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Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Spring 2014

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Aimee Dowling Alexander, Chris Alexander, Kathalene Brooks,
Family members and Lauren Eudy, DARS Children’s Program Specialist

Abstract: Parents and their children with visual impairments learned new strategies to develop independent living skills, recreation and leisure skills and career awareness at a conference sponsored by the Division of Blind Services. Families received support and information about raising a child with a visual impairment.

Keywords: Family Wisdom, independent living skills, recreation and leisure skills, visual impairment

The Blind Children’s and Transition Programs in the Dallas region hosted the Circus of Life Family Conference in late January 2014. With a huge turnout of 70 families, equaling 257 participants, this was the largest group skills training event the Dallas region has hosted.

This conference was an opportunity for the DARS team to work together with consumers, families and the community to empower consumers to reach their full potential. Using “The BIG 6” core skills model, Division for Blind Services (DBS) offered hands-on sessions for families including measuring, setting a table, clothing organization, basic cooking skills, recreation and sports options, and cleaning skills. Parents were provided with curriculum for teaching these skills at home. The goal was to teach parents and consumers of all levels to integrate activities of daily living and independence into their daily routines. 

Networking with other families with the same challenges was a huge feature of this conference. We were given many opportunities to meet and talk with other parents and even some grandparents to share ideas, offer support, and talk about what works and what doesn’t when raising a child with a visual impairment. During lunch and dinner at our table, the discussions were about new games to play with our kids, the latest iPad applications (apps) that aided day to day living and learning, therapy opportunities in the area, and fun school programs that are available. It was also great to talk about what each family took away from each session at the conference. The chance to talk with families of older children to see ‘what comes next’ was very helpful as this is a question we discuss in our household all the time.

Attending the breakout sessions was very informative and enlightening, it was wonderful to hear about all of the community activities that are designed for our son. The session on sports activities with United States Association of Blind Athletes (USBA) Dallas-Fort Worth offered an entirely new area of opportunities for our son that we never knew existed. This is a group that we look forward to learning more about in the future as we start to introduce sports into our son’s life. The session on what to expect and look for during an ARD meeting offered us an insight on what the future holds and some tools to be better prepared for these meetings.

The conference also offered sessions on daily life skills and gave us ideas on how to incorporate these new skills into our son’s day-to-day activities. We have started an ‘About Me Book’ that we learned about in the Resources room and have started to use it at places like gym class, music class, therapies and new doctors’ offices so that everyone gets to know our son better. We also have taken ideas that involve the liquid indicator and a Dycem non-slip mat and started to use them in our home to allow our son to help us with small tasks in the kitchen while making his meals.

As parents of a two year old deaf-blind child diagnosed with CHARGE syndrome, the best lesson we took away from the Circus of Life conference was that our life is normal. There are other families similar to ours and while this life maybe a little different from someone else’s, it is still a normal, happy and fulfilling one.

Mary Rose and Mom learn how to measure ingredients to make trail mix.
Picture 1: Mary Rose and Mom learn how to measure ingredients to make trail mix.

Ydie, Jose and Adrianna explore different communication devices
Picture 2: Ydie, Jose and Adrianna explore different communication devices while Mom and Dad speak to a presenter.

: Gracie and her Mom explore the Perkins Panda books.
Picture 3: Gracie and her Mom explore the Perkins Panda books.

Mom and teacher talking to woman at a table
Picture 4:  Vocational rehabilitation teacher (VRT) Sharma teaches Dane and his Mom non-visual cleaning techniques.

Picture 5: Lesly explores and uses a communication device.

Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Spring 2014

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Clara Sandoval, reporter, Laredo Morning Times

Republished with permission of the Laredo Morning Times. Originally published:
Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Abstract: A student with a visual impairment finds a sport that he enjoys and competes in area swim competitions.

Keywords:  Family Wisdom, blind, visually impaired, sports, swimming

United swimmer Angel Gallegos was born legally blind, but that hasn’t stopped him from being a three-year letterman for the Longhorns.

For eighth grade he moved to Austin to attend the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where he learned that he needed to pick a sport that suited him. It was between joining the track team and swimming, but it was the pool that won his heart.

"When I was at TSBVI, it gave me inspiration,” Gallegos said. “These guys are like me, they have disabilities, but they can still play sports. So when I came back to Laredo, I just needed to choose a sport that suited me.”

Gallegos’ doctor told him he wasn’t allowed to participate in contact sports, so he sought out another avenue.

“At first I was shocked because I have done all these sports all these years and right when I was getting to high school, they tell me that I cannot play them anymore. I just told myself that there are other sports that I can play.”

As Gallegos heads to this weekend’s District 29-5A swimming meet in Corpus Christi Saturday for the third consecutive year, his personal goal is to finish in the top seven and he’s also hoping to make a trip to regionals.

“Angel is a joy to have on the swim team,” UISD coach Paul Kane said. “No matter what events that I put him in, he is one of the few students that just says, ‘OK, I will give it a shot.’ He will not give up and he does not let his disability get in the way.”

“He does everything possible to make sure he is able to participate. He just does not quit or give up on himself.”

Gallegos has no vision in his right eye but, with the help of glasses, can see with his left eye. He has learned to compensate in the pool by counting his strokes across the length of the pool and knows when to make the turn at the wall. He also uses prescription goggles so he can see underwater.

The first time that he got into the pool he felt different because he had never swum in competition. But swimming has also helped Gallegos cope with his asthma because it exercises his lungs and he hasn’t had any asthma attacks since he first stepped in the pool three years ago.

“This helps my lungs,” Gallegos said. “As well as being legally blind and having asthma problems, it has not stopped me from doing what I love, which is playing sports. Swimming is considered a sport and I am just going to keep on doing what I love.”

While Gallegos has not been able to place at the last three district meets, he has seen his time drop dramatically from the first time he jumped into the pool as a freshman.

“My times have improved a lot since my freshman year,” Gallegos said. “I have really worked hard. In my first year I just wanted to try out the sport and I like it, so I decided to come back for my second year and I already knew what I had to do to improve.”

Gallegos almost never misses practice and is a team player, according to Kane. If Kane needs him in a long distance event, Gallegos is always up for the challenge.

One aspect that Gallegos loves about swimming is the camaraderie that UISD teams show toward each other when they attend swimming meets or in practice. Since UISD only has one swimming coach for all four schools, they all practice together and attend the same meets.

“What I love about this sport that is not like other sports, in football or basketball you compete against each other,” Gallegos said. “In swimming all four schools (are) all together. Yes, we may be rivals when we go to events or meets but when we practice, we practice together. I just like that we are all together; we are doing the same thing.”

When he steps into the pool, Gallegos wants to show everyone his disability never held him back.

“People can do anything, it does not matter that they have a disability, you can play sports,” he said. “Before I leave United High School I just want people to know that I am able to swim and my disability does not slow me down – you just learn to compensate. I just want to let students that have disabilities know they can join sports.”

swimmer sitting on a bench with a large timer showing 52 seconds

 (Photo by Danny Zaragoza | Laredo Morning Times)

Doctors told United junior Angel Gallegos he couldn’t play contact sports, so he moved from the basketball court to the pool.

Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Spring 2014

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Jean Robinson, family support specialist, TSBVI Outreach

Abstract:   A young student with a visual impairment emails her teachers to let them know how she can access materials. 

Keywords: self-advocacy, accommodations, visual impairment, Family Wisdom

Editor’s Note:  A teacher of the visually impaired received a thank you from a parent of one of her former students. The mother appreciated the TVI working with her daughter on self advocacy skills. To show the results of her teaching she included an email that her daughter wrote to all her teachers.

Dear teachers,

This is Jenny (not her real name). My name on my papers says Jeanette. Everyone just calls me Jenny. I am thirteen years old. I love to sing, play the piano, and use technology. I also wanted all of you to know some information about getting work to me and how that works for me at school. I thought I'd give all of you a heads up.

I will need to have my materials in braille if possible. Please, please, get the materials to me in time for the activity/work. You can send me emails, too. Feel free to email me if you have any questions, need something, or to send work for me to do. My email is (not a real email address). I can read them, answer questions, and send you a reply back or send another email.

Pictures don't work well with me, though. So, if you send pictures, please describe each of them to me.

I use thumb drives, as well. I have a special device that helps me read what you put on it. If you use one, then the document needs to be a rich text file. I can create folders for each teacher, and you can open them up and find your work that you gave me. I can save files and give the thumb drive to you. Then, you'd plug it into your computer. You could save it on your computer and give it back to me. Whichever works for any of you, just let me know.

Sometimes when I type on the braille input device, letters run together and make typos. I will proofread, but if something looks funny, it is probably a braille input problem.

One other thing, if you show a video and it does not speak what's on the screen, then I'll need a student to describe the pictures and what the people are doing.

Thank you very much! I appreciate your cooperation. I will help you if you need a reminder.

Getting materials in an accessible way is the main idea. I love to learn and all of these will help me have a great future! I plan to go to college and get a master's degree.

I hope all of this helps you know what to do.



Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Spring 2014

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By Valerie Chernek and Ann Bopp

Abstract: A parent shares her experience using Bookshare’s online library through support by the Accessible Books for Texas program for her daughter who is blind and has chronic healthcare needs. Learning to use accessible education materials makes it possible for her daughter to keep up with her school work and make academic progress.

Keywords:  Family Wisdom, literacy, blind, accessible materials, audio books

Each year, thousands of students miss school due to chronic illness, extended stays in the hospital, or the need for daily home health care. This is the case for ten-year-old Hailey Bopp, who is blind and has cognitive delays. These challenges often make it impossible for Hailey to attend school regularly.  Her mom, Ann, says that whenever Hailey misses school, “she gets sad and depressed because she doesn’t get to read the books her teacher and classmates are reading.”

To mitigate Hailey’s frustration, Ann signed her daughter up for a Bookshare individual membership. “School life is better because she can keep up with reading assignments,” says Ann. As she observed how Hailey reacted to reading accessible books, Ann knew she was on the right track. “I want more families to know about this educational resource,” she said. “So, I pass it on to parents with children who have qualifying print disabilities in the hope that they might have a quality reading experience, like Hailey.”

 Ann attended the Parent to Parent Conference in San Marcos, TX, to learn about special education legislation and technologies that help children with special needs succeed. There, she met a Bookshare trainer through the Accessible Books for Texas (ABT) program. ABT provides free and local training and outreach for educators and parents.

Hailey participates in mainstream general education classes. Ann says she wouldn’t have been able to keep up with her reading assignments without books in accessible formats. “I had to nudge Hailey to read, but not anymore. She is completely independent, loves her iPad, and can easily download books from the Bookshare library. And she is a pro at navigating accessible books with her iPad to enlarge fonts, change voices, and adjust the rate of speech to hear the text read aloud.”

“Some people say that listening to audio books is cheating, but I disagree. My daughter’s cognitive ability and eye condition make fatigue come on fast. She cannot recall what she’s reading. With digital books, her comprehension skills are fine-tuned without lugging heavy volumes to and from the hospital. When we equip sick children with learning portability and resources like Bookshare, they can keep up with schoolwork and have a fighting chance toward academic progress.”

Last year, Hailey made the honor roll, but missed it by one point this year. “My daughter is very smart, but her health issues make it nearly impossible to attend school regularly. The iPad and accessible books gave her mobile learning options, long overdue for families whose children are ill.”

Hailey just returned to her Texas school and is already ahead of the curve. She and Ann met with the vision teacher and downloaded the first book she needs for class. Ann has also been talking with other parents about Bookshare and showing them how to use the library.

“I encourage them to meet with a principal, librarian, or teacher and do a quick search of the library for a K–12 textbook or novel,” says Ann. “If the school has a Bookshare organizational membership, they can download textbooks and use Bookshare’s new reading tool—Reading List (tutorial on This tool helps students, parents, and teachers to organize books and makes it easier for us to ensure our children have timely access to their assignments. Reading Lists allow us to store book titles in one location, so no more hunting for titles and missing homework for Hailey.”

When asked about reading outside of school, Ann says, “Hailey is into the new James Patterson series for young children. “She has read the series through Bookshare and loves the plots. This is a pastime that any child should enjoy, especially those who are faced with daily health challenges that make it difficult to attend school or do a variety of physical activities. Learning portability ensures that children can keep pace with school work and have a chance to make academic progress.”

For more information about Bookshare in Texas, please visit .

Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Spring 2014

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KC Dignan, Ph.D. Personnel Preparation Coordinator

Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Abstract: Professionals such as Teachers and Orientation and Mobility Specialists may work part time for a school district on a contractual basis. The author discusses current pay rates and practices primarily in Texas.

Keywords: contract work, free-lance, TVI, COMS

So, you’re interested in working as a contractual VI professional (TVI or COMS), but you aren’t sure what you should charge.  The good-news/bad-news is that there isn’t a single response to the “What should I charge?” question.  Instead, you should consider an array of options.

Please be aware that school districts often contract for services of many types, such as OT and PT services and other professional services.  Most districts will have policies on what they are able to pay.  Sometimes there is room for negotiations, but it may have a narrow range.

Still, the question remains: what should I know before I enter into a conversation about contracting with a school district?  What questions should I ask?

Based on an informal survey of VI professionals from multiple states, in 2010 consultants were paid between $60 and $150 per hour for contractual work.  ($60-$100 is a more typical range in Texas.)  This was the 3rd time this survey was completed.  While the dollar amounts may change the factors have remained constant. Factors that affect the rates are listed below.

Student attendance

  • Is the rate charged available only if the student is available?  Or regardless, even if the student is sick, or attending a school function or field trip?
  • Is there a cancellation time?  For example, if the district informs you that the student isn’t available with less than 12 hours notice, will you still get all or a portion of the fee?

Direct and indirect services

Is there a ratio of direct and indirect services, such as the time needed for lesson planning or report writing?  For example, for every 5 hours of direct service, is one hour of indirect service credited for planning, consulting, report writing?

Travel time  

  • Is it included in the rate?  Is the travel rate from portal-to-portal? Is travel time charged at a lower rate? 
  • When significant travel is involved, either between students or getting to and from the district, a district may offer a different rate for that time.  It could be as low as 50% of the standard rate.

Mileage or Travel costs

  • Is it available?  Is it included in the rate?  Is it an extra fee?  What is the current rate?  What documentation is required?
  • As gas prices change, or travel time increases, are rates subject to change?  If mileage isn’t charged, but gas costs are reimbursed, what documentation is required?

Evaluations, assessments and report writing

  • How will evaluations be completed?  Will they be charged at the same rate as when you work with a student?  Is it included in the rate? Is it an hourly rate or a flat fee?  Is the time needed for report writing accounted for, either at a flat rate or as a ratio?

Collaborative consultation with other staff members

Is it included in the direct service rate?  Is there a rate difference between collaborative consultations and direct service?  Or is it charged as part of the entire service hour/unit?

Contract or subcontract

Is the consultant billing the district, or there is an agency that provides the service and the VI professional is a sub-contractor? If you are a subcontractor, the billing organization will keep part of the fee.  You should be aware of the percent they keep.


  • Professional consultants in the northeast and California charged more than in the mid-west and south.  Additionally, locations that are very rural or very urban may have different fee structures.

Replies in the higher ranges tended to exclude travel time and/or mileage.  Replies in the lower ranges seemed to be “portal to portal” and payment was due even if the student didn’t show up or was otherwise unavailable. 

In almost all instances, no taxes are withheld, no medical insurance is paid.  You are well advised to talk with a tax accountant prior to starting to ensure that you’re knowledgeable about your tax obligations.

Here are 3 examples of how a district may contract with a VI professional.  Many other scenarios are possible. Hopefully, it will give you an idea of what you can expect.

  1. A district may pay on the lower end of the range: $80 per hour.  However, it will pay even if the student doesn’t show up (possibly with a cap on absences), and will pay that same rate for assessments and evaluations and consulting with other educators.  The district will also pay mileage at a standard rate, but will not pay for travel time.
  2. A district may pay in the mid-range of the scale for direct services, but the non-direct services are billed on an item-by-item basis.  The travel time to see the student is more than an hour.  So travel time is reimbursed at 50% of the hourly rage; no mileage reimbursement is included.  Assessments and evaluations are paid at a flat fee.  Functional vision evaluations and learning media assessments will cost $400.
  3. A district will pay at the high end of the range: $150 per hour.  However, if the student doesn’t show up, the TVI or COMS won’t get paid.  No mileage or travel time reimbursement is available.  The contractor is paid for 1 hour per week to consult with other team members.  Those evaluations necessary to determine eligibility may be billed for the amount of time needed to assess the student, but not other required assessments.

Hopefully, this will help you determine what you need to charge and what questions you need to ask.  Contracting can be a wonderful employment option for many people, but you should be informed before you embark on this service option.

Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Spring 2014

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Abstract: A committee of professionals from several departments of TSBVI collaborated to develop this set of guidelines for determining the appropriate literacy media for students with visual impairment.

Keywords: braille, large print, literacy medium, learning media evaluation

TSBVI is committed to helping ensure that all students are instructed in their appropriate literacy media.  Literacy instruction needs to be based on reliable data, consistent with IDEA-B regulations.  Here are guiding principles that we believe should be considered in the evaluation of literacy medium for each student:

1. To be an efficient reader and to prepare for a competitive work force, individuals with low vision or blindness must acquire a combination of literacy tools to use in a wide variety of settings and situations. These tools might include hard-copy print, text that can be manipulated on electronic devices as print, braille or audio, braille (paper or electronic), audible materials, and any combination of these.  Students should receive explicit instruction and adequate practice with all relevant literacy tools.

2. Literacy involves a complex interaction among multiple skill sets, including visual skills for print and tactile skills for braille.  For students with visual impairment who struggle with literacy, it can be difficult to determine whether the cause is primarily related to visual or tactile issues, or reading problems related to word identification, comprehension, or fluency.  Evaluation of literacy skills and decisions regarding literacy media should be a collaborative process involving a certified teacher of students with visual impairments, a qualified reading teacher, and sometimes, a certified reading specialist.  

3. According to IDEA (300.304(b)(1)), local districts must use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information needed to develop an individualized educational program.  IDEA (300.304(b)(2)) specifies that no one evaluation tool should be used as the entire basis for educational programming considerations.  

4.  For students with visual impairments, many factors must be considered in evaluating the most efficient tools for literacy.  Factors include:

  • Visual diagnosis and prognosis
  • Functional use of vision, including fatigue and stamina during visual tasks
  • Evaluation in the use of assistive technology
  • Documentation of reading instruction using braille or print and including use of prescribed optical vision devices where indicated
  • Adjustment of environmental factors such as lighting and ergonomics
  • Documented progress in literacy skills, including reading fluency

5.  Once effective accommodations are identified, they must be provided in both learning and testing environments (300.323(d)(II)(ii)).  They should be based on evaluation of the student's disability, and documented in the individualized education program.  The Texas Education Agency states  that "...accommodation needs related to a disability or disabling condition ... are intended to provide students effective and equitable access to grade-level or course curriculum and assessments" 1 Therefore, use of documented accommodations in literacy activities should be included in an evaluation of a student's literacy skills.


Texas Education Agency, Accommodation Resources   (

Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Sprng 2014

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Holly Cooper, Ph.D. Outreach Deafblind Educational Consultant, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Abstract: The game of geocaching is discussed, with special adaptations for children and youth with visual impairment.

Keywords: geocaching, visually impaired, physical activity

Are you looking for an activity to do with your students or your family to get everyone outdoors and actively moving?  Many people are looking for ways to get more exercise and be more physically active. Childhood obesity is an area of increasing concern. It can be especially challenging for young people with vision impairment to get adequate exercise since it may be difficult for them to participate in some sports. Geocaching is a fun way to get motivated to get up and go for a walk, both for children and adults.

What is geocaching? People who go geocaching are looking for hidden, secret containers. These containers might be hidden in any public place: in parks, in the city or suburbs. These containers are called geocaches and have small toys or handy items inside along with a logbook to sign. When the seeker, or geocacher finds a geocache, he or she signs the log in the cache, and can leave an item and take something. How do you know where geocaches are? You go to a special geocaching website.

Girl with a cane, bending over by a chain link fence.
A teen-aged girl with a cane opens a geocache.

A geocache begins its life when someone hides a container in a location where it won’t likely be found by a causal passerby. Then the hider takes a global positioning system (GPS) receiver and records the longitude and latitude coordinates.  The hider then goes to a geocaching website, usually and creates a listing for this geocache. The listing will have its own page. The hider is the cache owner and gives the cache a name and checks the cache to be sure it is still there. The cache owner writes an interesting description of the cache location.

The game of Geocaching first began in 2001 when high resolution GPS signals were opened to the general public, making navigation by global positioning system signals more accurate.  Prior to that time, precise GPS signals were accessible only for government and military purposes.  Very soon after the GPS signals became public, a young man who enjoyed hiking hid a container in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon and posted the coordinates in an on-line forum.  Within a few days forum users had located the cache. Soon there were many hidden containers and some ambitious entrepreneurs started the website. Now there are over two million geocaches hidden around the world on every continent including Antarctica. 

Geocaching is a good activity for anyone, but it’s especially a fun thing to do with kids. It is non-competitive, (more or less), it gives participants a goal to walk or hike to, and you get a fun reward at the end. If you’re a kid, there are interesting little toys to find; if you’re an adult, you might like to read what other people are writing in the log, and you might recognize familiar names that you see repeatedly. The geocache may be in an area such as a small park that you didn’t know about, or tell you about some local history that is interesting. Kids may enjoy it because they get to go outdoors and run off some energy, explore plants and see animals and visit new places. Many people who are retired like to do it as a way to get out and exercise. Some geocachers are veterans or geeks who like to play with the technology and see what it can do. For kids it can be fun just because of the adult they are going with; they might be going geocaching with grandpa or an adult sibling.

Some geocachers like to leave what is called a signature item. These are items that identify the geocacher and may be personal “business” cards, bottle caps or poker chips, wooden “nickels”, or custom made tags or coins. These items are usually personalized with the geocacher's name and some graphics. Some geocachers make a point to collect these personalized items and may spend considerable time, money and effort creating and designing their own.

see caption
Some geocache containers: a bison tube (pill holder), pill bottle, fake rock with hidden compartment, magnetic key hider, fake sprinkler head key hider, food container.

To go geocaching, you will need a GPS receiver that can accept input of longitude and latitude coordinates though a computer USB connection. If you’re buying a new unit, be sure to shop smart and check to see that the unit is geocaching capable. Another way to get started is with the use of an Android phone or iPhone which has a GPS receiver. You can purchase a geocaching app for a small fee, and start to geocache without having to pay for special equipment. Geocaching with a phone doesn’t give you access in all situations, however. The GPS receiver on a phone is usually not as accurate as with a special unit, and there are many places in Texas where you might want to geocache but not be able to get a cell phone signal. (If you use a phone, you will need both a GPS signal to navigate and a cell signal to access the internet-based map and make it interactive with the GPS.) Also, using the GPS and data access drains the phone’s battery after a few hours, and phones are not very water proof or shock proof when dropped. Many geocachers have lost or broken their GPS or smart phone on the trail. However, for beginners, cell phone caching is great for exploring around the city and local parks.

To get ready, go to and take a look around. To get better access create a username and password for yourself or your family. Purchasing a paid membership gives you access to even more features of the website. Probably the easiest way to search for caches is by writing the zip code into the search window, then when a list loads, click the link that says “map this location” that is near the longitude and latitude coordinates. This allows the user to look at an area on the map, and see where all the geocaches are. The phone apps will let you see the cache location on the map, but currently they won’t let you see other caches on the screen. If you are planning a caching outing, look around on the map for a nearby city park or area of the city where you would like to go and get a list of caches. Although you can cache in the city, you must be discreet and not allow others to observe you poking around or the cache may be located by others and vandalized or discarded. This can be challenging when you’re caching with kids or a group. For this reason city parks or other public areas can be a good place to take kids. Parks also allow for more walking, running, and noise making, and less time in the car driving from one place to another. In addition, geocaches in parks tend to be larger and easier to find, and have space for trade items. Be aware that GPS units need a line-of-sight contact with the satellites, so overhead tree foliage can impair the accuracy of the signal.

Be Prepared

When geocaching, be prepared for the outdoors by dressing appropriately, wearing closed toed shoes, wearing a hat, bringing bug spray, sun screen and bandages. Carrying a backpack with water and some snacks is also a good idea. If you are using a GPS receiver, you will need to scope out the area, read about the caches in advance and load the coordinates into your unit. You may want to have a print out or a list of the caches you are seeking, and having extra batteries is a must. You will also need to bring a pen or pencil and some items to trade in the geocaches. Children and teenagers should always be accompanied by an adult when geocaching, and it’s best if someone has a cell phone in case of an emergency.

Black lab looking at an ammo box under some rocks.
A black Labrador Retriever guards a geocache made from an army surplus ammunition can

It’s also more fun to geocache with friends or family, because you can help each other with navigation and searching. Geocachers who are visually impaired can participate using accessible GPS devices, a braille compass, or just by following along, as many geocachers do.

Accessible Technology

Accessible GPS technology is relatively new, but rapidly becoming more accurate and easier to use. Individuals who are visually impaired and use large print can navigate using a geocaching app available from or other developers along with an iPad (with an active data plan), or Android tablet with an active data plan. Users who are blind can use talking GPS devices such as the Trekker Breeze by Sendero or The Kapten, which are stand-alone devices. GPS receivers are available on the BrailleNote, powered by add-on software. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has also developed GPS software called Nearby Explorer which runs on their note taking device the Braille Plus 18 or an Android device with a cell signal or data plan. 

Geocaching can be educational as well as entertaining and physical. Scouting merit badges are available for geocaching for both Girl Scouts as well as Boy Scouts. Educational activities may revolve around geography, geology, ecology, and using mathematics skills to determine distance and time to travel. Many geocaches are located in places the cache owner wishes to draw attention to, historically significant locations such as train stations, pioneer’s homesteads, cemeteries and old schools. Some geocache owners post a series of caches to guide seekers to points of interest they feel are important. Some of the historic trivia geocaches describe may be difficult to find any place else.

A similar hide-and-seek activity which pre-dates geocaching is called letterboxing. Originating in England where recreational walking (even across private land) is widely practiced, letter boxes are concealed containers placed by an owner. These boxes don’t require a GPS to locate, instead a description of the box location is posted on a website, or in earlier times, listed in a catalog or passed on my word of mouth. People who go Letterboxing in the US typically use a rubber stamp, often handmade, to log their visit, and keep a book of stamped images (similar to an old-style passport) from each stamp that stays in the letterbox.

We hope you are intrigued by the idea of geocaching and letter boxing. So go on-line and read, create a username and password and discover the little containers hidden all around you.


Get Inspired

Videos about Geocaching from Texas Parks and Wildlife

An Introduction to Geocaching

Asperger Syndrome and Geocaching



Podcacher, an audio podcast, posted once a week with an hour of talk about geocaching

Learn About Accessible Equipment

Trekker Breeze (HumanWare)

BrailleNote GPS (Software Only available as and additional feature, HumanWare)

Kapten (Available from Leader Dogs for the Blind)

Nearby Explorer (American Printing House for the Blind),142793.aspx?FormatFilter=8

Braille Plus 18 (American Printing House for the Blind)

Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Spring 2014

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Sharon Stewart, CTVI, Birdville Independent School District

Abstract: The student in this article has multiple disabilities. He was born with Cerebral Palsy and uses a wheel chair. He is visually impaired with limited communication skills.

Keywords: Visually impaired, routines, bonding, cooking

I am an itinerant teacher of students with visual impairment in the Birdville ISD outside of Fort Worth, Texas. As itinerant teachers, we never know what experiences we will encounter each day as we travel from school to school. On some days, we are fortunate when we suddenly experience those “Aha” moments. On this day, several special moments would occur for my student, Jacob, and me.

The Birdville ISD VI team, including myself, recognizes the importance of modifying the traditional routines. We acknowledge that carefully structured routines allow consistency and repetition, which are essential for students with multiple disabilities. More important than our carefully planned lessons, we should first develop relationships with our students and allow our routines to develop over time. Allowing bonding and communication to become part of our lessons is a valid teaching approach and just as important as the carefully planned steps in our routines. Using this approach, Jacob and I were about to experience our “Aha” moments.

My day began as I arrived at the high school. Jacob is in a self-contained special education class in which students are challenged each day with supportive teachers. Jacob arrived new to our district at the end of last year. On my previous visit with Jacob, I introduced myself to him and we engaged in vocal and hand-play interactions. Bonding and communication was still my challenge, but I knew that it was a necessary action that needed to happen.

Beginning our routine, I placed Jacob close to the cooking area of the classroom. Our materials consisted of a large container that held a mixing bowl, a whisk, and a measuring cup. All of these were necessary for making pancakes.  I greeted Jacob and told him we could make pancakes. Then we clapped our hands and exchanged hugs. We had communicated enough that I felt he was comfortable with his setting and me. I slowly assisted him using hand under hand technique and encouraged him to explore our materials. Surprisingly, before I knew it, he had grasped the mixing bowl and it was suddenly on my head! With the bowl on my head, Jacob instantly extended his arm and used his hand to sweep across my back. He was searching for my head.  He communicated to me that he wasn’t sure where my head gone!  I took the bowl from my head and offered it to him by placing it on his head. In a playful manner, I would say the words “My bowl” and then say “Your bowl!” As we imitated each other, I realized we had bonded and an “Aha” moment had just occurred.

Next, with the bowl still on my head, Jacob began to explore and pat the bowl. His curious little fingers probed and investigated under the bowl and “Aha for him”! He had found my head. It was a very special moment. He continued exploring for a long time and he did not become tired of the interaction. We had bonded and now I felt that we were friends! What an accomplishment for Jacob and a realization for me. Jacob had demonstrated mastery of Piaget’s milestone of Object Permanence. This action allowed me to recognize that Jacob was demonstrating Secondary Circular Reactions, well into the cognitive development of the Sensorimotor stage. Jacob’s ability to tactually explore objects allowed him to exhibit this essential developmental stage and allowed me more knowledge about my student. 

Was my pancake routine completed? Absolutely not! Was this interaction the better lesson for my student? Absolutely yes! Will I eventually get to make pancakes with Jacob? On the next visit we repeated our pancake routine. Using the same materials, I offered him the mixing bowl with the whisk inside. He explored the bowl, but on this day he grabbed the whisk. With the whisk in his hand, he made a stirring motion inside the mixing bowl. I felt he was making progress and the carefully structured routine allowed this progress, which is a necessary step for students with multiple disabilities.

As itinerant teachers, we truly never know what our day will bring. In order to get anywhere with our students, bonding is necessary.  Without these bonding experiences, our students may reject the routines we are trying to initiate. Creating a fun way to get to know the student and his skill level is necessary to meaningful learning!  I know by allowing a bonding experience to take place, I was part of a special moment with a very special student. I was acknowledging the opportunity to let my student tell me more about himself!

Texas Sense Abilities Newsletter

Spring 2014

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By Tricia Lee Marsh, Education Specialist, Region 9 Education Service Center, Wichita Falls; Brenda Lee, Education Specialist, Region 14 Education Service Center, Abilene; Laynette Phillips, Transition Counselor, DARS – Division for Blind Services, Abilene; Laurie Adams, Transition Counselor, DARS – Division for Blind Services, Amarillo; and Ann Adkins, Education Specialist, TSBVI Outreach Program

Abstract: This article describes the unique collaboration between a number of the education service centers (ESCs) and the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services - Division of Blind Services
(DARS-DBS) in providing training activities for parents and students with visual impairments in the Panhandle and West Texas regions of the state. It is a revision of an article on the West Texas Cluster written in 2005.

Key Words: Family, blind, deafblind, visually impaired, camps, workshops, trainings, collaboration, teaming, Cluster, West Texas.

The year 2013 marks the 16-year anniversary of an amazing collaboration among a group of partners that serve students with visual impairments in West Texas. The Cluster, as we named ourselves, was formed out of the simple recognition that what may seem undoable alone was achievable together.  We now encompass a sprawling “village” consisting of 109 counties in the Panhandle and West Texas. We discovered a common mission in our desire to better serve the diverse needs of our students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities, and their families, in our combined regions. While the individual members of the West Texas Cluster have changed since the Cluster was created in 1998, the common goal and commitment to the students and families of West Texas have never wavered. Current members include the ESC VI Consultants and O&M Specialists from Regions 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18, as well as the Children’s Caseworkers and Transition Specialists from DARS-DBS in all of those regions. The TSBVI Outreach Program and the Virginia Sowell Center at Texas Tech University are also important members of the West Texas Cluster, as are all the support staff of the involved agencies. 

Uniting the Village

This article is in response to the multiple requests we have received from others wanting to "unite their villages." At the 2012 TAER Conference, the West Texas Cluster received the Natalie Barraga Award; individual leaders within the Cluster also received awards for their achievements related to Cluster activities.  We hope that the information in this article will help others unite to form collaborative “clusters”, combining their efforts and resources as a way to meet the needs of their students with visual impairments. The process that we recommend involves three steps and a number of key components.

Step One:  Identify who is in your “cluster."

The Cluster is comprised of families and service providers in a 109-county area of North and West Texas that includes the cities and areas surrounding Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland/Odessa, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls. The service providers include the Division for Blind Services (formerly Texas Commission for the Blind), Education Service Centers in Regions 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18, Outreach Programs of Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Sowell Center at Texas Tech University.

Step Two:  Meet and establish your common goals and objectives.

Each partner in our “village” brings a different and unique set of resources, experiences, and expertise to the table, but it is the combining of these differences that allows us to create a cohesive group, one that derives its strength from its diversity.

Step Three:  Determine the activities that will most effectively meet your combined needs.

The West Texas Cluster currently offers a wide range of educational, confidence-building, and group skills training opportunities each year.  These include annual activities such as a Parent or Family Conference (alternated each year), Project SWEEP, Camp VILLA, and Camp Experience/EXCELS .  Information on these specific annual events is described below.  Individual DBS offices and Education Service Centers also schedule one-day events throughout the year and invite members from other areas to participate.  In the spring of 2013, the Cluster added a Sports Extravaganza event which was held in Abilene for students and siblings from all Cluster regions.

Key Components of Our Collaboration

After uniting our village and identifying our common goals, we discovered several key components that have helped us develop, and maintain, a strong and powerful group that is able to deliver world-class services to children who are blind and visually impaired and their families. The core group of individuals has changed over time, but a common commitment and recognition of individual strengths and contributions has enabled the West Texas Cluster to thrive. We feel that adherence to the following key components has been vital to our success and that of our students. 

Recognize that each partner will have differing resources at different times.

Don't allow your cluster members to get bogged down by a perception that "each partner's contribution has got to be equal for each event." Value each member's contribution and realize that each member's resources will vary from event to event and from year to year.

Make sure that what your group offers to children and families is driven by assessment, feedback, and evaluations of those you serve.

Your activities mustbe determined by these expressed needs, not what you or individual members "think” is needed.  Planning for each event should be driven by the regional needs assessments and feedback received through evaluations of each event.  We value and respond to input from the families and students we serve.  

Leave your individual identities (agendas, territorial concerns, conflicts, turf issues, politics, etc.) at home.

Partners must come together as a group with the intent and purpose of creating something new. Each partner must have an equal, valued, and valid voice. Disagreement is part of the creative process. It must be done in an accepting atmosphere through a proactive, open process. Ultimately, all must come to consensus; discard individual differences and support fully the group decisions.

Allow the time to meet and work as a group.

The success of the West Texas Cluster is the result of all members committing 100%. As in any village, members must get to know one another, identify individual strengths, develop trust, and be committed to the combined efforts and outcomes of the group.  Having regular times to meet and discuss goals and issues without distractions is critical to this type of collaboration.

Specific Events Sponsored by The Cluster

Family or Parent Conference

Every year, the West Texas Cluster offers a weekend-long conference to provide training for the parents and caregivers of children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities, as well as the professionals who work with them. The conference, usually held in the spring, rotates annually between a Parent Conference that focuses specifically on the needs and interests of parents and a Family Conference which includes all members of a student’s family.  DARS-DBS offices, ESC members, the TSBVI Outreach Program, and Texas Tech University provide financial support so families can attend the conferences, as well as the speakers, presenters, and materials needed to coordinate such an event.  427 people participated in the Family Conference held in Lubbock, Texas on April 5-7, 2013. Entitled “Life:  A Balancing Act”, the conference included sessions for students with visual impairments, their parents and guardians, a sibling camp – and a carnival!  In 2014, a Parent Conference will be held in Lubbock on April 11-13. 


VILLA = Vocational, Independent Living, Leisure/Recreation Activities. 2013 marked the 28th anniversary of the week-long camp held at Ceta Canyon near Happy, Texas. The 8 to 15 year old campers (students should have completed the second grade) participated in a variety of typical camp activities, such as swimming, fishing, hiking, crafts, and outdoor games. They also enjoyed opportunities for confidence and skill-building activities related to the Expanded Core Curriculum for Students with Visual Impairments (ECC), including group interactions and social skills, self-determination, O&M skills outdoors, rec/leisure skills, and independent living skills. Camp VILLA will be held June 2-6, 2014.

Camp Experience/EXCELS

Camp Experience/EXCELS was designed to introduce the camping experience to families with younger children as well as children whose needs might limit them in other camps. This camp is open to children who are not attendees of Camp VILLA or Project SWEEP. It was designed to be a family camp where all members of the families benefit from a variety of confidence, skill-building activities. These include swimming, a ropes course, and wall climbing, as well as nature hikes, crafts, and an evening by a campfire. Specialists are on hand to provide assistance with education, therapy, networking, and skills training. Camp Experience/EXCELS will be held from August 4-7, 2014 at Camp Butman, near Merkel, Texas.

Project SWEEP

SWEEP (Summer Work Experience and Empowerment Program) is a five-week program for teenagers with visual impairments. The first week of the program focuses on job-readiness training, followed by four weeks of real work experience. Students are housed at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The program covers daily living skills, orientation and mobility skills, job-seeking skills, on-the-job training, and social/recreation skills. Students will participate in Project SWEEP from June 23 to July 25, 2014.  

Sports Extravaganza

New in 2013, the West Texas Cluster hosted its first annual Sports Extravaganza to encourage physical fitness among student with disabilities.  The event provided opportunities for students to participate in a variety of activities that encouraged students and families to lead more active lifestyles and develop life-long leisure skills.  Students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities, were able to choose from both group and individual events, including goalball, basketball skills, bocce, races, frisbee throw, beach ball soccer, and an obstacle course. Their siblings were also invited to participate. The First West Texas Sports Extravaganza was held in Abilene on April 20, 2013.  Next year’s Sports Extravaganza will be September 26-27, 2014. 

Comments from the Families

We feel that the powerful and effective nature of these collaborative events is best illustrated by the following quotes from families who have benefited from the services and activities of the West Texas Cluster:

“This conference had information on (a) therapy method by Lilli Nielsen that will be very useful to help improve the quality of my child's life. Networking with other families about doctors and therapists and equipment not available in my town. In addition to this, this conference gives families coping with children's disabilities the opportunity to walk into a room full of people and not feel outcast. We experience compassion and understanding at this event that nothing else we take part in provides, not even church or family. We are empowered to prevail by each other's struggle and success. This is so important for new, young parents and old war horses (like me). We draw strength from each other. Can anyone not living this life understand how closed out we feel sometimes?”

“Learning new things to help my child succeed at whatever she wants to do in life.”

“Opportunity to share and learn with and from others.”

“To see the families mingle on Saturday night is a pure joy. The children and adults dance, hop, follow, lead and visit like nothing else I have ever witnessed; there is a peace and an almost abandon about it. The joy of acceptance, I guess.”

“Good networking opportunity finding other families in my area.”

“Meeting other families dealing with the same type struggles and listening to their stories.”

“We have received valuable information to help us understand the ARD process and how to help the committee understand our child's needs. We also gained knowledge on how to get our daughter to explore her environment and items around her. We are from a rural area and do not always get to meet families with needs and disabilities like ours. The information and relationships formed at this conference have been the most valuable.”

“Learned new ways to let my child explore her world and interact with others. How to use play for teaching which has been a real problem with her multiple impairments. I also learned about new tools that are available or that we can make ourselves. Networking and talking with other families who are in similar circumstances or have dealt with similar problems already is very useful and provides needed emotional support.”

“This is one of the best conferences ever!”

While the West Texas Cluster was “born" many years ago, we continue to look for ways to effectively "raise" our village.  We encourage you to unite the members of your village as well.  Do not veer in your commitment - we KNOW that the rewards will far exceed those efforts.  Please contact your DARS-DBS caseworker or ESC VI or O&M Consultant for information on next year’s Cluster activities!