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Summer 2003 Table of Contents
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Planting Seeds in Fertile Soil

By Craig Axelrod, Teacher Trainer, TSBVI, Texas Deafblind Outreach

In December 2000, I noticed Mary Chris Knorr's name on a list of special education advisory board members. Twenty years earlier, while pursuing an elementary education degree at The University of Texas at Austin, I had been placed in Mary Chris' second grade class at Eanes Elementary School, teaching students to read under her supervision. (I also taught them the fingerspelling alphabet and some sign language.) I reintroduced myself by e-mail, not sure if she'd remember me. Being a teacher, of course she did! When I told Mary Chris that I was working with Deafblind Outreach at TSBVI, she mentioned that a few times in years past, Linda Hagood, who was then with Outreach, brought a student with deafblindness to meet her students during their unit about Helen Keller. She wondered if I might arrange a similar visit.

I contacted Randy Feille, supervisor of Deaf-Blind Services at Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) , who introduced me to Alberto Gonzales, a deafblind man who lives at the Deaf-Blind Community-Based Apartment Program in Austin. (Alberto is becoming very well-known in Texas. He presented on the topic of independence at the 2001 Symposium on Deafblindness, was a keynote speaker at the 2003 Symposium, and wrote an article in the Winter 2003 issue of SEE/HEAR, entitled "I Love My Life, Swimming and Texas Longhorns!") Alberto, who had some experience speaking about deafblindness to young students at other schools, agreed to visit the third grade classes at Eanes Elementary School, where Mary Chris was now a special education partner doing collaborative and resource teaching with second and third graders. He left a lasting impression on over 100 students and their teachers.

Since then, Alberto's presentation at Eanes has become an annual event, and more elaborate each year. Before this year's visit, Chrissy Cowan, Consultant for the Visually Impaired and Deafblind Specialist at Region 13 Education Service Center, suggested that it might be useful to describe the learning goals and activities that were developed for the Helen Keller unit, so other teachers who would like their students to know more about deafblindness can replicate or modify the process.

Learning About Helen Keller and Deafblindness

Mary Chris identified four learning goals for the third grade students:

  1. Study the genre of biography, which includes reading an additional biography and making a book report presentation to the class;
  2. Summarize, by writing a "condensed" biography of Helen Keller's childhood years;
  3. Answer inferential comprehension questions;
  4. Become more aware of what it means to be deaf and blind.

Before meeting Alberto, their awareness of deafblindness was increased by:

  1. Taking an audiotaped "unfair spelling test," to experience various types of hearing loss;
  2. Guiding and being guided under blindfold on a walk around campus;
  3. Watching a Reading Rainbow video about a deaf child, entitled "Silent Lotus;"
  4. Referring to information about guide dogs (including a video) that was learned in an earlier unit;
  5. Exploring brailled paper, looking for braille in the community and reporting back to class;
  6. Wearing distortion glasses that simulate the experience of a visual impairment.

The Presentation

Alberto visited the Eanes cafetorium on an afternoon in April. I accompanied him, along with Jim Durkel (Statewide Staff Development Coordinator with the Outreach Program at TSBVI), diane barnes, Alie Greene and Nancy Kimbro (Orientation and Mobility Specialists; diane with Region 13 ESC, Alie with Round Rock ISD and Nancy, an independent contract provider), Josh Belury (Eanes ISD Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments) and Brandy Wojcik (a young adult who is visually impaired).

Alberto, Jim and I began by speaking to the entire group. Alberto answered questions that Jim and I asked about his life, such as where he's from, how he became deafblind, what he can see and hear, what he learned in school, what he did after graduating from high school, what he's doing now and what his plans are for the future. We knew the students would be curious about Kersey (Alberto's guide dog who was with us on stage), so Alberto described how she helps him travel safely and independently. He also explained why it is important to not touch or distract a working guide dog. Because Alberto is a tactile signer, we signed our questions into his hands, then voice interpreted his signed responses.

After our opening conversation, the students divided into their five classes. Each class went to an activity station in a different area of the room, hosted by either Alberto, Jim, Josh and Brandy, or diane, Alie and Nancy. A VCR was at the fifth station. Each station focused on a unique aspect of deafblindness. The classes rotated every 15 minutes.

At the vision station, Josh showed students low vision tools used to look at very small print, regular print books compared to large print books and books written in braille, tactile maps, globes, puzzles and diagrams, and tactile games such as dominoes and playing cards. Brandy brailled all of the students' names and wrote each of them a secret braille message to take home and decode, using an NFB braille decoding card.

At diane, Alie and Nancy's orientation and mobility station, students took turns putting on blindfolds or other low vision simulators, and earplugs to simulate a hearing loss. They were also shown how to walk safely using a cane. An obstacle course was created with freestanding "stop," "yield," "school," and "bicycle" signs. The students walked with the canes while wearing simulators, located and identified the signs, then walked between and around them.

At the hearing station, Jim used a three-dimensional ear model to review ear anatomy and physiology ("What is the name of this part?"), identify the cause of Alberto's hearing loss ("Here is the part in Alberto's ear that doesn't work.") and reinforce ear safety ("Is it OK to stick a pencil in your ear?"). Then he introduced the fingerspelling alphabet, and fingerspelled familiar words for the students to interpret. Jim concluded by demonstrating some common signs (especially animals and foods), "My name is____" and "Thank you," as well as special requests.

At the VCR station, a videotape was shown of Alberto doing everyday activities in his home and community, such as riding on public transportation, shopping at the local grocery store, preparing a snack in the microwave, chatting on the telephone with a friend, walking to his bank down the street and completing a financial transaction. Students were given a written list of questions to think about while they watched the video and discuss later in their classrooms. (A guide for teachers was also provided.) These are the questions and answers:

Q: How does a person walking with Alberto guide him?
A: Alberto holds the person's arm above the elbow, using a technique called sighted guide.

Q: How does Alberto communicate with people who don't understand sign language?
A: He uses a "Braille Talk." Printed letters of the alphabet, and the numerals 1-10, each have their braille equivalent directly below. Alberto and the other person communicate by spelling out words and numbers (such as the cost of his groceries at the checkout line).

Q: Alberto can't see. How does he understand what people are signing to him?
A: He uses tactile signing, by putting his hands on top of their hands and feeling the signs, letters or numbers they make.

Q: How does Alberto know which numbers to press on the microwave?
A: He reads the braille numerals that are taped on the buttons.

Q: How does Alberto know when his telephone is ringing?
A: When the telephone rings, his "Vibra Call" pager vibrates.

Q: How does Alberto communicate with people who call on the telephone?
A: A message is typed to Alberto from another person with a TTY, which is a machine used to communicate by telephone with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The message is transmitted through Alberto's TTY into his Telebraille, where it is changed from print to braille. Alberto reads the message in braille and types his response in braille. The information is then transmitted back through the TTY as a print message. (If the other person has a Telebraille, the message is received in braille.)

Q: Why does Alberto use a small plastic frame when he's writing a check?
A: He uses the frame to neatly write information (date, dollar amount, signature, etc.) in the correct locations on the check.

Q: How does Alberto use his cane to travel independently and safely?
A: He uses the cane to locate obstacles (such as curbs, trucks and furniture) before his body comes in contact with them. He also uses it to follow the edge of a sidewalk or wall, which helps him walk in a straight direction.

Q: How does Alberto know where he is going?
A: Alberto has learned to find the landmarks (doors, stairs, railings, sidewalks, etc.) that are always in the same places along the routes he walks. Some of his routes have become so familiar that he has a "sense" of how far to walk and how much time it takes to get where he's going.

At Alberto's station, he demonstrated how some of his assistive devices are used, and responded to questions. (I tactilely signed the questions to him and voice interpreted his responses or explanations.) Students with questions were first shown how to introduce themselves, by guiding Alberto's index finger to the letters of their names on the "Braille Talk." Before responding, he helped several of them create their own name signs. Alberto was surprised and impressed when some independently fingerspelled their names for him. While the students were interested in Alberto's technological equipment, and enjoyed watching me sign their questions and interpret his responses, they wanted most of all to communicate with him directly.

Alberto's Mailbag

A few weeks after Alberto's presentation, he received an envelope in the mail full of thank you notes from the third graders. Here are some of the things they said:

"Dear Alberto, Thank you for coming to our school and sharing how it would be if you were deaf and blind, just like Helen Keller, the famous little girl."

"Dear Alberto, Thank you for coming to our school. I loved when we pretended to be blind. It was very fun. Your dog is very cute. It was nice of you to put us in your schedule."

"Thank you for helping me learn more about blind and deaf people. I bet my mom will be happy about what you taught me. I enjoyed listening to what you had to say and hope you had fun too."

"Thank you for teaching me about deaf and blind people. I know how it feels to be blind and I kind of know how it feels to be deaf. I like the cool gadgets."

"Thank you all for coming and taking the time to show and tell us all those neat things. I liked it when we told our names to Alberto and we got our signing name. I also liked it when we got our braille message. I still haven't read it yet, but I think that learning braille would be so much fun. I enjoyed the program very much!"

"Dear Alberto and friends, Thank you for visiting my school. My favorite part was when I got a secret message from Brandy. p.s. I have still not cracked the code that she gave me."

"Dear Alberto, I am so glad you came to our school. I liked how Brandy typed on the braille machine and how Alberto answered my question and helped me invent a name sign for myself, almost just like my best friend's."

"Dear Alberto, I have enjoyed learning about being deaf and blind. My best friends and I enjoy our name signs being the same only with different letters. I was looking forward to this for a very long time. I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would. I hope we can meet again."

"Dear Alberto, Thank you for teaching us how to read sign language. I'm glad your friend sounded out the words. Thank you for bringing your friends. Thank you for the blind walk."

"Dear Alberto, Thank you for teaching me about being blind and deaf. You are very fun to hang with."

"Dear Alberto, Thanks for coming with your friends and teaching us how to do sign language and read braille. You have a great personality and sense of humor. p.s. Your dog's really cute."

"Dear Alberto, It was fun to know how it is to be blind. You have an interesting job and it's hard to not pet your dog. Now I know how it is to read braille. Thank you for teaching me a lot. p.s. I liked the movie."

"Dear Alberto and friends, Thank you for visiting Eanes Elementary. You are a cool guy. My favorite activity was meeting you. Remember me for loving animals."

"Thank you so much for coming, Alberto. You are such a good person. I think how you communicate is really neat. Chuy's is one of my favorite restaurants. That's really neat that you work there."

"Dear Alberto, I was amazed how you could get around so easily by yourself. I'm so sorry that you are deaf and blind, but it doesn't matter. Everyone is different."

"Thanks for coming to our school. You are an amazing man."

"Dear Alberto, Thanks for visiting us. Are you coming next year?"

Planting Seeds

This year, and for the two previous years, third graders at Eanes Elementary School acquired a greater understanding about deafblindness through a variety of activities, culminating in the opportunity to meet a young man who lives a typical life and happens to be deafblind. It's clear from their letters that they've been profoundly moved by the learning experience, and by Alberto's abilities, positive attitude and friendliness. There's no way to predict what new directions their lives might take, but it's exciting to imagine. Some may enroll in sign language classes. Others may befriend a visually impaired student who was feeling isolated. Still others, who hadn't even considered the possibility, may pursue a career in special education, or even deafblindness. Alberto should take satisfaction in knowing that, as an example of who a deafblind person is and what a deafblind person can do, he is having a positive influence on other people's attitudes of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion. Seeds planted in fertile soil don't yield immediate results, but I eagerly look forward to watching them grow.

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Last Revision: August 19, 2003