The Unique Educational and Services Needs of Children With Deaf-Blindness.


This document was developed in November 1993 by parents, educators, and human service representatives at a meeting in Lubbock, Texas on the use of Interveners for students with deaf-blindness sponsored by the Texas Deaf-Blind Project. The final revision was completed 12/94.

Individuals with deaf-blindness have unique life-long support needs that must be addressed in order for them to function in a world driven by sight and sound. Consistent with this, they have unique needs within the educational system. The information which follows outlines some of these needs and discusses existing services in Texas which impact quality education for students with deaf-blindness.

There are 532 school-age children widely distributed across the 1100 school districts in the state of Texas who meet the federal criteria for deaf-blindness. Because deaf-blindness is a low inci-dence disability, these students are generally unique among the population of students with developmental disabilities in a given geographical area. Most districts understandably build programs and hire staff to target the majority of children with disabilities in their particular area.

From the beginning, the school system often finds its resources in deaf-blindness to be inadequate. Assessing the skills of these children can be difficult since assessment instruments are generally not normed for this population. It is often impossible to adapt these materials to test children with deaf-blindness without negating the test's validity.

Another problem in assessing skills and providing instruction to children with deaf-blindness is the difficulty in engaging them and drawing them outside of themselves. The need to feel safe in a world that alternately "comes at you" or "disappears in thin air" often sends these children inside themselves. They may be unresponsive during testing unless they are working with someone with whom they have bonded.

Instruction for students with the single disability of visual impairments relies heavily on information received through auditory and tactile channels. For example, a child with visual impairments learns to associate a sound with the blurry, red, rectangle across the room to determine if it is a radio or the telephone. However, the child who also has a hearing loss can not use this technique to compensate for his vision problems. For this reason he has a greatly reduced ability to identify things or even be aware of things that are beyond arm's reach.

In contrast, instruction for a child with only a hearing impairment relies heavily on the use of his vision to compensate for his hearing deficit. Language development and instruction for hearing impaired students can include sign language, fingerspelling, speechreading, and/or spoken language. Most of this instruction is dependent on the child's ability to clearly see the hands that sign and the face that speaks. Even a child with mild visual impairments faces great difficulty in mastering and utilizing these skills.

The ability to orient and travel independently is deeply affected by deaf-blindness. For example, a student with the single disability of a vision impairment is trained to use his hearing to determine where he is or what area he is approaching (orienting). This technique may not necessarily be safe or effective if a child has even a mild hearing loss. Alternate ways must be developed to teach the child to use other environmental cues.

Without the enticement of sights and sounds, the child with deaf-blindness may also be less likely to explore and interact with the world around him. This has great impact on cognitive and social development as well as language development.

Generally children with deaf-blindness use a variety of adaptive assistive devices. Knowing how to use this equipment and how to keep it in working order is no small accomplishment. For example, a child may have both a personal hearing aid and an FM auditory trainer, glasses, a monocular, and a cane. They may need to use a vibrating alarm to wake up in the morning. They may rely on a communication book for much of their communication. The child and all of the people working with him have to be trained to use all these devices.

Throughout these children's lives, their eyes and ears either distort or altogether omit incoming information. They only experience fragments of any experience. Children with deaf-blindness have difficulty learning through observation or independent exploration. As a result, the child with deaf-blindness has an experiential and conceptual base that differs significantly from children with any other disability(ies). They must be given the opportunity to recoup information which has been consistently denied to them by their sensory losses. They will require additional time with carefully engineered "hands on" activities to access information that other children pick up incidentally.

Communication is one of the main areas which is critically affected by deaf-blindness and is usually the highest priority in their educational programming. These children's communication systems typically contain a variety of forms which can include signals, tactile sign language, object symbols, tactile symbol systems, Braille, as well as a variety of other options. Each child's system must be individually designed for him and used with a high degree of consistency across the day. Developing a communication system for these students frequently requires technical assistance for the staff since few have had preservice training regarding this population.

The constant stress and frustration these children experience often results in behavior that is either withdrawn and passive or volatile and aggressive. To address the underlying cause of these behaviors, one must have an understanding of the ongoing effects of sensory deprivation and an ability to modify the child's instruction to offset these effects.

Many children with deaf-blindness suffer additional disabilities. This further complicates the situation. Many of these children dislike being touched. They may have disrupted sleeping patterns, poor overall health, and /or feeding difficulties. They may have ongoing medical problems that escalate the degree of vision or hearing loss.

Children with deaf-blindness learn best when information is presented in a consistent and repetitive fashion. This places some additional burdens on the staff working with the child. Staff must work closely together to provide consistency and to coordinate support imperative in educating a child with deaf-blindness. Planning time as a group is critical. Additionally, information and input from the family is vital to a well coordinated program.

The staff who typically would serve a child with deaf-blindness include: teacher of the visually impaired, teacher of the hearing impaired, orientation and mobility instructor, general classroom teacher (regular education and special education) and instructional aide, behavior specialist, diagnostician, and often occupational and physical therapists as well as other related service staff such as a speech/ language therapist and audiologist. Often finding adequate time for the staff and the family to meet together, share information, and plan is quite difficult. This frequently results in communication breakdowns, not only between staff and family, but also between the various staff members. To further complicate a difficult situation, each year new staff may become involved with the child.

Educational staff seldom have specific training in the area of deaf-blindness. It is also rare to have a teacher certified or explicitly trained in the area of deaf-blindness within a local school district. There are currently no specialists in deaf-blindness at any of the twenty Education Service Centers. There is only one university program in Texas which is providing specific training in the area of deaf-blindness, producing approximately 4-6 graduates each year. There is no recognized certification or endorsement through Texas Education Agency in the area of deaf-blindness. Furthermore, there are few jobs being created specifically in the area of deaf-blindness. Consequently, the state's ability to utilize these graduates as well as recruit individuals trained in deaf-blindness from other states is greatly reduced.

Often districts can not meet the unique learning needs of a child with deaf-blindness without inservice training to make appropriate program modification. In order to design and provide the necessary modifications and supports, most school districts look to outside consultants on deaf-blindness to provide training to their staff through an inservice model. Some districts may contract with private consultants. However, most districts obtain support through Deaf-Blind Outreach from Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. These consultants work as part of a technical assistance program funded by a Federal IDEA 307.11 grant on deaf-blindness.

Although children with deaf-blindness present unique challenges to those who are charged with providing them appropriate education, it is important to state that these children CAN LEARN. If these children and the educators working with them are given the proper supports, they can make terrific strides. It is important as Congress moves towards the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that these children with unique educational needs are not deprived of the funds which support their inclusion in the classroom and in the community.

This document is from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

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