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

By Robbie Blaha, Holly Cooper, Chris Montgomery, Educational Consultants, Texas Deafblind Outreach, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Phoebe Irby, classroom teacher, and Amy Parker, doctoral candidate, Texas Tech University

Abstract: The authors discuss the history of the field of teaching students with deafblindness, personal experiences teaching such students, and how the deafblind teacher of the future will do the job.

Keywords: deafblind, deafblind teacher certification, deafblind education

In recent decades the population of students with deafblindness has grown more diverse, and teachers with credentials in special education, visual impairments, and deaf and hard of hearing have struggled to gain knowledge and modify teaching approaches to serve these students. Deafblind students are often served by educators who have never met a deafblind student before, or have never met one like the individual they currently serve. Often students and their parents are told to be patient while staff members try to discover and implement an educational program. Sometimes a professional with an interest or expertise in deafblindness serves only a small number of deafblind students while also providing services for students with other disabilities. There is a history of educational practices and a growing body of knowledge specific to the education of children with deafblindness that addresses their unique educational needs discrete from students with multiple disabilities (McInnes, 1993). We believe it is time again to raise the issue of teacher certification in deafblindness.

Recent History of Deafblind Education

From 1970 to 1975 most states had several specialized programs for children who were deafblind (Collins, 1993). Federal funding supported over half of the cost of these projects, which provided quality direct services by staff members with specific knowledge and training in deafblindness. These projects provided ongoing training and consultation to local programs and produced publications and training videos. Preservice programs were developed to train teachers of deafblind students (McLetchie, 1993), and teaching jobs in the field of deafblindness were available in any state. Regional centers and pilot school programs resulted in a strong body of knowledge utilizing effective intervention approaches. In the 1980's a technical assistance network emerged in the form of state deafblind projects and a national technical assistance project. In the early 90's a national clearinghouse on deafblindness was funded.

Shifts in educational philosophy and policy have had implications for students who are deafblind. As students moved from self-contained pilot programs to local school districts, they were spread over larger geographic areas, and often in classrooms with heterogeneous groupings of students. As a result, there were fewer jobs available for teachers trained in deafblindness, and the quality of services suffered (Collins, 1992). In most school districts deafblindness is too low incidence to justify hiring specially trained teachers. Currently in the field of deafblindness, there is a defined population of students tracked by a state and national census, a body of knowledge and educational practices, a technical assistance network at state and national levels, an emerging paraprofessional model of service delivery in the form of deafblind interveners, but no certified teachers.

Experiences of Teachers of Students with Deafblindness

What would a teacher certified in deafblindness do? Some experienced professionals in the field of deafblindness share their stories.

A longtime classroom teacher of students with deafblindness shares her work.

The grocery manger smiles as the deafblind students locate the produce department and begin an intense tactile examination of all the fruits and vegetables. Even though he has watched my roving classroom working on new concepts in his store once each week for the past several years, he stops for a moment to observe the flurry of signing activity as the students select items from their shopping list and put them in the cart.

After locating the money person, the students are given numerous opportunities for teachable moments. This ranges from waiting in line appropriately, checking out the conveyor belt, making sure all their items are out of the shopping cart, facing the cashier, getting the concept of paying money and waiting for change.

Returning to class, they eagerly locate their individual calendar systems (utilizing a variety of concrete objects, photographs, tactile symbols, large print or Braille) and realize that their next activity is putting up their groceries. This learning by doing teaches classification concepts (e.g., refrigerated items and cabinet items are stored differently). Finally, during their cooking activity, they enjoy the end result of their labors that day.

An itinerant vision teacher describes her role teaching a student with deafblindness.

Just as I did on each visit three days a week, I came into the special education classroom and plopped down on the floor with my bag of tricks to work with Kayla. Her intervener stayed nearby and talked to me about the latest ear problems she'd been having. Kayla was profoundly deaf, and had cortical visual impairment. She was one of the first students in Texas to have an intervener trained by the Texas Deafblind Project. I unfolded my black and white quilt to the black side, sat down on it, removed some brightly colored and shiny metallic toys from my bag, and placed them on the quilt. Kayla glanced at my arrangement out of the corner of her eye, and walked over. While we played and explored together, I encouraged her to maintain eye contact with objects, and to use her hands and eyes together.

After playing on the floor, it was time to go to the restroom. The intervener showed me her toileting chart on which she recorded successful use of the potty and incidents of soiled diapers. We discussed ways Kayla could increase her participation in this routine activity by being more active in pulling up her elastic-waist shorts, turning the water faucet off as well as on, and improving her frequency of actually hitting the waste can when she threw away the paper towel.

Later the music therapist came to lead a music activity with the whole class. Kayla joined the semi-circle, and her intervener sat behind her. I sat nearby. The music therapist used Meyer-Johnson picture symbols to offer students choices of which instrument to play, or which song would be sung next. I had previously had conversations with the music therapist about using real objects, such as the actual instruments, for choice making. While she did eventually incorporate offering a basket with instruments in it for Kayla to choose from, I never succeeded in convincing her to make a choice board with real objects on a contrasting background with space between each. We enjoyed music anyway. While music was still in session, I quietly left the room to go to my next school.

An outreach deafblind consultant tells us his story of a student with deafblindness.

In my experience, there are one or two kids we take a special interest in, who absolutely hook us early in our lives working with deafblind students. Tiny was that student for me. I found it incredible how quickly he learned. I spent hours talking with my team members about the details of his communication system, or how we might teach him a concept we had encountered that day. I taught Tiny for three years at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). Tiny returned home that next year, and I lost touch with him.

Fast forward six years and I was working as an educational consultant for the Texas Deafblind Project at TSBVI. I got a referral to visit Tiny and was excited at the chance to see him again, but also really nervous. I hadn't seen him in a long time. Would he remember me? How would his life have changed? It wasn't good. He had become very aggressive, and spent most of his days sitting on a couch in the classroom. His mother had moved to a new school district after he left TSBVI. Then he was separated from her, moving into a group home. He had gotten lost in the system. His team at school was trying everything they knew. A teacher of students with visual impairments and a teacher of students with hearing impairments were both providing services, but they didn't know how to meet his needs. He was after all, uniquely deafblind, and they didn't have that expertise.

Tiny remembered me and we immediately fell back into the bond that we had when he was my student. At one point we were playing on some drums in the music room. I realized there were a bunch of Tiny's teachers around us watching. Tiny's teachers were amazed; they had never seen him communicate so clearly or be so interactive before. I had so many mixed emotions after my visit. I was very angry and sad that Tiny's world had changed and that so much time had been lost. On the other hand, I had an incredible sense of joy at being reconnected with him, seeing how invested his teams at school and home were, and how eager they were for Tiny to do well. They couldn't wait to get started now that they had some ideas to work with.

An rehabilitation counselor for adults tells her story.

It begins with a connection. That's the story I have heard over and over again when I talk to professionals in this patchwork quilt of a field that we call deafblindness. Many people believe it's the connection of the child to the greater world around her, the bridge to communication with another person, and often that may be true. Yet the other part of connection that is thematic in these accounts of entering the field of deafblindness is the light that comes on for the teacher when he or she connects with a person who is deafblind.

My connection came in meeting a supported employment client, a young woman with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) who had aged-out of the school system. As a fresh-faced college graduate, I was stunned when her parents told me that she wanted to work on the police force or as a dentist. I was warned about her behaviors, which included screaming, signing furiously to imaginary friends, trying to examine strangers' teeth, and engaging in ritualized, repetitive movements during transitions. Our adventures in trying out several jobs, learning to communicate with each other, and making the right match was a part of my connection. It was an awakening of the desire to be in the field of deafblindness and to learn all I could from people who are deafblind.

Defining the Field

What would a teacher of students with deafblindness do? Many states have itinerant teachers of students with visual impairments and itinerant teachers of students with hearing impairments. A teacher of students with deafblindness would fill a similar role. Individual situations would vary, and some students would have all three types of teachers serving them, while others may have only a teacher trained in deablindness serving their educational needs. These teachers would provide both direct and consultative services. Direct instruction may include activities incorporating the following:

  • vision awareness or vision efficiency activities;
  • auditory awareness or training;
  • activity routines which facilitate use of object symbols, tactile symbols, spoken, signed or picture symbols;
  • tactile awareness training leading to tactile symbol or pre-braille activities;
  • spacial awareness and exploration;
  • literacy awareness including pre-braille or print activities; and
  • assistive technology devices and applications.

Consultative services include supporting and participating in planning with the entire educational team, particularly the classroom teacher and intervener. Areas in which the teacher of students with deafblindness will have particular expertise are:

  • assessment and evaluation of sensory and communication skills;
  • creating, providing and supporting the use of materials appropriate for the student's sensory needs;
  • information and support of communication systems;
  • supporting the use of assistive technology;
  • collaborating on accommodations and modifications of instructional materials and activities to meet the students sensory needs; and
  • developing meaningful educational activities.

In some areas, sufficient numbers of students may exist to form a special class taught by a teacher certified in deafblindness. Such a class would have the advantage of infusing appropriate communication modes into all activities, and modifications for students' sensory needs would be present throughout the day. Education in a special environment would enable students to develop trusting relationships with capable communicators including adults and peers. This classroom teacher would have the opportunity to fully know their deafblind students and understand their needs and abilities. Educational approaches would be individualized for each student. Both academic and Expanded Core Curriculum areas would be addressed by the teacher with the support of interveners.

The Future of Services for Students with Deafblindness

We believe the time has come to advocate for teacher certification in deafblindness at the national level. With a national teacher certification in deafblindness, many states would follow the lead and recognize or require teachers certified in deafblindness as vital educational team members serving students. It is the right of students with deafblindness to receive appropriate educational services in an appropriate setting, utilizing appropriate communication modes, individualized to meet their unique sensory needs (Davidson, Miller and Collins, 1993).


Collins, M.T. (1993). Educational services: Presentation. Proceedings of the National Symposium on Children and Youth Who Are Deaf-Blind (pp. 165-178). Monmouth. OR: Teaching Resources Center, Western Oregon University.

Davidson, R.C., Miller, H., & Collins, M.T. (undated). Educational programming for individuals with deaf-blindness. Reston, VA: Division on Visual Impairment/Council for Exceptional Children. DVH Quarterly, 38, summer 1993.

McInnes, J.M. (1993). Educational services: Reaction. Proceedings of the National Symposium on Children and Youth Who Are Deaf-Blind (pp. 179-186). Monmouth. OR: Teaching Resources Center, Western Oregon University.

McLetchie, B.A.B. (1993). Personnel Preparation: Presentation.. Proceedings of the National Symposium on Children and Youth Who Are Deaf-Blind (pp. 180-196). Monmouth. OR: Teaching Resources Center, Western Oregon University.