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A Publication about Visual Impairments and Deafblindness for Families and Professionals
Fall / Winter 2015

 

By: Chris Montgomery, Deafblind Education Specialist Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Abstract/Editor's Note: Students with deafblindness (DB) are considered a low-incidence population nationally. These students require specialized support to access environmental information, to develop communication, and to develop concepts about the world around them due to the significant impact caused by the combined loss of vision and hearing.

Keywords: deafblind students, mentor program, teachers

 

Unique Needs of the Deafblind Student Population

Students with deafblindness (DB) are considered a low-incidence population nationally.  These students require specialized support to access environmental information, to develop communication, and to develop concepts about the world around them due to the significant impact caused by the combined loss of vision and hearing. Although local districts may provide vision and hearing services, there is often a gap in specific planning and programming to address their educational service needs due to the lack of available professionals with training specific to deafblindness at the local level. Many districts struggle to find the internal resources to accommodate the educational needs of these students and their families (Blaha, Cooper, Irby, Montgomery, & Parker, 2009).

The creation of regional centers for children with deafblindness began in the 1970's. These centers provided a national network for pilot program development, and sharing of information, and tended to be staffed by people with specialized training. The regional centers had the responsibility to develop direct service for children with deafblindness, prior to the enactment of mandatory educational legislation. While acknowledging the shortcomings of this time period – notably, the segregation of the deafblind student population - there were two significant characteristics that should be mentioned: the proliferation of college programs dedicated to personnel preparation in deafblindness, and stable federal funding. These programs were able to insure a steady supply of trained teachers and specific teaching practices designed to serve these students to develop within the field. (Collins, 1993).

Following the 1970s, educational philosophy shifted away from centralized programming and toward local inclusive settings. As the population of students with deafblindness moved to local communities it has presented some challenges for students with low-incidence disabilities as well as some benefits. With students who are deafblind being served at the local level, they have greater access to the standard curriculum. Recent national child count data shows over 60% of students who are deafblind are attending local schools and 26% are participating in standard instruction (Schalock & Bull, 2013). In addition, students who attend local schools are able to live at home and participate in their family's daily routines. 

The picture, however, of access and support for students is a complex one.

Many local school districts have difficulty providing appropriate instruction in the classroom. They may be unable to provide dedicate personnel to a position focused on such a low incidence population. In some districts in Texas, The Texas Deafblind Project has seen an increase in hiring interveners (trained paraprofessionals) to provide students with access to information, communication and social support.  Although the role of the intervener is designed to provide direct support to students, it is not meant to replace the role of teacher, who is charged with designing instruction and providing guidance to the student's entire educational team. When a student does have access to an intervener, our outreach staff members have observed challenges when that intervener does not have access to support from qualified professionals. Such challenges include the student not having access to appropriate assessment, lacking deafblind specific IEP goals, and family members laking information about the intervener’s role on the team. Our team’s collective experiences with these challenges caused us to examine both the need for teacher training and the role of the teacher in serving students who are deafblind.

Recently, the Office of Special Education requested that National Center on Deaf-Blindness (NCDB) engaged in a national assessment of the needs for improving intervener services in the United States. This survey included consultation with parents, technical assistance providers, administrators, higher education faculty members, interveners, and teachers. NCDB found a need for more teachers of students with deafblindness to support the intervener practice.  NCDB specifically recommended that interveners have “knowledgeable supervisors and access to experts in deafblindness that may provide consulting and coaching”, thereby bolstering the intervener’s role and providing more comprehensive educational planning for students who are deafblind (NCDB, 2012).

A few university personnel preparation programs provide designated coursework for professional service students who are deafblind, currently only two states, Utah and Illinois recognize specific certification for a teacher of students with deafblindness.  Nationally, teachers of students with visual impairments (TVI's) and teachers of students who are deaf and hard of hearing (TDHH) are providing much of the support for IEP development and classroom instruction. In many cases, these two teaching disciplines lack the expertise specific to teaching children with deafblindness, and local and regional support is provided by state deafblind technical assistance projects.

The field of deafblindness is currently supported, in large part, by federal grant funding to the state deafblind projects. Without recognized state or national certification and dedicated money for well-established personnel preparation programs for teachers of students with deafblindness, our field is in a precarious place.

The Beginning: Mentor Program Teachers of Deafblind Help Define and Explore the Practice

In an effort to develop and enhance educational services to students in Texas who are deafblind, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) mentor program initiated a pilot project in 2009.  Five teachers were selected in three education service center regions to take part in this Deafblind (DB) Mentor Project based on their dedication to deafblind students.  For the first three years of this pilot, each teacher participated in training provided by Robbie Blaha, who is a certified teacher of students with visual impairments, as well as a certified teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing.  Ms. Blaha is currently a consultant with the Texas Deafblind Project with the TSBVI Outreach program. Over a three year span, the five teachers participated in training on topics such as assessment, communication for deafblind (DB) students, strategies and issues related to behavior, and sensory accommodations for the IEP.  As a group, these mentors in training made inroads into the field of deafblindness by developing and reviewing materials specific to students with deafblindness.

One of the documents developed by the mentor pilot participants and the Texas Deafblind Project was the “Roles and Responsibilities of the Itinerant Teacher of Deafblindness.” This document outlined eight points specific to the job of the itinerant teacher of students with deafblindness (TDB) and was used to determine training topics for the TDB Pilot Program. Further refinement, discussion, and field trials of the “Roles” document was included in the TDB Pilot with later drafts being developed to include self-contained models.

Partnership with local districts to address the challenge

In 2010, our project began looking again at how we might address this need for a recognized teacher of deafblindness role. Through conversations with two administrators in the Houston area, we discovered commonalities when comparing deafblind student populations and goals for each of their districts. Both administrators were invested in the idea of the best possible programming for their students with deafblindness, and were looking for innovative models to train staff.

In each district there were high numbers of students with deafblindness, which allowed for the identification of an area of need within the district. Training topics were selected through a combination of needs assessments and pre-established roles of the TDB. This ability to channel our efforts was vital as it allowed administrators to designate and assign staff time dedicated to deafblind student caseloads. We then worked with administrators to select personnel based on the staff’s own histories of interest and dedication to working with students with deafblindness. Out of this mutual desire to explore and define this specific role, the “Teacher of Deafblind” pilot was born.

Teachers in the districts identified as TDB’s for the pilot, had either (or both) endorsement in auditory impairment or visual impairment. Complementary to the TDBs, teams were formed around them that included either a TVI or TDHH (depending on the TDB’s background – TDHH or TVI), and orientation and mobility specialists (O & M's). Other team members were included in the training sessions as appropriate.

In addition to the two districts in the Houston area, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), also participated in the pilot. The deafblind student population at TSBVI typically fluctuates between 15-20 students annually. The role of the TDB is different than that of most local districts, with self-contained, deafblind specific classrooms, low teacher to student ratios, and residential programming. It was felt that TSBVI’s “center-based” model would be complementary to the local district model and could function as a resource of practice for other pilot participants.

From June 2011 through May 2013, seven TDB's and their administrators met with our project staff to define the unique skills and practices for serving students who are deafblind.  Our model for training was made up of a series of seven training workshops. The workshops were then immediately followed by direct on-to-one consultations between the TDBs, Regional Service Center 4 consultants, and Outreach staff. The follow-up consultations were meant as a way to more directly apply the ideas and concepts of our training sessions to the TDB’s deafblind student caseload.  During our workshop meetings, we often split the administrators into a separate group in order to focus on larger systems change topics.

Conclusion

Stay tuned for part II of this article in the Spring & Summer issue of Texas SenseAbilities in which we describe how the Teacher of Deafblind pilot was expanded to include a new cohort of teachers to help test the model. Information about the technical assistance provided, student, TDB, and systems outcomes will be included, along with further thoughts on how TSBVI’s Deafblind Project Outreach continued development of the Teacher of the Deafblind Pilot Program.

References

Blaha, R., Cooper, H, Irby, P., Montgomery, C., & Parker, A. (2009). Teachers of students with deafblindness: Professionalizing the field. Council for Exceptional Children: D.V.I. Quarterly, (54) 3, 49-51.

Collins, M. (1993). Educational services: Presentation. Proceedings of the National Symposium on Children and Youth Who Are Deaf-Blind. (203-219). Teaching Research Publications. National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness [NCDB]. (2012). Recommendations for improving intervener services. Retrieved from http://interveners.nationaldb.org

Schalock, M.D. and Bull, R. (2013). The 2012 National Child Count of Children and Youth who are Deaf-Blind. Monmouth, OR: National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness, Teaching Research Institute, Western Oregon University.

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