The legacy of Millie Colson lives on through School for the Deaf and the Blind

Dawn Norris, daughter of Millie and Johnny Colson, speaks during the open house of the new Colson Center for Outreach Services. The South Carolina School of the Deaf and the Blind is named the center after Norris’ parents.

Like her mother, American Sign Language was Dawn Norris’ first language. And like her mother, Norris was never deaf, but the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind outreach center felt like home.

During Monday’s ribbon cutting ceremony for the reopening of the school’s Colson Center for Outreach Services in West Ashley, a teary-eyed Norris thanked the community in both English and American Sign Language for honoring the legacy of her parents, Millie and Johnny Colson.

The School for the Deaf and the Blind, based in Spartanburg, is the state’s only specialized public school for deaf and blind K-12 students. The school opened an outreach center in Charleston back in 1988, but budget cuts forced the school to close the center in 2010.

Millie Colson was the center’s first manager. When the job opened up, hers was the only name on the short list. Johnny, meanwhile, worked as the center’s dedicated maintenance man. The center’s namesakes are credited with expanding the growth and development of outreach services for the deaf and blind in Charleston.

Johnny and Millie both died in 2001, eight months apart. Their passing and subsequent closing of the Charleston outreach center nine years later fractured the close-knit deaf and blind community in Charleston. They lost their biggest social club and their loudest, and sometimes only, voice.

The daughter of two deaf parents – her mother was a mail sorter for the post office; her father was a proofreader for the newspaper – Millie learned to sign before she learned to speak. The Colson’s house on Playground Road in West Ashley was the city’s first, unofficial outreach center for the deaf. Millie would interpret phone calls for deaf people, sitting next to her and signing. She often would get up in the middle of the night or excuse herself from the dinner table, so she could interpret for deaf families to hospital staff or police officers during an emergency.

“We shared Millie with her family. She shared her family with us, the deaf community,” Millie’s longtime friend Anita Steichen-McDaniel said through a sign-language interpreter.

Before Hurricane Hugo tore through Charleston in 1989, Millie dashed from door to door of at least 100 homes to warn the deaf and blind community about the impending storm, her friend Barbara Garrison said. Back then, there were no deaf-friendly newscasts or sign-language interpreters at the Emergency Communications Center. After the hurricane hit, Millie waded through mud and silt and debris a foot deep to make sure her deaf, blind and hard of hearing friends were safe.

“She felt like the lifeline,” Norris said. “She was the communicator of the deaf community.”

Millie also was a tireless crusader for the deaf, blind and hard of hearing. In the words of Garrison, she believed “an oppressed minority needed to be heard.” Between the mid-70s and late-90s, Millie and Garrison, former manager of the school’s now-closed Conway outreach center, were the only two certified sign language instructors on South Carolina’s east coast.

Before the passage of the American Disabilities Act was signed in 1990, “Millie was the ADA in Charleston,” Garrison said. She rallied local businesses for proper disability accommodations. She pressed with Mayors Joe Riley and Keith Summey for the need for licensed sign language interpreters for the police force. She helped establish the first college-level American Sign Language training program at Spartanburg Methodist College. Millie was a tiny woman, barely 5’2, but she was demanding and she usually got her way.

“She could tell people to go to hell and they would turn around and ask for more,” Garrison said.

If Millie were alive five years ago, the center would never have closed, Norris said. “She would have a way to make sure that didn’t happen.” She would have found a way to fund it herself. But if she was here today, she would be ecstatic, Norris said, toasting with Crown Royals and ginger and dancing the Carolina shag with Johnny.

“The deaf and hard of hearing, they were ‘heart’ for her,” Steichen-McDaniel signed. “She had a deaf heart, so to speak.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.