association wanted to celebrate its foundress.