Communication is Connection

Authors: Kaycee Bennett, DeafBlind Education Specialist, TSBVI Outreach Programs

Keywords: Sense Scotland, DeafBlind, co-created language, quality of life activities, Pleasure-Purpose Principle

Abstract: This article provides an overview of the 2019 Advanced Practitioner in DeafBlindness Series with Dr. Paul Hart, from Sense Scotland.

Communication is Connection: A Week With Dr. Paul Hart

Dr. Paul Hart, Head of Research and Practice at Sense Scotland, spent a week with the DeafBlind Outreach Team of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in November 2019 as part of the Advanced Practitioner in DeafBlindness Series that is hosted semi-annually to annually by TSBVI’s Deafblind Outreach team. This series is dedicated to bringing training to practitioners already serving students who are Deafblind across the state of Texas. Team members kept him very busy, and he shared a great deal of knowledge with us over the course of the week. Below is an overview of the week along with some of my main take-aways.

On Monday, we interviewed Dr. Hart and were given the opportunity to ask questions. Within this interview, we asked Dr. Hart, “How do we know if people who are DeafBlind are commenting or requesting when they just use one word or sign?” His response was simple, but it completely changed my thinking. He credited Gunnar Vege of Sense Norway and replied that “we should always prioritize declarative language.” This means that we should assume that the person who is DeafBlind is commenting and just wants to talk about the word they say or sign, not that they are asking for it. If they are really requesting something, they will eventually make that known in some other way. He  explained that by assuming that they want to talk about a word, we can expand their use of vocabulary and communication far beyond just requesting wants and needs. By doing this, we can help them share their emotions and experiences, gather more information about a topic of interest, and reminisce.

Dr. Hart also discussed the difference between the concepts of “important to,” and “important for.” “Important to” refers to the activities, items, people, etc. that an individual loves, enjoys, and that makes them happy. “Important for” refers to the items or activities that are important in order for the person to be safe and healthy. Dr. Hart talked about the need for a balance of items and activities that are both important to and important for the student within the IEP, and also within the planning of their day.

On Tuesday, Dr. Hart led a discussion with the Teacher for Students who are DeafBlind Pilot groups. Within this discussion, he emphasized that if we see students as lesser than equal communication partners, they will never become equal communication partners. We have to be equal communication partners, in the mode of our students, for them to continue to develop important communication skills and a natural language. We have to allow the students to teach the teachers. The students are the experts on living in a tactile world and using tactile communication. We, as educators, have to be good observers and let ourselves learn from our students. Through thoughtful observation and interaction, co-created language can occur. Another point that Dr. Hart emphasized was that anything that our students are doing can become meaningful when we join them. We just have to set aside our agendas and plans and allow ourselves to truly engage with our students.

On Wednesday, Dr. Hart presented to a large group of 83 people. He covered many topics surrounding the ideas of happiness and a high quality of life. He discussed Paul Dolan’s Pleasure-Purpose Principle. This is the idea that people’s happiness is directly related to things they find enjoyable and that provide them with a sense of self-worth. I felt that this directly relates to what we, in DeafBlind Outreach, refer to as meaningful and functional activities. Both of these ideas lead to questions such as: Will this activity give the student pleasure? Will this activity have meaning to the student’s life? Does this activity have purpose for this student? These are questions we should be considering as we plan activities, goals, and lessons. Dr. Hart also reminded us that communication is connection, and no matter the disability, our job is to make connections.

On Thursday morning, Dr. Hart visited two classrooms on campus at TSBVI. He observed and interacted with students while staff from the DeafBlind Outreach team took videos. In the afternoon, the teams came together and analyzed video clips of two students. The teachers led the analysis and Dr. Hart facilitated a great discussion about the communication and interactions of the students.

Julie Lemman was one of the teachers that participated in this day’s events. The following are some of her thoughts on the experience:

“I truly enjoyed the opportunity to get to meet with Paul and dive a little deeper into a few of the interactions we share with my student in the classroom. I often feel as though we do not always give ourselves the time, as teachers, to pause and reflect on our interactions and shared experiences with our students. The conversations with Paul were empowering as it reinforced many of the wonderful interactions we are already having. The time spent with my student’s team observing his communication and interest in connecting with his communication partners was time well spent. We just met yesterday and established a plan to be even better communication partners with my student. We are planning to take a moment during transitions to have a three-way conversation with him in which we share some information related to an experience we just had. We hope this will give him access to how some information is shared across his team, as well as giving him the opportunity to share some of his topics/experiences with staff members who might not know what he was doing earlier in the day. I’ve gained new insight into how I can be a better communication partner for him, as well as talking to other members of his team about how we can include him in those important conversations about what he enjoys and his novel experiences. We hope these moments and conversations will support him in continuing to expand his language, as well as empowering him to connect and communicate with his world.”

Sarah Steele was the other teacher involved in Thursday’s events. This was what she had to share about her experience participating with Dr. Hart:

“I appreciate the opportunity to focus on and study my interactions with my student. Being in this field for the time that I have been so far, I have genuinely recognized how impressionable it can be to see yourself interacting with someone who you care so much about in terms of what impact you have on her or his comfort and access to the vast amount of details possible in any shared moment. It involves so many thoughts and perspectives of both the teacher and the student. Introducing my student to Paul Hart and painting his nails bright red with her was a moment I will always celebrate because of the social barriers we sort of got to cross; I think that is something that is so important to recognize as we breakdown and scaffold where our social habits come from as a culture.

Only then, decide as teachers, in the moment, which interactions are really within the right of our students to experience, as equal members of our culture. We should not disregard the wonder and opportunity for them to have experiences and to connect with others. Finding a healthy balance and considering everyone’s perspective to facilitate connection is one of the most wonderful qualities of being a teacher. That, and unraveling everything you’ve learned to back up and analyze how you learned it—and in what ways those lessons are important to your students based on their life’s experiences. Understanding that I don’t fully understand my student’s perspectives on many things, but that I can respect and never stop learning how to embrace the wonder alongside her in a way that is meaningful and secure to her, is a great reflection I take from our experiences with Paul Hart.”

Friday morning we had community members representing groups that plan activities for individuals who are DeafBlind in Texas come together and discuss those activities with Dr. Hart. He shared  some of the activities that Sense Scotland organizes including those involving the arts, music, and the outdoors. DeafBlind Camp of Texas, TouchBase, DeafBlind Service Center of Austin and others shared information about the activities they have planned including ziplining, sailing, visual arts, theatre, and more. We had a great discussion and exchange of ideas surrounding activity planning and concept development outside of the classroom. Later that afternoon, the DeafBlind Outreach team was able to spend a few hours visiting with Dr. Hart and debriefing about the week. We asked and answered each other’s many questions, and talked about ways to stay connected in the future.

I have attended two of the previous Advanced Practitioner workshops, but this was my first time to be part of the whole week as a new member of the DeafBlind Outreach team. There were many discussions and quotes shared that prompted a deep reflection of my practice. I am forever grateful for the time Dr. Hart spent with our team.

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