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Summer 2009 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

by Barbara J. Madrigal, Assistant Commissioner, Division for Blind Services

Abstract: This article reviews the “Together We Can!” conference, a joint project of DARS DBS, DARS ECI, TSBVI, Region 13 ESC, with input from educators and stakeholders from across the state.

Key Words: blind, visually impaired, Division for Blind Services (DBS), Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), Tanni Anthony, Susan LaVenture, National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI), Together We Can!

As I write this, I have just returned from the “Together We Can!” conference, a conference for professionals providing services to families of birth to three-year-olds with vision loss. This conference was a group effort: the planning team members came from a variety of organizations, including DARS Division for Early Childhood Intervention Services, DARS Division for Blind Services, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, education service centers, independent school districts, and universities. In addition, the presenters were experts from many fields, including education of the visually impaired, orientation and mobility, optometry, and occupational therapy.

What a glorious two days of learning and making new connections! The “Together We Can!” conference had more than 300 participants, consisting of parents, Early Intervention staff and specialists, Teachers of the Visually Impaired, Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists, DBS Blind Children’s staff and specialists, and many others.

The highlight of the conference was…. Well, there were too many highlights to choose just one. The conference began with a plenary session by Dr. Tanni Anthony. Dr. Anthony’s expertise is recognized nationally and internationally, so I won’t use this space to list her accomplishments and honors—believe me, they are numerous! Dr. Anthony reminded us of the importance of sensory learning. Sensory-based learning begins in utero and continues through the rest of our lives. She transmitted this with humor, telling stories from her varied past of working and living in Colorado, Minnesota, and Alaska. From Dr. Anthony I learned that when working with a child with sensory deficits, it is my job to become an environmental engineer—to analyze and build an environment that is supportive of sensory learning. Sensory learning occurs when the child is in a state of self-regulation; when external and internal stimulation is present, the child is able to maintain physiological and behavioral functioning.

Friday’s plenary session featured Susan LaVenture, the executive director of the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI). Ms. LaVenture leads and directs the association’s programs that serve families throughout the United States, providing information, support, and networking resources, while strongly focusing on the significant role parents play in their children’s development, education, and medical care. Ms. LaVenture spoke from her heart about the journey of a parent to understand the medical diagnosis, impact of disability on a child’s development, and the need for parents to connect with each other for emotional support. She emphasized the importance of collaboration, and discussed her collaborations with the medical community, other parents, and service organizations.

Afternoon topics included literacy, early movement, eye conditions, cortical visual impairment, developmental assessment, and feeding. Dr. Anthony discussed concepts and skills associated with early literacy development, and recommended key strategies to reinforce literacy development in the first years of life. Dr. Rona Pogrund discussed the importance of early movement for young children with visual impairments, with a focus on the impact of visual impairment on the development of motor skills. Dr. Laura Miller and Nan Bulla, low vision specialists, presented an overview of eye conditions and diseases that are most commonly found in early childhood, discussing implications, accommodations, and practical ideas for each condition. Rebecca Killian-Smith, a Certified Teacher of the Visually Impaired and Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, discussed cortical visual impairment, a leading cause of blindness in children. Dr. Virginia Bishop, teacher of the visually impaired, university instructor and author, provided training in conducting a visually appropriate developmental assessment. Occupational Therapist Carol Ram-berg discussed the importance of developing a cooperative partnership between the adult and child during feeding.

In addition to these topics, there were panel presentations. The “From Play to Pay” consumer panel consisted of a parent of a toddler with CHARGE syndrome, a high school student, a college student, and two working adults. These panelists emphasized how important it is for parents and professionals to encourage exploration and independence, and to instill a belief in oneself that helps to overcome obstacles. The “Who’s Who on the VI Team” session defined the roles of each discipline that might be represented on a child’s team, reviewed the referral process for Early Childhood Intervention, DBS Blind Children’s Program, and VI services through the Local Education Agency, as well as services available through the Education Service Centers and the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

One of the highlights for me was the snippets of conversation I heard as a roamed through the crowd and spoke to the participants: the ECI staff who stated that this was the first training she had attended on visual impairments and, now that she had connected to her DARS Blind Children’s specialist, she was planning a follow-up training when she returned to her home office; the parent who sought out the high school panelist to ask for advice on handling her nineyear-old son who didn’t want to be “different;” the panelist and participant advising a concerned parent to “trust yourself;” plus all the participants who asked if next year’s conference would be at the same time and place!

Throughout the two days, the message was repeated: “Together We Can!” Just as it took a diverse group of people to make this conference a reality, it will take professionals of varied backgrounds to provide the best intervention to families of young children with visual impairments. Everyone comes to this field with their own education, experience, and expertise, but none of us can meet the range of needs of these children and families alone. We must work together to promote successful outcomes for the infants and toddlers we serve. To paraphrase Carol Ramberg from her presentation on feeding, the approach we take is one of “creative choreography,” a “line dance” of parents, caregivers, relatives, therapists, teachers, and agency specialists, working together with graceful ease to support the children and families of Texas.