The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf
Promoting Excellence in Deaf Education

Count me in....

This article is credited to Patricia Gibbons (Advisory teacher for Deafblind/MSI children, Inclusion Service for VI, Manchester) - supported by Kerry Taylor, Lynn Garritty, Sue Meredith and the staff and children of Broad Oak School.

Samir is nine and deafblind. He has a growth disorder which has affected his hand-use which is very poor because the cartilage is too soft. He has had long-term eating and toileting problems, which are psychological, but made worse by a severe tummy bug, coupled with the psychological impact of totally losing his vision at the age of four.

Samir started his school life at three in a school for visually impaired children but, when it was closed, he was transferred to his neighbourhood school at his mum's request. We didn't have to sell this to the school staff. They all knew the family and the teachers were open-minded (if extremely nervous).

We provided deafblind awareness training and, probably more important, reassurance that we would be there to support and also plan and work together. We organised training for the children, with activities to show them some of the ways that Samir needs to learn, for instance trying to find a way round the Brailler, buttering bread with a blindfold on, and explaining what the radio system will do for him.

We were lucky to have a work room especially for Samir, which provides a quiet place for listening and concentration, his tactile materials can be kept accessible. He works with his Brailler and speech output computer there without disturbing a whole class.

Support Issues This is not a cheap option. We have funding for full time Intervenor support (provided by two people job-sharing), seconded to the school from the Service, and the school has additional funding for lunch time support. A teacher of VI visits three half days a week (one of which is devoted to planning) and as the Advisory Teacher of Deafblind I have oversight of planning and assessment of progress, and also contribute support, mentoring and advice.

The Intervenors are specially trained and have experience working with a range of deafblind and MSI children. Their competence and talents are vital in building the partnership. By the end of the first term this partnership was working well, and the teachers were becoming confident to judge for themselves when Samir could work on their tasks in class and when he needed to work individually.

The Peer Group Samir is placed with his own age group in line with the headteacher's policy, even though there are some difficulties in curriculum terms. Every other child in mainstream is grouped in year bands, and the topics covered in any one year are prescribed by the national curriculum. If Samir is kept with younger children he would be likely to experience far too much sameness - there are only so many times that you can work on mini-beasts. He may become complacent in the environment but lose his peer group yearly as they move on.

We believe that Samir's social and emotional needs will be best met with children of his own age. These children are role models, can communicate with him, will move through the years together with him to cement his relationships. The curriculum would have to be significantly adapted whatever year group he is in, so we may as well adapt what his age group are doing.

What do we want from Samir's inclusion Social inclusion is a primary need for any deafblind child and one of the most difficult things to achieve. We want Samir to be welcomed, supported and befriended, for the children and adults to understand his needs, and to have empathy for him. We want the children to understand how to communicate and play with him and to help show him the boundaries to social interaction. We want him to be part of the community.

The headteacher actively promoted the involvement of other children in supporting Samir, explaining to parents the value to the whole school. Frequently another child, or group, will work alongside Samir, either with the specific aim of supporting him, or because they are involved together in a curriculum activity relevant to the whole class. Several children know how to guide Samir (though never unsupervised). There is always a buddy to partner him as he moves round the school or in the playground.

The curriculum as inspiration We want Samir to be part of the classroom activities and to access as much of the mainstream curriculum as he can but also to receive a curriculum designed to teach compensatory and alternative strategies for learning. His curriculum encompasses developing his language and communicative ability. He has to learn how to think, organise his thinking and remember, how to ask questions, to explain, describe, retell events, understand what other people mean by their words or actions, all without vision to contextualise the conversation, to support his memory, enable lip-reading or recognise objects and watch demonstrations.

We want to see him developing mobility and life skills, including eating properly, to enable him to have a degree of autonomy in manipulating and interacting with his environment. We need to help him develop tactual and manipulative skills to use as compensatory learning strategies because of his blindness. These abilities are normally taken for granted before mainstream children even reach school age.

The class teacher provides an overview of the term's topics, and from this we concentrate on aspects that we can interpret in practical, experiential activities, addressing his specific learning needs, and allowing for repetition that is critical to consolidating his learning.

Much of last year's work was plant science, which lends itself to an experiential approach: in the absence of vision the development of language is totally dependent on being able to touch and live the processes to which the language refers. Samir sowed seeds, dug, watered, shopped at the garden centre, visited the horticultural centre. He made tactile books and his language work has included recounting events, developing vocabulary, naming plant parts, describing textures and processes, as well as learning to spell using the keyboard and speech processor.

planting strawberries

For several of the sessions we included other classmates. They grew strawberries, and the added bonus was that Samir ate one, mashed on toast! He especially loved digging with the big garden fork and trying to deal with turning off the garden tap is an excellent hand skills task.

Most of the maths, ICT and Braille work is supervised by the teacher of VI. If possible they work on the same aspect of maths as the class, but mainly working with 3D materials and at Samir's own level. Other aspects of the class curriculum are approached by choosing relevant stories and participating in class visits.

Reporting progress Assessment has to be ipsative: in many areas of learning, deafblindness derails standard lines of progress, and there are different peaks and troughs of development. By identifying clearly what we are trying to teach and monitoring at intervals we can identify what Samir is learning. We can monitor progress in any area of learning by using available assessment tools (locally devised or nationally published ones) as prompts to our thinking. Since nothing is devised and standardised for deafblindness, assessment processes must be descriptive and as unique as the deafblind child. They also have to include an assessment of our own practice - if he has not learned, it could be that we need to rethink how we tried to teach.

And is he learning? Emphatically yes. He is acquiring spoken language slowly but surely, is developing numeracy skills, is learning to eat properly, can use his cane and he has performed in the school play. The most positive and exciting thing to see is the extent to which he is now fully embedded in his local community, always with a friend to walk to school, conversing with the window-cleaner, or telling his mum what he did at school.

Expensive it may be, but it's brilliant!

BATOD Magazine January 2006