Eliene and Israel
Eliene and Israel
Juliana Coissi

SÃO PAULO — Israel Afonso Lima, a janitor in this Brazilian city, suffers from Down syndrome. But that didn't stop him, at the age of 36, from deciding to go back to school to learn Brazilian sign language. And it's for a very good reason: to be able to communicate with his wife, 37-year-old Eliene de Brito, who is deaf and mute.

The couple has been together for six years. And despite their disabilities, they went through all the typical stages of flirtation and romance, until the day he finally asked her to marry him. And always in silence. "He used to gesture, but I could see that sometimes she just couldn't understand him," says Israel's mother.

Eliene has always been good at lip-reading and she could understand her husband most of the time when she really focused on his gesturing. But the only reply she could ever give to him was silence. Israel wanted that to change, so he found for a course in the Brazilian sign language, also called "Libras."

"It was the first time in my career as an interpreter and Libras teacher that I saw a husband wanting to learn sign language, especially one in such a special situation," explains Maria Sirlene Ribeiro Cavalcanti, Israel's teacher.

He only started the basic course in April, but he's already being praised by his wife for his improvement. "She corrects me and also teaches me some things," he says. "She's always saying that I've learned so much."

Israel and Eliene met through family members. They have a two-year-old daughter, Isabella. Men with Down syndrome are normally sterile, but there are extremely rare exceptions.

Israel's mother, Miriam, had never heard about Down syndrome until her son's birth. While he was growing up, the family desperately tried all they could so Israel could adapt to his surroundings and fit in, until they finally found a special school for him. He finished secondary school and now works as a cleaning person in a building for the National Institute of Social Security.

On weekends, Israel plays the clarinet in the Evangelist church he goes to with his wife. It's where Eliene feels the most at ease, also because there are plenty of Libras interpreters in the church who've been helping her pray and follow the mass.

Israel now continues to study on his own, with the help of his wife and smartphone apps.

But Israel is already dreaming of a new challenge: He now wants to learn pedagogics and become a Libras teacher. "I've learned," he says. "Now I want to teach other people." Together with Eliene, their most important new student is little Isabella.

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