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Spring 2019

Emily Coleman, TSBVI Outreach Director

Abstract: The author describes her new(ish) podcast about programs at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and beyond.

Keywords:  podcast, episodes, blindness, visual impairment, DeafBlind

When I arrived in August, I was desperate for information about TSBVI and about Texas in general. While simply learning through conversations, I wondered how I could share the useful information I was gathering. I knew I wasn’t the only person new to Texas, and I also knew there were many people around the state and nationally that could benefit from learning more about services for our students. This inspired me to suggest a TSBVI Outreach podcast.

Those I’ve worked with know this is not a new idea for me. As an itinerant teacher of the visually impaired, I had been a podcast fan for years. It’s the perfect way to pass time in the car. I also had sought out podcasts specific to our work and found few to fill the space during the long drives I was making every day. Like many of you, I was a busy parent of a blind child and a professional in our field, and I was desperate for new ways to fit more information gathering into my day.

Some of you may be asking, what IS a podcast anyway? Podcasts are simply audio files that often run as episodes within a series, and a user can subscribe if they want to be notified when new episodes are released. They are available for free through platforms like iTunes, Google Play, and on our website where the transcripts can also be found at You can find podcasts online about any topic related to your own hobbies and interests and now you can subscribe to a great one related to blindness, visual impairment, and DeafBlindness through A Sense of Texas. (Yes, I’m biased.)

I encourage you to subscribe and join me as I interview individuals about programs at TSBVI and around the country that are relevant to me, and I’m sure would be interesting to you. There are so many passionate professionals working with our kids, parents with vast expertise, and students with profound insight. I’m grateful every time I get to sit down with one of them. Really listening to others and reflecting on my own work and life through the lens of their experiences has helped me to become a better educator and a better parent.

Vicki DePountis, Program Specialist for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Division of Special Education, Texas Education Agency  

Abstract: The Texas Education Agency shares updates on projects and collaborative efforts dedicated to students who are blind, visually impaired, and DeafBlind.

Keywords: Texas Education Agency, TEA, Special Education Strategic Plan, best practices, leadership, local education agency, LEA, Education Service Center, ESC, outcomes, resources, supports

It has been another industrious year as the Texas Education Agency (TEA) continues to execute on the Special Education Strategic Plan. You may recall that last year, TEA increased its capacity to provide technical support by hiring individuals who possess a great deal of expertise in areas related to special education. As you might expect, these program specialists have expertise in areas such as working with students who need sensory supports, early childhood, evaluation, and transition. Other areas of expertise, like parent engagement, dyslexia, and Section 504, reflect the interdisciplinary collaboration necessary to support students with special needs in the general education setting.

As a former teacher of students with visual impairments and certified orientation and mobility specialist, I am honored to serve TEA as the Program Specialist for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The program specialists provide technical assistance within TEA, to local education agencies (LEAs) through the educational service centers (ESCs), and through these newly redesigned Statewide Leadership Networks. I keep up with current research and stay in touch with the needs of students with visual impairment by participating in various workgroups around the state. A large part of my role is to share the information and concerns with the Division of Special Education Programs, other divisions at TEA, and other state agencies.

One of my favorite parts of my job is working with the highly qualified Texas DeafBlind Project team, under the leadership of Emily Coleman, Outreach Director at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). The Texas Education Agency contracts with TSBVI to improve outcomes for students who are DeafBlind. As project director, I have a front-row view of the team’s in-depth content knowledge and development of internationally used training materials to support students with DeafBlindness, over 81% of whom have identified disabilities in addition to visual and auditory impairments. A new grant cycle began in the Fall of 2018, and the DeafBlind Project was fully funded for another five years. Some of the goals of the DeafBlind Project are to improve educational outcomes, increase early identification, facilitate communication, improve post-school outcomes, engage and empower families, and train qualified personnel. Project goals include systemic collaboration with relevant technical assistance networks, such as the School, Family and Community Engagement Network, one of the ten redesigned technical assistance networks that are part of the Special Education Strategic Plan.

This brings me to a huge TEA endeavor, the redesign of the Statewide Leadership Networks around the following areas of focus:

  • Child Find, Evaluation, and ARD Supports;
  • School, Family, and Community Engagement;
  • Inclusive Services and Practices for Improved Student Outcomes;
  • Support for Students Identified with Autism;
  • Intervention Best Practices;
  • Support for Students with Intensive Needs;
  • Support for Students with Sensory Impairments;
  • Support for Students in Small and Rural LEAs;
  • Child-centered Transitions;
  • Support for Students with Multiple Exceptionalities and Multiple Needs.

These new networks are expected to be in full swing in the 2018-2019 school year.

Big strides have also been made in implementing the Special Education Strategic Plan’s identification, evaluation, and placement initiatives. TEA will require every school system, through both targeted and broad outreach, to notify parents about potential eligibility for special education evaluation. The Evaluation Capacity grant is designed to research, identify, procure, and deploy resources and personnel to assist LEAs in securing appropriately certified and/or licensed evaluation staff for the purposes of completing evaluations for eligibility for special education services within the required timeline. This grant will provide LEAs with improved access to highly trained evaluation personnel and/or funds to free up existing evaluation personnel. Resources and support will be made available to help LEAs across the state quickly fill short-term needs for evaluation personnel. Some LEAs may see an increase in the need to provide these services to students who may not have been identified appropriately. A $65 million infusion of IDEA formula funds has been distributed by TEA to school systems to support any need for additional services to newly identified students. Additionally, another grant opportunity has been released to provide LEAs with resources and guidance specific to the provision of compensatory services in accordance with the requirements of IDEA.

Furthermore, TEA will update guidance and provide training on best practices, including explicit clarification of the interplay between Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), Section 504, dyslexia, and special education. The revised Dyslexia Handbook is available here and will soon be available in Spanish as well.

Also in development are improved training and resources on the dispute resolution process and an internal capacity to hear complaints with a process that is clear to all parties, especially parents. Finally, the new Special Education Review and Support Division, with stakeholder engagement, is defining the review process to focus on improved student outcomes, not just compliance.

As you can see, TEA is working hard to ensure that the state has a strong statewide special education infrastructure, with high expectations, to support students in every part of Texas, at every ability level. Feel free to subscribe to receive topic-specific email notifications on TEA’s activities by clicking on this link:

Staff Author,  Blind Children’s Vocational Discovery and Development Program

Abstract: Joe Perez joined Texas Health and Human Services in December 2018.  Learn more about his role and goals for the Rehabilitative and Independence Services (RIS) section and the Blind Children’s Vocational Discovery and Development Program.    

Keywords: Blind Children’s Vocational Discovery and Development Program, BCVDDP, Blind Children’s Program, BCP, health care, Office of Independence Services, Rehabilitative and Independence Services, RIS, Texas Health and Human Services, HHS


Joe Perez joined Texas Health and Human Services (HHS) on December 17, 2018, as the deputy associate commissioner for Rehabilitative and Independence Services (RIS) where he oversees more than 200 employees. An accomplished health care executive with more than 13 years of experience overseeing and managing the daily operations of health care facilities, he ensures high-quality and efficient health care services.   

Before joining HHS, Perez worked for the Veterans Administration. He served as a combat Marine in Kuwait and Iraq for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Because of my military and professional experience, I understand firsthand the importance of caring for people in need as well as their families,” Perez said. “I plan to continue that mission in my role within Texas HHS. The programs and services we provide are vital to Texas families throughout the state. I look forward to continued collaboration with key partners such as TSBVI, stakeholders, parents and the children we serve.”  

Rehabilitative and Independence Services is made up of three offices.

  1. Office of Guardianship Services establishes a relationship with people that need help managing their daily affairs due to their age, disease or injury. Learn more at
  2. Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing works in partnership with people who are deaf or hard of hearing to eliminate societal and communication barriers to improve equal access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Learn more about this office at
  3. Office of Independence Services (OIS) works with people who are blind and visually impaired, have a traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injury, and people with disabilities to help reach their independence goals. To learn more about these services, visit the following webpages:;; and

OIS provides specialty services to children who are blind or visually impaired through the Blind Children’s Vocational Discovery and Development Program. This program provides opportunities for children who are blind or visually impaired to learn the skills needed for personal independence, potential employment and other life pursuits. The Blind Children’s Program provides habilitative services that enhance a child’s ability to develop skills comparable to his or her peers and help children achieve financial self-sufficiency as adults. BCP specialists serve the dual functions of case managers and direct service providers.  

Each Rehabilitative and Independence Services (RIS) office provides a key service to Texans across the state.

“My goals for RIS is to continue to provide quality and timely services to the thousands of Texans we serve,” Perez said. “I look forward to meeting and collaborating with you in 2019.”

Tammy Winkenwerder, Program Specialist, Texas Workforce Commission

Abstract:  Texas Workforce Program Specialist explains the benefits of career exploration through Explore STEM!

Keywords:  Vocational Rehabilitation, VR, career exploration, STEM, Pre-employment Transition Services, Pre-ETS, Texas Workforce Commission, TWC, the Explore STEM! Initiative

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requires that state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs focus specifically on career exploration as a part of the five pre-employment transition services (Pre-ETS) provided to students with disabilities. These five Pre-ETS areas include work-based learning, counseling on post-secondary education, workplace readiness, self-advocacy, and career exploration.  

To promote career exploration for students with disabilities, the Texas Workforce Commission’s (TWC) VR program provides these services through various individualized services and statewide programs. Some examples of these activities include exploring information about “hot” jobs for the area the student resides or will be willing to move, researching the job market and other job information through online resources, interviewing professionals working in the community, and completing vocational interest inventories.

Knowing that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are hot job markets that pay well and provide fulfilling careers, TWC implemented the Explore STEM! initiative this past summer. TWC partnered with colleges, universities, and technical schools to provide STEM camps for students with disabilities around the state. These camps addressed many different STEM concepts and were varied, depending on the institution’s creativeness. To give a few examples:  One college held a camp to introduce students to physics using flying drones and 3D printing. Another university introduced students to rockets and cosmology. The students met rocket engineers. A third college introduced students to biotechnology, health sciences, and manufacturing through various tours, interactive activities and presentations. Overall, there were 10 institutions that held 21 camps in the STEM fields. Many of the students who participated left the camp with more interest in STEM and had new skills and confidence in their abilities to pursue STEM careers.

In addition to learning about STEM, the students worked together to complete various activities and projects and overcame barriers together, as exemplified by two students who attended one of the camps near Houston. This camp gave students the opportunity to design characteristics and build robots to perform tasks of varying difficulty. Mike and Steve (names changed for privacy) are two camp participants who used each other’s strengths to successfully complete a task. Mike is a young man with a form of autism who has difficulties in school due to certain behaviors that he cannot control. However, he owns over 11,000 Legos and is a master at building things but didn’t have much knowledge about robotics and engineering. Steve is a young man who is blind and very knowledgeable about physics and engineering concepts. However, he was unable to see the parts needed to build the project during the camp. Mike assisted Steve by describing the parts to him. Steve then let Mike know how putting together some of those parts would make them function better. In the end, the two students completed their project together despite their barriers because they learned problem-solving skills, how to communicate with each other, and valued working together. They not only experienced the field of robotics but they also experienced team work and inclusion.

If you or someone you know is a student with a disability, are between the ages of 14 and 22, and think you could benefit from Explore STEM!, career exploration services, or pre-employment transition services, please contact your local TWC VR program and speak to a VR counselor. They are there to help students with disabilities explore and achieve their future career goals. If you are unsure of how to start that process, please check out the Directory of Texas Workforce Solutions - Vocational Rehabilitation Services Offices at this website and search for your zip code. VR contact information for your area will be there.   

William Daugherty, Superintendent, TSBVI

Abstract: The superintendent of TSBVI describes a pilot program to support braille literacy instruction in Texas.

Keywords: early literacy, braille instruction, reading, “Literacy for Little Ones”, concept development, motor skills, Education Service Center, ESC, family

It is widely recognized that many young children who are likely to become braille readers do not have early literacy-developing experiences similar to those of typically sighted children. Typically sighted children are surrounded by the printed word as soon as they can see. They begin to develop literacy through incidental learning and through more direct avenues such as being read to by family members while the child holds and looks at the book. Young children with severe visual impairment often do not have sufficient, similar experiences, and may not begin to develop reading skills until formal instruction begins as they enter school. By the same age, the majority of typically sighted students have achieved a much higher level of literacy independence and are using their reading and writing skills to access the broader curriculum. The child with the visual impairment can easily fall behind.

This issue was a common concern when I entered the field as a COMS and TVI in 1979. Based upon direct observation and discussions with parents and educators, the concern persists to this day. Certainly, there have been improvements in early braille literacy and instruction during the ensuing decades, but far too many children are still not achieving their full potential during those early years where a strong foundation in reading sets the stage for all academic learning in future years.

In the spring of 2018, TSBVI began seeking partners in the Regional Education Service Centers (ESC) who had the interest and capacity to collaborate with TSBVI on a pilot program aimed at developing on-going training and supports for parents and their young children in the area of braille literacy. We selected the 3-5-year-old age range, with flexibility to go up or down in age as needed. The concept behind the pilot was to develop a model that could be used by others around the state who have a similar interest in refining and expanding their early braille literacy efforts. The primary goal of the pilot is to help families understand how to promote early concept development and motor skills that support literacy by doing related activities in the home and community with their children. Additionally, the pilot is intended to have families and their children’s TVI all working together on common learning goals tied to literacy. Because this is a pilot, meaning we wanted a place where we could figure out what works and what doesn’t, TSBVI wanted to partner with an ESC that already had a strong focus on parent supports related to literacy. The Region 14 ESC in Abilene fit this perfectly, and their VI Consultant, Brenda Lee, was an enthusiastic and committed collaborator who was already involved in similar activities with the families in her region.

A team from TSBVI, including Cyral Miller, Debra Sewell, and Renee Ellis, worked with Brenda Lee and ESC 14 to develop a format for a series of workshop-type events that bring families and TVIs together for fun and productive activities designed to promote early learning that forms the foundation of literacy. These activities, such as group cooking of fun foods and the development of parent-developed books for each child, have long been in the toolkit of our field. The pilot development team has many years of experience from which they can pull out the best of such activities, while also striving to ensure that the curriculum reflects family input on the learning needs and style of their child and what interactive learning experiences the family would value.

Based upon our experience with the pilot so far, a primary takeaway is that getting people together on a regular basis to actively engage in promoting literacy around the learning needs of specific children is powerful. The good ideas about what works and things to try are coming from the families as well as the professionals. The mutual support families receive from each other is key, and it builds a sense of community that has the potential to go well beyond the literacy focus.

Where we go from here is to take what we have learned from this pilot and use it as a guide in another ESC region until we have done it enough to no longer call it a pilot.  Along the way, we hope to learn more about some of the great early literacy activities already going on in spots around the state. We want to enlist the skills and modeling that can come from older students and adults who are proficient braille readers. We want to expand and adapt the initiative to include the learning needs of young children with low vision who are likely candidates for the use of magnification. We want to develop our knowledge and skills in helping young children with additional learning challenges become literate in a way that works for them. But overall, we are trying to support whatever is needed at the local level to ensure that children enter into the school system as prepared to learn as they can be.

For additional information on the pilot, contact Cyral Miller (); Debra Sewell (); Renee Ellis () or Brenda Lee ().

Photo 1: Brenda Lee, ESC 14 Consultant for Visually Impaired and DeafBlind, walks with two young children at a Literacy for Little Ones workshop

Photo 3: An example of a book to promote early literacy made by parents in the Literacy for Little Ones pilot project