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A Publication about Visual Impairments and Deafblindness for Families and Professionals

 TSBVI Outreach Program Honors Texas Fellows

Recognizing VI Professionals in their Role as Recruiters



Texas Fellow
 Gabriella Ortuno-Haywood  Emma Reese
 Mari Garza  Amy Reyna
 Mari Garza  Dahlia Rivera
 Tracy Fletcher  Brenda Blum 
 Tracy Fletcher Amanda Garcia
 Emily Calvert Candi Stilts
 Tracy Hallak Gina Zavorka
Scarlett Bayard  Debbie Fussell
Cathy Edwards Jo Ellen Fisk Cloyd
Barbie Priest Amanda Campbell
Yevernett Anderson Pamela Jackson Thomas


The Texas Fellows program acknowledges the individual recruiters (Texas Fellow) and welcomes the new VI professional (Candidate) to the field.  You are eligible to be a Texas Fellow if you were a significant person in the candidate’s recruitment.  To be eligible for the program during the 2019-2020 school year, candidates must have started their training after May 15, 2019.

Texas Fellows and Candidates receive the following recognitions:

  • The names of the Texas Fellows and the candidates are published in the Texas SenseAbilities newsletter.
  • Texas Fellows and the candidates receive special acknowledgment at all statewide TSBVI-sponsored activities.


  • One of TSBVI’s most popular publications OR
  • Registration assistance for an upcoming TSBVI sponsored conference.

For more information about the Texas Fellows Program or working as a VI professional contact:  Mary Shore at ; 512-206-9156.

Scott Baltisberger and Chrissy Cowan, TSBVI Outreach Programs.

Illustration by Scott Baltisberger.

Abstract: The authors describe a new book and video available as free downloads from the Publications page of the TSBVI website. Created for elementary students, Tomas relates how a young student uses his low vision devices to join friends in the search for his missing dog. Teaching strategies and accessible drawings are also provided. 

Keywords: optical device, low vision device, magnifier, monocular, low vision, elementary

A line-drawing of a smiling young man wearing glasses. He is next to his dog.

Caption: Tomás and his dog, Luna.

Inspired by the Monocular Mac booklet created by Dr. Anne Corn in the 1970’s, Tomás and the Case of the Mysterious Missing Dog is an illustrated narrative story intended to inspire students with low vision to explore the many possibilities in which their optical devices and strategies can be helpful, not only in the classroom, but in real-life settings and situations. Intended for elementary readers, the tale relates the adventures of Tomás and his friends as they search for his beloved dog who has escaped the yard.  Tomás is able to fully participate in this adventure with the magnifier and monocular skills he has learned from his TVI and COMS.

Forty-two cleverly detailed ink-pen drawings by Scott Baltisberger are visually accessible to students with low vision and bring the story to life. Teachers can use the booklet as a teaching device, guiding students through the process of using a magnifier to locate some of the picture details mentioned in the story, and expanding on the concept of monocular use in their own community.

The book is available for free download in digital format, with an accompanying dramatic reading production (video) of the complete story. Lowell Bartholomee with TSBVI Outreach produced the video, directing students from TSBVI through an upbeat and lively performance of the story, complete with lots of expression and sound effects.  The book and video can be found on the Publications page of the TSBVI website The original webinar presentation from May 2019 with Scott and Chrissy describing the project and the actual video performance can be found at

Debbie Bridge, Office of Primary and Specialty Health, Health and Human Services Commission

Abstract:  The Navigate Life Texas website is a valuable resource for parents of children with disabilities.  

Keywords:  parent support, Navigate Life Texas, NLT, HHSC, disabilities, DeafBlind, empowerment, resources, special healthcare needs

The Navigate Life Texas (NLT) website, a project supported by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), launched June 2015. It was created to inform and empower parents of children with disabilities or special healthcare needs. Healthcare, education, insurance, medical diagnoses, transition to adulthood, and how to connect with other parents are among the many topics found on NLT. Here, parents share their perspectives on challenges and rewards they have faced, revealing their valuable first-hand experiences.

Navigate Life Texas was developed by parents for parents. Most of the content is written by parents of children and adults with disabilities or special healthcare needs. There are blogs of personal experiences, along with videos of parents and their families. Sign up today to receive Navigate Life Texas newsletter.

Here are some articles and resources on the site with content related to blindness/visual impairment:

A young girl uses a cane and holds her mother’s hand to explore a park with her parents.

Caption: Child using a cane in the park guided by her parents.

Navigate Life.jpg

Tammy Winkenwerder, Program Specialist for Transition, Texas Workforce Commission

Abstract: The Texas Workforce Commission’s Summer Earn and Learn (SEAL) Initiative provides work readiness skills training and work experiences for students who are blind and visually impaired. Employers who participated in SEAL also benefited by becoming aware of how a person with a disability can contribute to the production and goals of their business.

Keywords: Texas Workforce Commission, TWC, Vocational Rehabilitation, VR, employment, work readiness skills, training, work experience, SEAL program, work experience trainer, job skills trainer, advocacy

In 2017, the Texas Workforce Commission’s (TWC) Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program launched an initiative for students with disabilities called Summer Earn and  Learn (SEAL). SEAL is a partnership between the VR program and the 28 Local  Workforce Development Boards around the state of Texas. During SEAL, students with disabilities learn work readiness skills and obtain work experience through various summer job placements. Here are a couple of examples of students who are blind and/or visually impaired who benefited from their participation in SEAL as well as how SEAL benefited an employer.


Savannah attended SEAL in summer 2019. She loved her summer job at True Value in Sinton, TX. She was there for 5 weeks. When she told her mother about her work day, she used the word “we” when talking about selling a lawnmower and weed eater to a customer. She felt like part of a team. Her job duties included sweeping, mopping, cleaning and stocking shelves and helping customers. She learned where products were in the store and was able to direct customers to find the products they needed. She reported that staff treated her well and she was thankful for getting the opportunity to participate in SEAL. She also learned how good it felt to earn a paycheck and she used the money to treat herself to clothes and breakfast!


Maycie has participated in SEAL for the past three years. In 2017, she worked as an administrative assistant for United Way. Although she had a difficult first day at work trying to find her way to her work site, everything else went smoothly thanks to the help of a work experience trainer. She learned to advocate for herself, and she changed the staff’s perceptions of people who are blind. In order to show their appreciation of her work, they gave her a surprise going-away party when she left the program that summer. In the summer of 2018, Maycie worked for the food bank in Houston, TX. She greeted everyone at the front door and continued to ask for additional job duties. She also worked in their cafeteria and call center. In 2019, she worked for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). She greeted customers and cleaned equipment. At each job site where Maycie worked, the staff was amazed by her abilities. She gained various skills in these work experiences which contributed to her setting future goals of attending college and being a Business Enterprises of Texas (BET) manager.

 A young woman in business attire sits at a desk in an office setting.

Caption: Maycie at her desk as Administrative Assistant at United Way during her SEAL placement.

SEAL is not only a benefit to students with disabilities but to employers as well. The Golden Crescent Workforce Board placed three SEAL interns at the United Postal Service (UPS) Store and Rapid Printing in Victoria, TX. The UPS Store and Rapid Printing are two small businesses that share the same owner and are side by side in a location. The students split their time between the UPS store and Rapid Printing. They were also provided job skills trainers through a TWC provider, G.R.A.C.E (Getting students Ready for Advanced and competitive Careers through transition Employment training) Transition Education Services. This was the first time the UPS store and Rapid Printing hosted a work site for SEAL. Pete Munoz, the general manager for both locations, took the interns under his wing and provided mentorship and training to each. In addition to training on the customer-service related duties at the store, the interns received training on how to operate the in-house advertisement design software. The interns used this skill to design flyers, posters, and event tickets for an event called “Small Business Night at the Park.” Pete reported that the interns have been an excellent addition to the store and that, “the Summer Earn and Learn interns are willing to do anything that they can do to help.” SEAL has proven to be a life-changing program for students with disabilities and employers around the state. It has helped students gain skills needed for successful future employment and has helped employers see the benefit of giving people with disabilities a chance to contribute to the job market. If you would like to know more about the Summer Earn and Learn program, please contact your local Vocational Rehabilitation office and speak to a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor. Your local office can be found by clicking on this link:

Emily Coleman, Superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired


Abstract: Superintendent Emily Coleman shares her insights and introduces Kate Borg, newly appointed TSBVI Outreach Director.    


Keywords: outreach, student support, statewide, independent school district, ISD,  education service centers, ESCs


On August 1st, I moved from the position of Outreach Director into the role of Superintendent at TSBVI. My entire career to this point had been spent focusing on students who were visually impaired (VI), blind, or DeafBlind served in local independent school districts (ISDs). Starting as an itinerant teacher of the visually impaired, those were my roots. Therefore, my perspective has always been statewide, and that hasn’t changed with my new office setting. Let’s call this the “Texas Perspective,” because it requires big thinking.

Regardless of the department at TSBVI, or the programs housed within, we work for the benefit of all students in Texas. We’re providing research-based academic and enrichment programs for students who are here all year or just for a week. If we don’t have students physically on our property, we’re collaborating with experts outside of TSBVI to develop strong programs for them in their home communities. We’re solving problems that will be shared with our field and creating trainings that will meet the needs of teachers and families. We are here when any of the almost 11,000 students identified as blind, VI, or DeafBlind in Texas need us for any level of support. 

Luckily for TSBVI, our new Outreach Director, Kate Borg, also has the Texas Perspective. Kate is coming to us from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind where she most recently served as Director of Blind Educational Services. Kate has also worked as a university instructor, instructional coach, classroom teacher, itinerant teacher, and in a family support role. She’s leading the Outreach department with a heart and background for each of the almost 11,000 students with visual impairment or DeafBlindness in Texas. 

Two women smiling in front of a building.

Caption: Superintendent Emily Coleman with new Outreach Director Kate Borg 

Kate joins a team of individuals at TSBVI that is dedicated to Texas and to our students. As we continue through the 2019–2020 school year, we’ll be thinking more about each of those 11,000 students, as well as the ones we may be missing, and working to determine what is needed to make sure they are set up for success. We’re lucky to have statewide partners within universities, ISDs, and ESCs that have extensive expertise, and we benefit from our collaborative efforts. Together we’re all building a culture of improved student outcomes, not only with a Texas Perspective, but also with a Texas Passion. 

Dr. Kitra Gray, sponsored by Region 11 Education Service Center

Abstract: The Summer 2019 issue of TX SenseAbilities introduced an article on specially designed instruction (SDI) for students with visual impairments. The excerpt below explains the first component of IDEA's mandate, adapting the content, and how it may differ for students with visual impairments. The other two components of SDI, adapting the methodology and the delivery of instruction (IDEA § 300.39 (b)(3).), will be featured in future issues of this newsletter. Dr. Gray’s entire article can be viewed at

Keywords: specially designed instruction, SDI, local education agency, LEA, unique needs, Expanded Core Curriculum, ECC, IEP

Component I: Adapting the Content

Usually when educators think of adapting the content, they focus on the state curriculum content standards. However, the Texas Education Agency (TEA), 2017 Guidelines and Standards for Educating Students with Visual Impairments in Texas (2017, p. 6) state that “in addition to the general education curriculum all students with visual impairments, starting at birth, also need an expanded core curriculum (ECC) to meet needs directly related to their visual impairment (TEC 30.002, Subsections (c-1) and (c-2).” Thus, when considering adapting the content for students with visual impairments, the ARD committee must consider two content areas:

  1. General education curriculum
  2. Expanded core curriculum (ECC). 

This additional content area, known as the Expanded Core Curriculum, is essential for students with visual impairments so they can graduate ready for further education, employment and/or independent living as required by the purpose of IDEA. Meeting this IDEA purpose “is a key role of the TVI [teacher of students with visual impairments] and the Expanded Core Curriculum for Students with Visual Impairments…” (AFB, n.d., p. 5).

According to the 2017 Guidelines and Standards for Educating Students with Visual Impairments in Texas (TEA, 2017, p. 6), the Expanded Core Curriculum includes:

  • Compensatory skills that permit access to the general curriculum (such as braille and concept development, tactile graphics, Nemeth Code, and specialized communication skills) 
  • Orientation and mobility skills 
  • Social interaction skills 
  • Career education and planning 
  • Assistive technology, including optical devices 
  • Independent living skills 
  • Recreation and leisure skills 
  • Self-determination, and 
  • Sensory efficiency (including visual, tactual and auditory skills). 

The guidelines do not indicate that one area of the ECC is more important than another area. They are all equally important for students with visual impairments. Therefore, for the ARD committee to appropriately develop an IEP for a student with a visual impairment, the committee must have access to four types of evaluation/assessment data:

  1. Functional vision evaluation (FVE)
  2. Learning media assessment (LMA)
  3. Expanded core curriculum (ECC) assessments (in all areas)
  4. Orientation and mobility (O&M) evaluation.

“The FVE, LMA and ECC assessments are the main specialized assessments for students with visual impairments that form part of a comprehensive evaluation for eligibility” (Zebehay, 2017, p. 39). In addition, in Texas, the Orientation and Mobility Evaluation is also a requirement of the initial and continuing eligibility of a student with visual impairments (SBOE § 89.1040 (12)(B).). So, all four evaluations/assessments are required both at the initial evaluation and at the three year evaluation. IDEA is clear that a comprehensive evaluation must address both eligibility and “content of the child’s IEP” (IDEA § 300.304 (b) (ii).). Furthermore, “these specialized assessments should be considered a ‘living document,’ meaning that they should be updated frequently enough to maintain a record of the student’s functioning and to assess current and future needs that may change with age, grade level, or visual prognosis” (Zebehay, 2017, p. 39). 

Therefore, specially designed instruction for students with visual impairments must consider “two equally essential and interrelated curricula, the general curriculum and the expanded core curriculum. . . . The first is the core curriculum which consist of all skill areas that are common to all students” (Holbrook & Rosenblum, 2017, p. 205). The second curriculum, the ECC, is important because “after analysis, there is evidence that there are numerous significant relationships between the receipt of instruction in expanded core curriculum (ECC)-like content areas and meaningful outcomes, such as employment, postsecondary training, and engagement in social activities” (Wolffe & Kelly, 2011). Thus, the expanded core curriculum is an “integral and indispensable component of the [general] curriculum, not skills that are considered extra or for enrichment” (Holbrook & Rosenblum, 2017, p. 205). 

When devising an IEP for a student with a visual impairment, the ARD committee needs to address both curricular areas because one area can impact the other. For instance, the general curriculum may need to be adapted because the braille reading curriculum is commonly not aligned with the general education reading curriculum. Braille instruction includes learning symbols and contractions of words that frequently need to be introduced in a different order than letters and words in the traditional reading curriculum.

Another example is sometimes a student with a visual impairment may not be reading on grade level because of proficiency with braille, not because of the student’s ability to learn. Braille takes more time and practice than visually reading print. Learning braille can also be impacted by other disabilities or the age when the student’s vision was impaired. So consideration of adaptations of both curricula, general curriculum and braille curriculum (part of the ECC), must be addressed simultaneously as one can impact the other.


Holbrook, M. C., & Rosenblum, L. P. (2017). Planning Instruction in Unique Skills, and Supporting Differentiated Instruction and Inclusion in General Education. In Holbrook, M. C., McCarthy, T., & Kamei-Hannan, C. (Eds.). Foundations of Education, Volume II: Instructional Strategies for Teaching Children and Youths with Visual Impairments (3rd ed.). New York, N.Y.: AFB Press.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. (2004). Retrieved from: 

Texas Education Agency (TEA). (2017). 2017 Guidelines and Standards for Educating Students with Visual Impairments in Texas. Developed with Texas Action Committee for the Education of Students with Visual Impairments. Retrieved from:

Wolffe, K. & Kelly, S. M. (2011). Instruction in Areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum Linked to Transition Outcomes for Students with Visual Impairments. Retrieved from:

Zebehazy, K. T., Kamei-Hannan, C., Barclay, L. A. (2017). Overview of Assessment. In Holbrook, M. C., McCarthy, T., & Kamei-Hannan, C. (Eds.). Foundations of Education, Volume II: Instructional Strategies for Teaching Children and Youths with Visual Impairments (3rd ed.). New York, N.Y.: AFB Press. 

Kathi Garza, TVI, Family Engagement Coordinator, and Chrissy Cowan, Mentor Coordinator, TSBVI Outreach Programs

Abstract: The authors describe a process for creating an informative product which will support students with low vision in advocating for visual needs in the home, school, and community.

Keywords: low vision, self-determination, self-discovery, instructional strategy, lesson ideas, self-advocacy, peers, accessibility, visual strategies, Short-Term Programs, Universal Design

For a student with low vision, navigating various environments and social situations can be difficult because he/she is not completely sighted but also not completely without vision. Teachers, peers, and family members might be confused when, at times, the student appears to be able to complete one task without any support, but then needs significant accommodations to complete another task. Eye fatigue, visual stamina, preferred optical devices or seating, and travel skills are just a few things that can vary by day, or even by class period, for a student with low vision. Additionally, seeking adult support when a student’s needs aren’t being met can be difficult. Peer situations can be challenging as well because the student lacks the language or self-determination to answer questions or stand up for themselves when peers ask questions about or “test” the student’s vision, tease the student, or handle their devices without permission.

All of these challenges were taken into consideration when elementary-aged students with low vision attended a week-long Short-Term Program (STP) class at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). The goal for this class was for the students to build self-determination by creating an informative product to share with adults and peers in their school and community regarding their specific needs as an individual with a visual impairment. Self-determination includes choice-making, decision-making, problem-solving, personal advocacy, assertiveness, and goal setting. Students with visual impairment often have fewer opportunities to develop and practice the specific skills that lead to self-determination. People who know and value themselves and have self-determination skills can become effective advocates for themselves and therefore have more control over their lives.

Students who attend the STP class typically need guidance before they are ready to fully explain their visual preferences. The following class objectives translated into activities that contributed to a self-discovery process which helped the students communicate about their visual needs:

  • Identify parts of the eye, visual impairment, and etiology-specific health concerns
  • Discuss the impact of impairment on visual performance in the classroom and home environments
  • Generate a list of low vision specific tools and strategies that can be used to support visual access to instructional programming

The concept of creating a product was chosen because it is an informal and creative way to express information about the student’s visual impairment and personal preferences. A product can be customised with relevant information for the intended audience: parent/caregiver, teacher, peer, or potential employer. Possible product formats include:

  • Collage or Poster
  • Informative Business Card
  • Brochure
  • Picture Book
  • PowerPoint or Google Slides
  • Song or Poem
  • YouTube Video
  • Documentary (e.g., “A Day in the Life”)

Photo showing a female student standing next to her poster. The poster contains printed text, original art, and images discussing her eye condition

Caption: Cameron proudly shares information about her eye condition using the poster she created as a guide.

When teachers create a product with their student, mastery of technology is not the focus. Teacher support with typing, researching, and using desired programs or applications may be necessary, but students should be responsible for designing and selecting the appropriate information to include in their products. It’s not necessary for the student to commit to a specific product format before the process begins. A product format will emerge as students explore feelings about the constant need for self-advocacy and how they are perceived by others.

The STP class objectives and activities detailed in this article can easily be replicated by itinerant TVIs with a single student over an extended period of time. This allows the TVI and student time to individualize the activities and develop specific skills needed by the student.

Eye Condition

Learning about the eye and their specific eye condition can support students in advocating for visual or access needs. During class, students participated in the following activities to help improve their understanding of how the eye works.

  • Model Eye: Students used common objects to represent each part of the eye and read a script that contained information about the function of each part. A favorite was the use of gelatin to represent the vitreous humor.
  • The Visual System: Using diagrams and a video from the National Eye Institute, students reviewed the name and function of each part of the eye and participated in a discussion on the process of seeing. Students were later tasked with ordering each step in the process.
  • Edible Eyeball: Using the information they had gained throughout the week and some common food items such as twizzlers, campfire marshmallows, and gummy lifesavers, students created an Edible Eyeball model to enjoy for a snack.  

Photo closeup of a hand holding a giant marshmallow with a green gummy lifesaver attached to it.

Caption: Front view of edible eyeball showing a green gummy Life Saver iris attached. 

Photo closeup of a giant marshmallow with a rainbow colored sour belt rectangle and a long braided red licorice stick attached to it.

Caption: Back view of edible eyeball showing a sour belt retina with a licorice optic nerve sticking out. 

Students also had the opportunity to research their visual impairment and ask any specific questions they might have. They often reported that talking about their visual impairment is “annoying,” but in many cases, students lacked the knowledge and language to explain their condition and how it relates to visual functioning in terms that peers and teachers can understand. The information about their eye condition was used as a component of the final product.

Impact of Impairment on Visual Performance

Before a student can create a product that communicates visual needs and preferences, they have to understand the impact of their vision on daily tasks across environments. The following activities were used to clarify the impact of impairment on visual performance and to develop self-determination and problem-solving skills to use when facing challenges in the home, school, or community environment. Activities to support this objective included:

  • Creating a Current Access Book: To begin this activity, students generated a web of visual tasks required in home, school, and community environments. Some examples of visual tasks included reading soap labels in the shower, playing video games, reading the board, completing homework, seeing math, reading websites at school, and identifying plants and animals in nature.

Picture of poster with graphic organizer on the wall. The central topic is “Visual Tasks.” Around the center circle, straight lines  branch out with each task handwritten on a Post-It note.

Caption: Students collaborated to create this Visual Tasks Web

  • After activating prior knowledge of visual tasks, optical devices, and low vision strategies, students were asked to sort some typical tasks, printed on strips of paper, into categories that indicated how they gained access to those tasks. Pages in the Current Access Book were labeled with the headings regular print, large print, optical devices, ask for help, or cannot perform. The students glued the strips onto the page that indicated the access strategy that they used for that task. As the week of instruction continued, students revisited the books and discussed ways to move tasks into different access categories by using a learned strategy.

Picture of a student sitting at a desk with an iPad and school supplies. Her Current Access Book is opened to the “Regular Print” page with tasks such as board games, library books, menus, and diagrams.

Caption: Tylar refers to her Current Access Book and selects relevant information to add to her final product. 

Tools and Strategies

As they move through school, students with low vision may have experimented with an assortment of technology and strategies for access that may or may not work for them. Another objective of this class was to assist them in creating a list of practical low vision specific tools and strategies that can be used to support visual access and to communicate preferences. The following activities center around the topic of tools for access, as well as exploring strategies for improved performance and clarifying their visual needs for others. 

  • Exploring Assistive Technology: Completing an assistive technology (AT) survey is an activity that helps clarify current strategies for access. It helps students consider challenges presented by some tasks and the tools used to navigate them. The Google Forms application was used to create a simple digital survey with questions about how vision affects the student’s access to information at home, in school, and in the community (a copy of this survey is available on the website version of this article). The survey required students to select examples of tasks for which they use AT. In addition, students were given a list of different types of AT they might use and asked to select all that apply. Examples included low tech (e.g., bold-lined paper and flair pens), middle tech (e.g., optical devices, talking or large print calculators, and adapted science equipment), and high tech (e.g., video magnifiers, tablets, smartphones, and screen magnification software).
  • Accessibility and Universal Design: As students seek to educate others about their visual needs, an important concept for them to understand is the role that universal design plays in accessibility. For example, lighting, signage, font, contrast, marked steps, and positioning of furniture and materials are all elements of universal design for students with low vision. An activity was created that included a discussion about design, what it means, and the people it benefits. The class discussed universal design—that is, designing things so that most people can use them, and how someone with a disability accesses or benefits from something that is designed for increased access. 
  • When I Can’t See. . .: This problem-solving activity was designed to help students identify reasons why they hesitate to speak up when they cannot see in class or other locations. The activity was introduced by asking: “Are there times when you are asked to complete an assignment or do something that you can’t see clearly? Can you give me some examples of these things?” Some student examples included:
    • Drawing an object viewed outside the window
    • Reading a story from the board and answering questions within a limited amount of time.
    • Taking a timed test
    • Ordering from a menu in a restaurant
    • Finding friends in the cafeteria or playground
    • Watching an assembly

Once these examples were generated, the students were asked, “Why do you think you are hesitant to say anything about not being able to see clearly or complete the task?” Some reasons reported by students included not wanting the other kids or teachers to think they are stupid, not wanting to be teased, not wanting to get anyone in trouble, and not wanting to make the teachers frustrated by making their jobs harder. After students had the opportunity to feel heard, they began to generate a list of strategies to use to advocate for themselves. A popular solution was a combination of ideas where students would request to meet with the teacher privately and develop a secret signal to use in class to show that he/she needed some additional support. 

 Picture of "When I Can't See" and "What Can I Do?" poster on the wall.

Caption: This When I Can’t See poster demonstrates how students navigated through the problem solving process as it related to visual access. 

  • It Bugs Me: It is not uncommon for a student to feel annoyed by assumptions made about their vision and/or negative attention to the way they complete visual tasks. This empowerment activity was designed to encourage students to share their feelings about frustrating or uncomfortable situations they encounter. To end on a positive note, this activity required them to identify solutions so that, going forward, a student could take control over his/her own feelings and situations at home, school, and in the community. Some examples of situations that bugged students included times when:
    • kids ask lots of questions about their vision and tools
    • kids take/hide their tools without asking
    • kids play “can you see” games with them
    • people accuse them of faking their visual impairment
    • parents won’t let them cross the street or use the stove

Some solutions included talking to trusted adults, talking to the class about your impairment or tools, standing up for yourself, and using “I statements.”

Picture of a poster on the wall displaying comments which students feel are intrusive or rude along with student-generated ideas for possible responses or solutions.

Caption:  It Bugs Me poster with shared ideas for how to handle intrusive comments from others.

  • Life Goals: A nice addition to the student’s product is a bit of information about his/her personal goals. For this reason, a lesson was created to address this topic. During this activity, students discussed their dreams and goals. They wrote down 1-3 personal goals, then discussed how their vision may impact the process of achieving each goal, what steps they need to take first, and who may be able to help them. For example, one student wanted to be a collegiate gymnast, so she included the UCLA logo with her text about how she could achieve this goal. Another student’s goal was to be a performer, so she created and performed a rap as the format for her entire product. These kinds of discussions can lend themselves to future lessons related to the access tools and strategies the student will need to achieve their life goals. 

Each of these activities was designed to contribute to a comprehensive product that the student can use to communicate their challenges and preferences for visual access across environments. This product is designed to grow and change with the student throughout their years in an educational system, and even into a work environment. Before launching their product with others, students should first practice with their TVI and family. The goal is to empower the student in a fun, creative, and individualized way.   


Scott Baltisberger, Education Specialist, VI Outreach Program, TSBVI


Abstract: In this article, Scott Baltisberger offers teachers and parents ideas for alternate routes to take when braille instruction isn’t going well.


Keywords: social-emotional development, braille instruction, behavior, prompting, play, child-guided, self-directed, self-regulation, developmental approach, behavioral support


Some time ago, a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI) shared information about one of her students. This child was eight years old, identified as visually impaired (VI) with no additional handicapping conditions, and enrolled in a general education second grade class. Her early educational experiences had been disrupted but she had made progress in braille and knew all the whole word contractions. In addition, she demonstrated good comprehension and verbal communication skills. Her reading rate was well below average, however, and she did not maintain focus on an assignment unless closely monitored and constantly prompted by an adult. The TVI expressed some confusion as to why this student, who seemed to have all the prerequisite skills, was unable to work at a level commensurate with her peers. The teacher was very concerned with this apparent lack of motivation or interest in learning and felt that this behavior was further distancing the child from both classmates and teachers. The last statement caught my attention. When we spoke, the teacher shared that the student was very immature for her age; she did not independently initiate or maintain age-appropriate interactions with her peers, her topics were generally self-centered and focused on limited topics, and when left to her own choices, she typically played alone and chose activities that were more typical of a much younger child. She also had frequent bouts of disruptive behavior that the teacher characterized as “tantrums”.

I’ve found this profile—that of a student with all the prerequisite skills in braille but whose marked lack of participation and engagement in class has limited his or her progress—to be fairly common. Often, the situation is viewed as a “behavior issue” with the implication that it is the result of certain attitudes and choices on the part of the student. The “behavior issue” is often addressed by setting expectations that grade-level assignments will be completed and by providing rewards and/or consequences for compliance. For the student and for the teacher, the approach is not successful: student behaviors become more pronounced or extreme and there is a corresponding increase in the level of the teacher’s response. All parties continue to escalate and the problem is worsened instead of alleviated.  

In these situations, it may be helpful to view things from a developmental rather than a behavioral standpoint. Using this approach, we consider that there is always a functional aspect to a child’s actions. What the child does or doesn’t do communicates information about their needs, about what they are ready to do and what they are not ready to do. This directs us to provide instruction that targets the child where he or she is developmentally. Targeting skills at higher developmental levels will not be effective because skills develop sequentially. Earlier skills provide the base upon which higher skills are built. Higher skills cannot be built if foundational skills are not in place.

With braille instruction, we typically look at the development of skills and knowledge in the cognitive and physical areas. However, one factor often overlooked is that of the child’s social and emotional development. This goes beyond simply identifying a child as being immature or having behavior issues and looks at actual assessment of the child’s level of social and emotional development. Literacy instruction is organized to accommodate for needs at that level. The types of things in which a student likes to engage independently, without support or prompting, is a good indicator of his or her social and emotional levels. Observe the child during unstructured time and note their behaviors and choices. Notice how the child responds to or initiates social interactions. These can be compared to developmental scales to determine the current level of needs. It also helps to simply provide more of what the child is seeking.

Like other developmental areas, skills in the social and emotional domains occur sequentially, with beginning skills creating a platform from which later, more sophisticated skills grow. If, for some reason, a prerequisite skill is inadequately or incompletely developed, the child will have difficulty acquiring the skills that are appropriate for his or her age. A student may be cognitively and physically capable of engaging in third-grade classroom activities but not be emotionally ready. Third-graders, for example, are expected to engage in topics that are of the teacher’s choosing and to do so for extended periods of time. Students read passages and respond extensively to questions about the content. For a student functioning emotionally as a two-year-old, this would be confusing and exhausting.

In the scenario described at the beginning of this article, we determined that the student’s behaviors were more typical of a two-year old. For a typical two year old, successful activities are child-centered and child-led; they must be of high-interest and self-referential. A two year old is in the sensorimotor and preoperational stages of learning and is typically engaged in self-directed, exploratory activities. A two year old is not yet socially ready to be responsible for his/her own learning. It is critical that the adult spends time in bonding and interaction activities with the child who is at this emotional developmental level in order to develop a trusting relationship and to build basic self-regulation skills. 

Using this developmental approach, the teacher began to spend a great deal of time playing games and engaging in topics of the child’s choosing. Doing this required that the teacher expand her concept of what constitutes “teaching”. While these interactions did not look like typical instruction for a second-grader, they were setting the developmental stage for more age-appropriate learning to occur. Novel activities and topics were offered and the child was allowed to reject them. Braille instruction was slowly brought into the mix by incorporating it into the games and topics the child had self-identified as important. Support was also provided by the school’s “Intensive Behavioral Continuum” classroom, which further focused on the student’s emotional and social needs in a consistent and ongoing manner.

Two comments made by the teacher stood out to me: First, she mentioned that she realized how little she knew about her student before and that she had never really taken time to get to know her as she was, rather than as she wanted her to be. Second, while the amount of braille work the student produced independently was initially quite low, it was actually on par with the output she had previously achieved through prompting and support. In addition, the amount of independent braille production increased substantially over time. The takeaway, for me, was that a more positive relationship between a teacher and student, combined with the student’s experience of interest and success, resulted in higher levels of achievement and readiness for more challenging goals.

One and a half years after beginning to implement this approach, the TVI reported: “She is doing fantastic, and is now reading and writing on grade level, and participating in grade level math lessons! Math calculation is still way below grade level, but she is making progress with the abacus. Resource has been removed from her services. It’s been amazing how her academics have grown since her emotional needs have been addressed. . . . Of course, we do have set-backs. . . but overall she is doing super great.  We can teach her so much now!”

A child sits slumped at a desk with a braille book in front of her. One hand is on the braille and the other hand supports her downturned head. Her eyes are closed and she is frowning. 

Caption: Drawing of a sad braille reader

A child sits upright at a desk with a braille book in front of her.  Both her hands are on the braille book. She is smiling broadly.

Caption: Drawing of a happy braille reader

Kate Hurst, Education Consultant,TSBVI Outreach Programs


Abstract: Kate Hurst explores the difficulties surrounding documenting progress for students whose educational team members use an Active Learning approach, a technique for teaching students who are learning skills within the range of 0-48 months in child development. She explores what documenting progress means according to IDEA, and offers simple solutions for measuring and reporting progress as exhibited by these students.


Keywords: Active Learning, Lilli Nielsen, IDEA, tracking progress, IEP, benchmarks, diagnostic teaching, portfolio, Functional Scheme, assessment, evaluation


Educational teams must document skills in a student’s IEP and may also track skills not specifically noted in a learner’s IEP goals. This may present a challenge when a child has significant and multiple disabilities. If the team is using the Active Learning approach developed by Dr. Lilli Nielsen, tracking progress is sometimes even more challenging, as growth can occur in tiny steps and may take many months to become evident. This is why documentation is so important for these students. They don’t have time to waste on ineffective programming.

IDEA and Documenting Progress

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides clear information about what should be the focus of documenting progress in the IEP for students with disabilities. 

IDEA states that each child’s IEP must contain:

(3) A description of—

(i) How the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals described in paragraph (2) of this section will be measured; and

(ii) When periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, concurrent with the issuance of report cards) will be provided…[§300.320(a)(3)]

This means that specific skills that are included in the IEP must be measured through periodic reports, report cards and review as part of the IEP meeting. This information informs the IEP team about the effectiveness of their instruction.

If no progress is being made, it might be that the skills targeted in the goal are not appropriate for the learner. It might also mean that the instructional strategies that are being used simply aren’t working. It also might indicate regression which could occur as a result of problematic aspects like medical issues or emotional challenges. If the student demonstrates a skill in only one environment or activity and not anywhere else, perhaps the less successful learning environments or activities need to be re-examined.

It is also important to develop goals and benchmarks appropriately for all students. Teams must ensure that these are written clearly so that everyone knows the exact skills on which to focus during instruction. For example, "Joey will use a visually directed reach" references a specific skill that can be demonstrated. A statement such as "Joey will use a Little Room", does not specify a skill that the student can perform.  To ensure that the Little Room is provided as a necessary way to access information for a particular student, include it as part of that student’s Assistive Technology in the Accommodations and Modifications section of the IEP. 

Benchmarks (or objectives) take the larger goal for the school year and break it down into much smaller steps. Children who benefit from Active Learning typically are slow to make progress, and those smaller benchmarks help to chart the important little steps they make. These steps are invaluable in documenting progress. They also serve to help the team evaluate instruction so they don't waste time on activities that are not helping the learner make progress. Diagnostic teaching, which is tied to the monitoring of ongoing progress, allows the team to make adjustments to the program quickly as the need arises. Benchmarks indicate a clear timetable throughout the year for reviewing progress.  

A form is available on the Active Learning Space website that can be used to document progress towards IEP goals and objectives. To view the form and/or download a blank copy go to

Documenting Progress Using the Functional Scheme

The Functional Scheme is a checklist developed by Dr. Lilli Nielsen that helps to determine developmental skill levels across all areas. We recommend that the student's Functional Scheme be updated at least annually. After the initial assessment, the columns for "Learning has begun", "Performed in favorable conditions", and Performs spontaneously" provide important information about a student's progress in attaining skills. The team may want to review the Functional Scheme more frequently, especially if they see new skills emerging or notice regression.  

We also encourage the educational team to work in pairs to score and update the Functional Scheme. The entire team can then review the results and reach agreement on the scores. The parents or primary caregivers are critical to this process. They know the child best and are likely to be the only individuals who are consistently in the learner's life as he or she progresses through school.

To learn more about how the Functional Scheme can be used to track student progress visit Active Learning Space at

Student Portfolios

Another way to document progress is a Student Portfolio. A Student Portfolio contains examples of what the student does.

Examples could include videos of a student in a learning environment, an observation form related to skills demonstrated during observations, artifacts such as art activities, anecdotal information from the members of the student’s team, photographs, and charts documenting the student’s biobehavioral states (alert, sleepy, etc.) throughout the day or medical challenges (seizures, medications) that seem to impact performance. It could also include an ongoing list or pictures of new objects the child interacts with, examples of an increased interest in exploring an environment, or connecting with a peer.

Below are some of the things we suggest including in a student’s portfolio:

  • Active Learning Materials and Activities Planning Sheet (found at
  • Functional Schemesummary page and other assessment summaries (OT, PT, and communication reports, Functional Vision Evaluation, Learning Media Assessment, eye doctor's report, audiological report, etc.)
  • Video clip examples of the student in each learning environment (be sure to include short clips showing changes throughout the school year and throughout his or her educational career)
  • Photos that show the student participating in activities; include examples of skills, important people in the individual's life, and other information that will provide insight about the learner
  • Information about how the student communicates including the forms (speech, gestures, behavioral state changes, object cues), topics (people, places, actions, emotions), and functions (requesting, rejecting, commenting, questioning, expressing emotions, greetings) of the communications
  • Important medical information (what people who don't know the child need to know such as how to respond to a seizure, signs of problems with a shunt, list of medications and possible side-effects to watch for)
  • Copy of IEP goals/benchmarks and progress reports 

Tools like LiveBinders, Google Drive or Dropbox can be used to upload items for sharing with the entire team. Be sure to check features to protect student confidentiality before using online resources.   

Parents, caregivers, and staff may want to compile a sample of photos, videos, and observation forms into a Powerpoint presentation to share with a new educational team entering the student’s life. These are also great for service providers outside the educational system (babysitters, respite providers, home nurses, etc.) to help them understand the student better.


Children who are involved in Active Learning may take a long time to show big changes, but little changes are worth celebrating. Documenting progress is an important part of any instructional program. 

To learn more about documenting progress for students using an Active Learning approach, please visit the Active Learning Space website at

A young girl sits in front of a yellow peg board that is attached to a wall.  A number of objects are attached to the peg board with elastic.  She is shaking an upside-down aluminum coke bottle and smiling broadly.

Caption: A student uses a “Position Board” to explore the qualities of objects.

Angela Anker, mother of a 6-year-old boy who has Usher Syndrome


Abstract: The author describes her experience at the 2019 Usher Syndrome Coalition USH Connections Conference held in Philadelphia this past July. This conference provides an opportunity for those impacted by Usher Syndrome to learn about the latest developing treatments from leading USH researchers while connecting with hundreds of impacted individuals, their families, and professionals serving the DeafBlind community. There were over 300 attendees.


Keywords: Usher Syndrome, community, knowledge, conference, DeafBlind, family


This past July, we attended our first Usher Syndrome Coalition USH Connections Conference. As first-time parent attendees of this conference, my son's dad and I, like others, came for answers. We were relatively new to our son’s diagnosis and hoped we would make some new connections and gain knowledge about Usher Syndrome. We had no idea what to expect.


When we first got our son Michael’s diagnosis of hearing loss, we wasted no time learning as much as possible so we could make educated decisions for our baby boy. We worked our tails off advocating for his needs and ultimately found a new normal. It wasn’t until four years later, when we got pregnant with his little brother Austin, that we decided to go ahead and run the newest set of genetic tests for hearing loss. Our older son, Michael, in additional to deafness, had always had a more challenging vestibular system than most deaf kids but we never considered another condition. The genetic testing came back, and Michael was diagnosed with Usher syndrome type 1C, which we discovered was causing his balance issues. When we learned of his Usher diagnosis, we sat on this information for a while. It was like understanding a foreign language filled with undesirable outcomes. This became an emotional secret we shared with no one because, let’s face it, you can’t fully understand the idea of the unknown. We grieved separately and silently. We kept thinking, “What now . . . .” 


Ultimately, the idea of “no known cure” sank in. I would stay up late researching and networking on Facebook and online. When I learned about the conference, I knew we had to go.


A mother and father sit on a stone bench with their two young sons between them. The bench is in front of bushes blooming with red flowers.

Caption: The Anker Family


We attended the USH Connections Conference knowing we had to bring home strength for our family. We found that and more. It was exactly what we needed. As a result of the conference, we were able to really accept a fulfilling future for our boy. Meeting people and feeling a part of a larger community made this process less scary for us, similar to how we found a “new normal” after the hearing loss diagnosis. It’s one thing to research and network online, reading about the science and the hope, but meeting people in person, hearing face-to-face how parents ahead of us in this journey have dealt with things, was priceless. It was calming, inviting, and so informative.


Our big takeaway from the conference was, “Talk about it (Usher Syndrome) a little, a lot”. We don’t know if we’ll be able to attend the conference in Austin next year, but we hope to. If you haven’t attended before and have the opportunity, I highly recommend it. Hopefully, like us, you’ll leave with more connections, information, and hope. Michael has blazed his path through deafness and I know with the right support team, he can be ready for what comes his way. It is still scary, but now we know that we are not in this alone.