Future Reflections         Fall 2009

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by Denise M. Robinson, Ph.D., TVI

Denise Robinson signs into a student's right hand. With his left hand the student reads from a Braille display.From the Editor: Dr. Denise Robinson is a noted educator of blind children. The programs she has created in the state of Washington help blind students become fully integrated into the school environment. In this article Dr. Robinson explains how her educational philosophy can be applied to the teaching of deaf-blind children.

Albert Einstein once remarked, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." It is daunting to think about the unique challenges posed by the dual disabilities of deafness and blindness. Yet, with the power of imagination, we can design programs that enable deaf-blind children to join their hearing and sighted peers at home and at school.

The rubella epidemic of 1964-65 sent a wave of deaf-blind children into the education system and brought deaf-blindness to the attention of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Today deaf-blindness is one of the few disabilities with a category all its own under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA recognizes that deaf-blind students need to master a variety of skills in order to gain an education. Once the student has these skills at his disposal, the possibilities are endless.

In my school districts I have identified and evaluated a number of deaf-blind students. I discovered that most of them exclusively used American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. Their only contacts among their peers were fellow signers. I wanted to widen their options so they could communicate with anyone they chose. In my work with these children I incorporate the teaching of new skills that ultimately allow them to communicate with signers and non-signers alike.

The program I am in the process of establishing gives the students an assortment of communication tools. These tools include ASL, English, Braille, touch typing, tactile sign, and computer technology. I want teachers to learn to use software designed for speech recognition. With this software the teacher's spoken words appear on a laptop at the student's desk so that he does not need a signer.

If the deaf-blind child has enough vision to use ASL, it may be his first language. He should also start to learn tactile sign, which will become very important if vision loss is progressive. At the same time he needs to learn English, to understand how it relates to and differs from visual and tactile sign languages. To be fully integrated into our English-speaking society, deaf-blind people must be able to use English as well as ASL.

The emotional and psychological aspects of learning different modes of communication are as important as academic training. The deaf-blind child should come to view difference as a source of strength rather than a cause for despair. I have observed that children are more resistant to learning "different" modes of communication the later such methods are introduced. If the parents and teachers insist that the child should depend solely upon print and visual signing through the first years of school, the child may fight against learning Braille and tactile sign later on. The resistance is stronger the later nonvisual instruction begins.

Like children with any other form of exceptionality, deaf-blind children make the most rapid and consistent gains when they receive early intervention. The birth-to-three program provides the child and the whole family with essential communication tools. It is crucial for siblings and parents to learn ASL and/or tactile sign so that everyone can communicate with the deaf-blind child. The earlier the intervention begins, the sooner the child can learn more sophisticated communication systems. During this phase he can be introduced to a computer that has talking software and a Braille display. Thus equipped, the computer is an invaluable tool for teaching the child English.

Ideally, instruction in ASL, tactile sign, and cane travel are well underway by the time the child turns three. He should also be receiving pre-print, pre-Braille, and pre-technology training. At this age teaching needs to occur through real-life experiences, just as it does for children with sight and hearing. For example, the teacher hands the child an object such as a cup of juice. The child drinks the juice. The teacher signs a sentence, "You drink juice." Then the teacher presents the same sentence in tactile sign. Finally the child types the words on the computer in written English and touches the words on the Braille display. He also begins to learn the commands for the talking software that eventually can become his voice. At first, all this instruction is a constant spoon-feeding of information, but the child soon begins to understand what the instructor is teaching him. By age five a deaf-blind child with this training will have the same English-language skills as his sighted and hearing classmates; he will use Braille, typing, and speech output software to communicate. He will attend intensive deaf-education classes and will be integrated into regular classes with the assistance of an ASL or tactile sign interpreter.

In order for the deaf-blind child to succeed at school, it is vital for the teacher to learn the use of speech access software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or Speech in Microsoft Word. When the teacher can communicate with the child directly, the interpreter eventually can leave the classroom. The child is learning on his own along with the rest of the students. On the desk in front of him the student has a computer with a Braille display and talking software. The teacher wears a microphone. As the teacher speaks, her words appear on the monitor in front of the student and on the Braille display. If the student has a question he can raise his hand, type his question on the computer, and have the talking software speak his words. The teacher answers the question by speaking into the microphone, which sends her words to the computer. The student reads the teacher's comments on the Braille display, and the lesson goes on. This system has worked well in my own teaching of deaf-blind students. I am working on a plan to incorporate this method with other teachers in their classrooms.

To handle classwork the student reads information in Braille. If he has some sight he uses enlarged print to see pictures or graphs. He types his work on the computer and emails it to the teacher. The teacher uses email to send her response back to the student. The student is completely independent, with no adult stationed by his side to help him.

Once the deaf-blind child has good touch-typing skills an additional keyboard can be hooked to his computer. In this way two people can talk back and forth. Anyone can come up and talk to the student by typing a message, and the student can type his reply. The keyboard makes it possible for the deaf-blind student to interact easily with his classmates.

This ease of communication is founded upon the student's knowledge of English. If the deaf-blind child knows only ASL or tactile sign, communication with non-signers is very difficult. Speech software has little value, and the child must depend on an interpreter. To communicate with non-signers he has to have an interpreter with him wherever he goes. By learning English and using a computer, the child can talk with any English speaker. Eventually, students can use even more sophisticated equipment, such as the deaf-blind communicator put out by Humanware.

By learning all the communication tools--ASL, tactile sign, English, Braille, touch typing, and technology-- the deaf-blind student can enter the world of learning. If every teacher learns to use speech software, the student can fully be a part of the school community. To have teachers and others embrace such learning possibilities calls for a great deal of thought transformation. Too often people are content with "just enough" and are unwilling to reach for the best. A far higher standard can be achieved if we stretch our imaginations.

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