LAWRENCE — An innovative project developed at the University of Kansas to help children who are both deaf and blind has proven so effective it has received a national grant to ensure it continues and to document exactly why it works so well.
The Kansas Deaf-Blind Project recently received notification that it has received a Steppingstones New Technology Grant to continue and enhance its Distance Mentorship Project. The project has provided video cameras and technical assistance to school teams that work with learners with deaf-blindness in Kansas. The teams can then create videos and websites for the students, and communicate virtually with counselors, therapists, special educators and others trained in low-incidence disabilities. Together they set goals, discuss strategy and work to provide a quality education for the students.
Jean Ann Summers, research professor at KU’s Schiefelbusch Life Span Institute and Beach Center on Disability and director of the Kansas Deaf-Blind Project, is principal investigator of the project, along with Jay Buzhardt of the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in Kansas City, Kan. The distance mentorship efforts are designed to help both children and their families.
“The families, as a result of their child’s disability, are often very stressed,” Summers said. “And since it’s a relatively low-incidence disability, families often feel quite isolated.”
Many school districts can go years without one of its children being identified as having deaf-blindness. There are currently 140 students with deaf-blindness in Kansas.
Megan Cote, coordinator of the Kansas Deaf-Blind Project project, visits schools throughout the state to work with learners with deaf-blindness. Together with Robert Taylor and Dr. Anne Nielsen of the Kansas State School for the Blind, as well as Jon Harding from the National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness, the team has developed the initial blueprint to provide Distance Mentorship. The Steppingstones grant will help the team refine its work and establish guidelines for learner outcomes. The results will eventually be shared with other states to help them establish similar distance mentorship programs. Deaf-blind projects are federally supervised and are in place in all 50 states.
The Kansas program helps identify learners with deaf-blindness throughout the state and provides training, technical assistance and support to both educators and families of individuals with the disability. Deaf-blind does not mean the individuals are both completely blind and deaf. Most have some usable hearing and vision. Nearly 80 percent who qualify for the Kansas deaf-blind registry also have other disabilities, such as cognitive, motor and health, Summers said.
In the past, teams of therapists, researchers, counselors and others would get together and make semi-regular meetings with educators and families. Distance and constraints of the professionals’ schedules made such meetings difficult.
“You can’t really do that well, even if you had an endless amount of money, an endless amount of travel time and so on,” Summers said.
The distance mentorship project allows the team to view videos of the student before meeting with him or her, the family and educational team. That head start is valuable in providing her knowledge they can bring to the first meeting and help tailor an educational plan. Many times, families and educators identify the learner’s communication needs as the most significant issue. Project staff can recommend communication tips to help all parties.
“So often the child is acting out because his communication attempts are misunderstood,” Summers said.
As the Steppingstones program, beginning its first year, develops and is documented, Summers says she believes it can be adapted to benefit students with many other disabilities. The Kansas Deaf-Blind Project also works with individuals as they finish school to develop customized employment plans and achieve independent lives as adults.
“It’s a real eye opener for a lot of people, because they might not think beyond a sheltered workshop,” Summers said of employment for adults with deaf-blindness. “We’ve had some real success stories. Our whole goal is getting students out there in the communities.”
For more on the Kansas Deaf-Blind Project, visit www.kansasdeafblind.ku.edu.