Working to improve education for students with disabilities is important to me. My knowledge of special education has expanded through this summer’s internship with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. A good quality education propels children towards productive adult lives. Throughout my educational journey, from elementary school in Oakland, California to law school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, supportive teachers and staff members ensured that my disability did not obstruct my education. A good quality education will manifest in various forms based on the strengths and limits of the individual student.
I identify as deafblind. Deafblindness encompasses a wide range of vision and hearing loss. Regardless of the level of deafness or the level of blindness, an individual that encounters dual sensory loss experiences a disability distinct from all the others. Teachers of deafblind students may turn to specialized training, state deafblind projects, and their own creativity to meet the needs of individual students. My involvement with DeafBlind Young Adults in Action, through the Helen Keller National Center, introduced me to the diversity within the deafblind community. Some of the deafblind participants communicated through tactile sign language, some used close-up visual signing, and others communicated by voice. When we met with Members of Congress to advocate on behalf of the deafblind community, we quickly learned to work with each otherâ€™s different communication styles. Those who were hard-of-hearing and blind felt confused by the occasional silence in the room-was someone signing or was everyone just quiet? I asked my interpreter to tell me, “Sarah is signing, voice interpretation will resume shortly,” or sometimes, “awkward silence.” Alerting me to a moment of awkwar silence allowed me to jump in and lead the discussion. The other partiicpants also found it helpful when interpreters described a silence. Among the deafblind participants, our shared experience of dual sensory loss allowed us to share our strategies and resources. The label deafblindness allows one to tap into a large resource of information and support networks. Information resources make a world of difference for deafblind students because deafblindness is a low incidence disability. Many deafblind students lack deafblind mentors because their communities don’t have other deafblind individuals. To this end, school districts must reach out to state deafblind projects to ensure that deafblind children have access to a good quality education. Maurice Belote from California Deafblind Services communicated with teachers at my elementary school to provide guidance in the education of a deafblind student.
When I started the first grade, I held an advantage that many deafblind students lacked. I entered a school district that already contained the resources to provide deafblind students with a free and appropriate public education. The Oakland Public School District employed deaf education specialists, teachers for the visually impaired, orientation and mobility instructors, braille specialists, and sign language interpreters. The District had also gained experience from the deafblind students that came before me. When my parents enrolled me in the school, the District shouldered the responsibilities of determining what accommodations I would need. At another less prepared school, I probably would not have received full access to an education.
My parents did not have any special knowledge of deafblindness other than personal experiences. They wanted me to succeed, they knew I would succeed, but the big question was: how? How does a blind child learn math? How should braille be taught? Fortunately for us, Glenview Elementary understood that it was the school’s responsibility to employ teachers who held the answers to my parents’ questions. When all the accommodations for a deafblind student are in place, the student has the luxury of just being a student.
Fundamental to a good quality education are dedicated teachers who create learning environments that fit the strengths and limits of an individual student. Although I had enough vision to read print with a magnifying machine, the teachers at my elementary school decided to teach me braille. Only about ten percent of blind students read braille because the benefits of braille are often overlooked. Due to the training my teachers received, they knew that braille would be the most effective reading method. For one hour each day, I left my mainstream classes to play a game of guess the dots. The dot game gradually got more challenging, and when I finally developed a love for reading braille, I had a wonderful supply of Nancy Drew mystery books. Not until my teenage years did I become aware of the stigma attached to braille, and I’m grateful to have had excellently trained teachers to teach me to love braille.
The support teachers provided extended well beyond the classroom. Given that many community members doubt the abilities of children with disabilities, the power of special education teachers to remove these barriers is invaluable. I remember my father wanted me to take piano or dance lessons, but he was worried that the average piano instructor wouldn’t know how to work with a child with a disability. When my father shared his concerns with Ms. Fran Deble, she recommended a dance studio and went out of her way to talk with the dance instructor about making sure I could fully participate. I loved the class, and my dancing has taken me to the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team.
Since the special education teachers exposed us to so many alternative techniques, we developed a strong sense that an alternative technique can be developed for every goal. These teachers never gave me a second to wonder: Can a deafblind person ski? How do you cook if you can’t see? They provided the answers to these small matters before I even thought to ask. So by the time I was ready to ask such questions, the only questions left were the big ones. Like, can a deafblind person get into Harvard Law School?
One of the best lessons I received from a special education teacher involved learning to take responsibility for my own education-a lesson that helped prepare me for college. There was a time during middle school when I would wonder, “Isn’t it strange that Mr. Smith didn’t assign homework, again?” The free time was nice, so I didn’t complain. Then one day Ms. Volkart, the teacher for the blind, told me that my progress report for that class was looking dismal. I felt utterly shocked. I always did the assignments. Ms. Volkart and I talked about it, and we discovered that some days I wouldn’t hear the assignment announced nor see them written on the board. She suggested that I check with the teacher at the end of each class. The plan worked, and several weeks later I received my first 4.00.
I entered high school with a sense of responsibility for my own education. My goal was to do well and move on to college. Leah Mitsuyoshi, Heather Walsh, and Suzanne Balmaceda were the three teachers for the blind at my high school. As a student, my job consisted of completing the reading and homework assignments, and that was it. I didn’t have to scan my books or wait weeks for the braille copy to arrive because Leah, Heather, and Suzanne worked closely with my mainstream teachers to provide me all the material in braille and on time. Occasionally one of my mainstream teachers would forget that a handout needed to be brailled, but I would have it by the end of the day thanks to Heather, Leah, and Suzanne.
When the time to transition to college arrived, I had already established a system for accessing classroom information. Unlike K-12, post-secondary institutions require students with disabilities to initiate academic adjustments. Through the preparation I received from my high school teachers, I felt confident contacting the disability service office at Lewis & Clark College to specify all the accommodations I would need. The Student Support Services Coordinator welcomed all my requests, and even went further to suggest additional ones. The college purchased a braille embosser so that by brailling the material on-site they could ensure that I received it in a timely manner. When a professor refused to allow academic adjustments, the Student Support Services Coordinator would communicate with the professor until we found a mutually beneficial solution. Since deafblindness is a low incidence disability, the perfect accommodation was not always known to me or the school. I currently use voice transliteration services in law school. I did not request voice transliteration in college because I had never heard of it, nor had the college. In my law school classes, voice transliterators sit in the back of the classroom and speak into a microphone that transmits their voices into earphones I wear. The VTs hold small masks over their mouths to prevent their voices from distracting other students. Through the microphone they relay auditory information as well as visual information, such as material written on the board. Law school relies heavily on class discussion and the Socratic method, which made voice transliteration services absolutely crucial. When I first proposed the idea to Harvard’s deaf services coordinator, Jody Steiner, she expanded the concept by incorporating her own experience of facilitating communication for the deafblind. Throughout the interactive process of requesting a many ccommodations, staff at both Lewis & Clark and Harvard honored my requests.
In ways, deafblind students resemble pioneers. Since levels of vision and hearing differ from one individual to the next, the solutions that work for one deafblind student may not work for another. Students, teachers, and staff need to research solutions, or create new ones. While in K-12, the responsibility fell on my teachers to find the solutions that worked for me. Kids lack the knowledge and advocacy skills to determine how best to accommodate disabilities, so trained teachers are essential. By contrast, college and law school required an interactive process where I needed to initiate many of the requests for accommodations. Together, we addressed questions such as how does a deafblind student excel in advanced mathematics, study a foreign language, or mingle with attorneys at the law school’s professional networking event? At the law school’s networking event, I stationed myself at a central table with a braille display connected to a QWERTY keyboard. My interpreter at the time, Jody Steiner, scanned the room for attorneys not already engaged in conversation, introduced herself as my interpreter, and invited them to talk to me. Since the noise level of the room made it impossible to hear, the attorneys typed directly to me on the keyboard while I read their messages simultaneously on my braille display. Through our creativity and sense of adventure, we created an alternative strategy even for mingling at networking events. With the fast-paced development of technology, new communication methods will emerge for deafblind students. Due to the rarity of the disability, organizations for the deafblind and state deafblind projects will need to help disseminate information to students and teachers. In June I served as a mentor in an advocacy program for deafblind young adults. Next year, my mentees will serve as mentors for a new generation of deafblind leaders. With a good quality education, deafblind students grow to become advocates for themselves and advocates for others. To the wonderful teachers and staff who supported my education, thank you.