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Marina McCormick, M.Ed., Region 4 Regional Day School Program for the Deaf Coordinator

Originally published in the Spring 2015 edition of TX SenseAbilities.

Abstract: The author discusses ways local school districts can serve students with deafblindness. She emphasizes collaboration, putting the student first, rewarding outstanding staff, and including the student as part of the local community.

Keywords: deafblindness, administrators, collaboration, inclusion.

When most people encounter the word deafblindness, the first image that comes to mind is one of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Thanks in large part to Keller’s articulate and thoughtful nature, the groundbreaking duo challenged public perceptions regarding what was possible for people with multiple disabilities.

Although Keller’s life is an inspiration to many, the reality of deafblindness is more variable than originally understood by those outside the education arena. This variability within deafblindness comes from many factors. For example, children experience variations in their hearing and vision losses. One child with deafblindness may exhibit excellent use of his residual hearing and struggle with nearsighted vision while another may have better visual acuity but have profound hearing loss. Other factors that lend themselves to the diversity within deafblindness include the child’s cognition, sociological factors, communication modalities, social-emotional development, and technology skills. Children with deafblindness, through the very nature of their disability, require individualization to meet their needs.

It is the full realization of individualization, though, that many public school instructional teams struggle with when serving a student with deafblindness. An instructional team may encounter an individual with deafblindness for the first time and may grapple with how to provide that individual with access to the curriculum. From these tremendous efforts emerges a false belief that the student with deafblindness cannot be successful in the public school setting and should be sent elsewhere for his or her instructional needs. This notion can be countered, however, with a strong education administrator leading the team.

The following are five tips for administrators as they lead their teams to greatness for students with deafblindness.

1. Develop a deep understanding of the student’s needs.

In order to effectively lead the team that will provide services for the student with deafblindness, the administrator first must become highly knowledgeable regarding the student and the student’s academic and functional needs. Deafblindness is a disability that relates to access. How will the student access the curriculum, the environment, or the social network of the campus? Familiarize yourself with the student’s audiological and vision reports. Learn about how the student communicates and what accommodations and modifications the student requires. Become knowledgeable about the student’s daily living needs. The student’s multidisciplinary team (which could include teachers for the visually impaired and/or deaf, an orientation and mobility specialist, general education teachers, and others) or other campus personnel will, in most cases, contact the administrator first when questions arise related to the student’s services. Without possessing a thorough knowledge of the student’s disability and programming, an education administrator cannot sufficiently answer the question that underlies all other questions: Why are we doing this?

2. Know the team. Be the team. Lead the team.

Ronald Reagan once said: “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things” (Goodreads, 2015). Individualizing services for a student with deafblindness undoubtedly is one of the greatest things an education administrator will ever ask his or her team to do. Therefore, it is critical to identify the team that will serve the student. List every service and support the student requires and align the student’s needs with your current staff, categorizing staff members as core team members (frequent interaction with the student) or extended core team members (infrequent interaction with the student). Form a strong relationship with the student’s parents or guardians; they, too, are a part of the student’s core team. Identify the strengths of your team and those areas in which your team will need additional training. Establish regular meeting times for both the core team and the extended team. Be actively engaged in meeting and learning with the team.

3. Be student centered.

In the era of high-stakes testing, educators too often want quick solutions to their instructional problems. Effectively serving students with deafblindness is a marathon, not a sprint. The instruction for a student with deafblindness requires coordinated attention between the student and the teacher, both coexisting in the here and now. What this translates into for teachers is that lessons are not traditional and do not lend themselves to typical concepts of school time such as 45 minute class periods. For teachers who are unfamiliar with deafblindness, this can be a cause for concern because they may be unfamiliar with techniques related to differentiated instruction.

When considering programming, all team members will be involved with many e-mails, phone calls, and meetings. IEP meetings may be extremely long due to the number of services and service providers a student may need. The preparation and instruction for the student will be intensive for staff. Ongoing professional development will be needed. With all of this happening, it is essential to champion the purpose behind why the team is working so hard.

4. Reward outstanding staff contributions.

As your staff rises to your high expectations for high quality instructional services and support for the student with deafblindness, recognize and reward their achievements. These achievements do not need to be momentous occasions. Small wins such as collaborative efforts, instructional strategies, or consistency in providing excellent service and support are just as important. Have you noticed that your intervener and interpreter are working together to provide linguistic and conceptual support for a complex biology lesson? Did you observe the adaptive physical education teacher providing a superb accommodation for the student to walk around the track? Reward success often to encourage your team.

5. Remember the community’s trust in your school and in your district.

Often it is tempting for a team to want to focus on what it cannot provide, rather than what it can provide, for the student with deafblindness. Keep in mind this essential truth: The student and the student’s family are valued members of your community, and they have placed a great time-honored trust in you and your school’s abilities not only to meet, but to exceed, their expectations. According to Jay Gense, former director of the National Center on Deaf-Blindness, 95% of students with deafblindness nationwide are living at home with their families and attending school in their communities (Gense, 2015). Your team, in most cases, can fulfill the needs of a student with deafblindness through creative problem-solving and open lines of communication. It is up to you as the administrator to foster the belief of “Yes, we can!” rather than “No, we can’t.”

Concluding Thoughts

It is not often that a student with deafblindness crosses a school’s path, but when he or she does, the possibilities for learning for the student and the student’s team are endless. Students with deafblindness have an uncanny ability to stretch our professional understanding of what is educationally possible within the public school setting. They desire to achieve their goals and dreams as much as any other students, and even though we may not necessarily have a direct line in some cases as to what those aspirations are, these hopes exist nonetheless.

As Helen Keller said in The Story of My Life, “One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar” (Keller, 2002).