Moms and Dads on Monday / Early Connections Conference 2018

 

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After a full day of presentations on a wide variety of topics and fun activities, parents of young children with vision loss came together in the school auditorium.  Before they left, I asked them to share something they were going to take away from this experience by writing it on a post it note and placing it on a whiteboard near the stage. Some folks wrote a single word.  Some wrote more.  Each sentiment is the beginning of a story only they can write.  A story with an ending they can control.

Maybe, a story they can share when they speak at the Perkins 50th annual Early Connections Conference.  Or 75th…. who knows?

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Here are the words of the parents.

Hope

I hope every parent can be brave to fight their children

The kid with special needs was born to show us WE ARE STRONGER THAN WE THOUGHT

Support each other

I want to bring this amazing inspiration to my home, family, work, city, and country – all countries!

Stay strong.

We are all on a journey looking for answers and connections.  #FeedtheHope

If a 3-year-old understands this, then I need to up my game. #FeedtheHope

Be motivated by love, not fear.

Community

It’s okay to be sad.  It is okay to cry.  I got your back.

Inspiration

Be an involved dad!

Feed the good wolf

Be positive.  Life is good.

Medical imaging will not define what my child can do.

Don’t stop dreaming.

You’re a great Mom!  Congratulations Perkins

A future together

I’m not alone anymore

Inspired and thankful

Every parent has a story.

SO MUCH INFORMATION!  (I learned a lot.)

Expect miracles

Belief statement about your child

Knowledge

Advocate

Unconditional love

Balance is important.  Remember to stay connected.

Treasure the special moments

Rainbows always come after the rain

Every family has their own story about their amazing kids!

JOY!  To find it whatever situation – family, friends, church, work, community

Perspective

Faith in action!

Every day my life is inspired and strengthened by moments of joy.

It will get better.

There is a nice way to ask for commitment to follow IDEA.

Doctors needs sensitivity training.  Listen to your gut.

It’s OK.

Just keep swimming but know where you are swimming to!

Keep going!

Family connection is essential.

Be your child’s advocate.  The experts don’t always know what’s best.

Families are powerful, knowledgeable, and resilient.

You are not alone.  You are an amazing parent.  Don’t ever think otherwise.

I will choose how the story ends.

Teamwork

Faith

Never feel alone again.

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Image: An illustration of the words “We’ve Got This” held up by a group of women.  A baby sits on top of the words holding a rattle in the air.  Illustration doodled  by Ian Christy  (https://www.instagram.com/i.christy/)

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Image:  Ron Benham , Danielle Bangs on the left.  Teri Turgeon standing on the right of a whiteboard.  On the whiteboard is written “Happy 35th Perkins School!”  The whiteboard is covered in colorful post it notes.  

At the end of the conference, Perkins recognized the achievements of Ron Benham, who is retiring from his position as Bureau Director at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.  Ron was one of the people in Massachusetts who understood the importance of early intervention and helped to build (and find funding) for the service system over 30 years ago.   Families of children with special needs benefit today from the decades of work of dedicated professionals like Ron Benham.

Bravo Ron!  Bravo Teri and Ed and Danielle and everyone at Perkins!  Bravo fellow families!  We are in this together!

What I Would Want Someone To Say To Me / Early Connections Conference

Hello fellow families of magnificent children who happen to have a diagnosis of cortical visual impairment,

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of families with children (ages birth to 7) who have vision loss at the Early Connections Conference at Perkins School for the Blind.

A few months ago, Education Director, Teri Turgeon wrote me and asked if I was game to come to the conference and speak.  There may have been a moment of panic.

“What do you want me to say?”  I asked her.

“Just tell your story,” she said.

Huh.

This got me thinking.  And over-thinking.

I have nearly 12 years of Eliza stories.  Most often, I blurt them out at inopportune moments –

to E’s ABA therapists as they are collecting what they need before a session,

to GI nurses asking me for her health history,

to her school aide who just really wants to go to lunch. (And that is just this week.)

These are the people I see most frequently.

I realize as I get some perspective on this past decade or so, these stories have to be told.  If only so I can get out from under them.

Here was an actual invitation to speak instead of someone politely nodding until I trail off….  Bliss!

Here’s the first half.

I am the mother of a child who received early intervention services.  Which means that I am a mother who received early intervention services.  These supports are as much or more for us than for our children.  Even when your child “graduates” from EI, you’re always an early intervention mom.  It’s a world we never knew existed until we needed it.  I will always carry a debt of gratitude for the compassion and knowledge a team of women in two states brought into my house.  Women who saw me at my most desperate and disheveled.  Women who never once said, “Haven’t you been wearing those sweatpants for a week?”

I know firsthand how important early intervention is.  It is critical to have intensive support at the beginning of your journey of becoming the parent of a child with special needs.

And, it is a becoming.

Becoming a parent changes you.

Becoming a parent of a child with vision loss and special needs changes you.  814348If you had told me 10 years ago that I would have a chance to speak to a group of families like mine, I would have paid more attention, or tried to – as it was the sleep deprivation and worry nearly killed me – so, maybe not.

This is the 35th annual Early Connections Conference.  Being here to celebrate Perkins’ commitment to the education and support of families like ours is an absolute joy for me.

When I thought about coming to speak to you, I thought about my own conference experiences.  I’m usually sitting where you are trying write down every word.  Because Eliza is a puzzle.  She has multiple diagnoses but no definitive diagnosis as a cause for her issues, I’ve been to a lot of conferences trying to figure her out.  I went to anything I could find on cortical visual impairment.  I went to conferences on Cerebral Palsy, general special education and early childhood conferences.  I was a conference groupie.

As life with Eliza unfolded, more complications occurred.  We all got less sleep.  Life became more stressful and – yes – complicated.  (Complications make your life complicated.  Mind blown.)

She was a puzzle. I was trying to find THE expert who could explain what was happening to us.  Someone who could fix everything or SOMEthing.  In spite of my best efforts, it slowly became apparent that this was not a possibility.

It was just really hard.

At the time, I thought if I just try harder, if we add one more therapy, if I read one more book or find one more specialist or go to one more conference – then I can help her learn how to bear weight on her legs, or sit up independently, or eat, or speak.

My thought process went like this: I have seen the movies!  I can do this.  All it takes it a plucky mom who never gives up.  Right?

My experiences with conferences usually had one of the two following outcomes:

  1. Conferences where the speakers (either parents or self advocates or doctors) seemed to have everything together.  They overcame challenges with a single bound and sheer dint of will.  They held down full-time jobs as lawyers, saints, superheroes or supreme court justices, yet they still had time to do genetic research in their basements.  And, this research solved their child’s (or their own) mysterious condition.  THESE are the people Lifetime movies are made of.
  2. Conferences where a brilliant teacher or researcher knew what I needed to know – THE APPROACH I needed to learn.  THE information that would improve my daughter’s quality of life.  This teacher had all of 45 minutes to present, however, and I needed 3 to 5 years of mentoring/modeling in my home to understand it.

What’s worse, these presenters rudely refused my attempts to kidnap or clone them.

(I mean, what is a little hair sample between conference attendees?  And, what if I had been able to kidnap or clone them?  Now there’s your Lifetime movie right there, folks.  We could even have been an HBO series. Maybe Dame Judy Dench or Tony Shalhoub would have played me.  I’ve been watching Monk again recently.  The man is a treasure.)

Either way, I would go into a conference bright eyed and hopeful.  I’d see a few presentations.  I would start to feel frustrated and overwhelmed.  I’d slink away to a quiet spot somewhere to call my husband.  I’d call (maybe crying a little bit) and tell him how much we don’t know, how much we aren’t doing, how I am failing as a parent and a human being, how everyone else gets it and I just don’t and what’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with you that you married me – you get the drift.

After listening as patiently as possible, Robb would inevitably threaten to change the locks on our front door if I continued to go to conferences as a form of self-punishment.

This is fair.  (Uncool, but fair.) 

It was just that – to me – it felt as though everyone else knew what they were doing.  If I could just learn what THAT was, our lives would run smoother, my daughter would make more progress faster and easier, maybe we’d sleep a little.  What was I doing wrong?

While the problem surely wasn’t with the events or presenters, it was with me, I still felt isolated and incompetent.

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The Early Connections Conference has a lot of support to offer.  I wanted my presentation to be a positive experience for any other conference groupies.

To be clear, I am no expert on anything. And, I don’t have time to be kidnapped.  We couldn’t afford the ransom; we have a kid with special needs.

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I may never again get the chance to address a crowd of parents who are just where I was a decade or so ago.

What would I want someone to say to me?

E and mom

Image:  A woman who hasn’t slept in 18 months smiles wearily at the camera. She is holding the hand of her  blond toddler in glasses.  The toddler leans up against her.

 

HEY YOU.  Yes, you – the tired woman leaning against the counter in a dark kitchen cramming Baked Lays into your mouth at 3 a.m. You are standing in the dark, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing.  You hope chewing will drown out the sound of your baby screaming upstairs.  You just came down to take a break.  You’ve been trying to console her for half an hour, 2 hours, 4 hours – depends on the night.  You are beyond exhausted. You are numb.  Wrung out.  The only thing that makes sense is chewing fistfuls of chips and remembering to breathe.

You aren’t thinking straight, so may I suggest taking a shower?  You haven’t had one in 3 days.  Believe me, she will still be screaming when you get out.

You are numb, but somewhere in a tiny corner in your mind where your emotions are stuffed, you are scared that this is what your life is going to be from now on.  That you will never have a solid night of sleep again.  You are worried and so scared.  There is so much you don’t understand. You want to scream.  Or, more accurately, if you had enough energy you would seriously consider it.  At times, you are stunned that you can produce that many tears.  But, you are past that right now. You are aching to find a quiet hole to crawl into but your worry and your love wouldn’t let you rest even if you did.

HEY YOU.  You will get through this.  You won’t be the same. That can be a good thing.  There are many of us who have gotten through this.  We have stories to tell. And so will you.

You will be a more vulnerable yet tougher (if that makes sense) version of yourself.  You will laugh louder and take yourself far less seriously.  Years of living outside your comfort zone will give you the gift of not caring what other people think. (You may even start a blog!  How crazy is that?)  Your kitchen floor will often be filthy.  You just won’t care.

You will find yourself filled with so much gratitude for the kindness and patience bestowed on you and your girl on a daily basis.

You will find yourself with far less patience for incompetence, below average medical staff, and uninspired teachers.

You will be startled by the haggard woman in the mirror from time to time, but you know she is doing the best that she can.

You will learn that people really do help when they can.  Sometimes they just can’t.  Even when you ask.  As a result, you will learn that you can hear the word “no” and – surprise – the world will not fall apart.  You will be broken down and broken open – by life circumstances, by other people’s perspectives, by the enormity of the love you never imagined until you became a parent, and by the responsibility that goes along with it.

You will learn that you can take a hit.  You can take a hit, get back up and get on with it.  You are stronger than you ever imagined.  This  is not a meme someone posted to make you feel better for 10 seconds.  This is the reality of living through challenge after challenge and standing up to love and to try again the next day.  That is your truth.

Yes, she is really is a complicated kid.  When she was born, you moved right out of any comfort zone you had grown used to and into the perpetual discomfort of the unknown.  Unknown diagnoses, unknown potential, unknown ability, no support group for your puzzle kid.

So, no, you are not doing it wrong.  It is really hard.  It is a lot to learn.

You will learn over time that kids with vision loss, especially CVI, are complicated.  CVI does not stand alone.  The population of children with vision loss has changed over the years.  Thanks to advances in modern medicine, our premature babies, babies who have medical crises, and puzzle babies like Eliza, are surviving.  These babies often have multiple diagnoses. They are surviving and thriving!

This is a cause for celebration (after we’ve all had a 2 year nap and some early intervention services.  I am an optimist and a realist.)

Because of this, however, we are all running to catch up to their needs – to learn how they communicate, how they learn, how to help them see.

And, NO, she doesn’t sleep!  (Have I mentioned that before?)  And, yes, that stinks.  It is cruel and unusual.

It is overwhelming.

(A piece of advice:  You know how they say don’t make any major life decisions when you are in crisis? 

Don’t go to the hairdresser on a whim and ask for something completely different.  Just don’t.  You WILL end up with orange hair and it WILL NOT “compliment your complexion” no matter what anyone says.  They are just saying that because you’ve been wearing the same sweatpants for 4 days and they feel sorry for you. 

It had to be said.)

HEY YOU.  This girl.

E with bib

Image:  A blue eyed baby wearing a bib with pink flowers stares into the camera.

She will bring the BEST people into your life.  The. best. people.

There will be some crummy ones too, but they never stay long because she takes some work.  We don’t have time for them anyway.

Life with her is intense.  It is real.  It can be boring.  It can change on a dime.  You will get better at this.  It will still be difficult some days.  Being a parent is difficult some days, period.  It is not for sissies.

This girl.

E in bouncy seat

Image:  A chubby cheeked baby reclines in a blue bouncy chair

She finds joy in the places you forgot to look.

Be with her.  Learn from her.  The bond you establish with her now just by being present and loving her unconditionally is the foundation to every future success.

And, the best part is that this is the best part!  It is supposed to easy.  It is.

There is no doubt that therapy is important.  Doctor’s visits are important.  Second and third opinions are important,

HOWEVER,

Remember that day when the OT cancelled?  It was in the summer when Eliza wasn’t even a year old and Anna Cady was a curly haired toddler?  You were  relieved  when the appointment was cancelled. For a moment, THE schedule lifted.  The OT, PT, Development Therapy, the vision lady who came but didn’t understand CVI.  For a moment, it all just stopped.

SKY

Image:  Bright blue sky with white clouds

On that afternoon you took a blanket out in the backyard.  You and the girls stretched out on the blanket.  The grass was cool on your feet in the shade of the jacaranda tree in full fuschia bloom. You and Anna Cady looked up at the sky and watched the clouds drift by.  Eliza didn’t see the clouds, but she was lying between two of her favorite people.  She felt a warm breeze on her face.  She smelled the blossoms.  She heard your voices as you giggled and pointed out the shapes of animals shifting in the clouds above.  She was included.  It was simple and fun.  Just the three of you enjoying each other’s company.

Remember that?

DO THAT MORE.  Do not take any of this for granted.  Slow down, sister.  This time is so important.  Enjoy her.  Let her enjoy you.  There is more to see here if you take the time to look.  You don’t have to do all the time.  She is who she is.  Let her show you who she is.

Baby girls

Image:  Two little girls, a bald blue eyed grinning baby and a wide eyed toddler smiles for the camera.

She is not broken.

You are, a little bit.

She loves you in spite of your broken parts.

She and her sister will help you put them back together again in ways you never imagined.

That is what I would say to my 10 years ago self.

Thank you for indulging me.

 

 

 

We’ve Got This! / Early Connections Conference 2018

Hello fellow families of marvelous children who have a diagnosis of cortical visual impairment!

On Saturday, April 28th, Perkins School for the Blind held its 35th annual Early Connections Conference.  The all day event offered “parents and professionals throughout New England” the opportunity “to network, share ideas and strategies for helping children with visual impairment from birth to age 7.”  (www.perkins.org)

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Image:  A poster for the Early Connections Conference

I had the pleasure of attending the conference this year.  According to Perkins’ Director of Community Programs and Conference Chair, Teri Turgeon, this year’s attendance totaled 106 parents and 38 professionals (including teachers of the visually impaired, speech therapists, and occupational therapists).

Even though my daughter is almost 12-years-old, I still have a lot to learn.  I found it hard to choose between the variety of presentation topics from the Expanded Core Curriculum to Issues with Complexity in CVI to What about the Dads?  From Has your child had a low vision evaluation? to CVI: Assessment, strategies, and implementation across the day to Strategies and resources to support children who are deafblind. And more!

(I went with Expanded Core Curriculum and CVI Complexity as these are two important pieces of the ongoing development of Eliza’s IEP and, really, her life.)

Historically, Perkins has been and continues to be the leader in educating children with ocular and cortical visual impairments.  With the Early Connections Conference, Perkins is a leader in supporting the families as well.

It was a warm and sunny Saturday in Boston.   The lawns on Perkins campus were green with new growth thanks to rain the day before.  Outside the Lower School Building, picnic tables and a bouncy house had been set up.  Inside, Perkins staff and volunteers were ready to hand attendees their welcome bags and help parents get their children involved in the day’s activities.  Vendors (including the Pediatric Cortical Visual Impairment Society) displayed information and products in the school auditorium where parents and professionals could browse while helping themselves to a continental breakfast.  (Well played, Perkins.  I have never met a bagel I couldn’t learn to love.)

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Tables set up in the Perkins auditorium.  The PCVI conference materials, a display with children’s faces and a table with a black tablecloth and a white drape with the PCVI logo over it.  A group of people stand at the table to the right speaking to another vendor.

Ed Bosso, the Superintendent of Perkins School for the Blind, and Teri Turgeon welcomed the families.  Ed shared that, despite a long career in special education, becoming the parent of a child with a visual impairment was a challenge for him.  He found comfort and information at a previous Early Connections Conference.  For him, attending the conference and meeting other families, meant you will “never feel alone again.”

Teri Turgeon (also the parent of a young adult with a visual impairment) told the attendees that she hoped the conference helped them “fill their cups.”  She explained that there are experiences in your life that are intersections and the choices you make can change the direction of your life.  She hoped that the conference would be an intersection for families to move forward.

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Image:  A drawing of the words “We’ve Got This” held up by a group of women.  One woman holds a baby.  Another baby sits on top of the words holding a rattle in his raised hand. 
Thanks to illustrator extraordinaire, Ian Christy for this fun take on the conference theme

The educational aspect of this conference was a big draw for me, but, what made my heart happy was seeing all of the children. A little girl in a pink t-shirt and holding a white cane expertly navigated in and out of a crowded elevator. Volunteers in red t-shirts took children for walks and painted faces.  In one room, a table of little girls, all bright colors, elbows, and ponytails, drew pictures while a grinning little boy tossed a ball with a teenager, or, rather, near the teenager.  The game seemed to be more fun to the boy if the young man had to chase the ball.

One young mother was hesitant about leaving her infant daughter in the nursery.  I overheard Teri tell the worried mom that when she (Teri) brought her daughter to this conference years earlier she had never even left her daughter with her grandparents. Hearing this conversation, I remembered the strong urge to get an occasional moment away from the never-ending responsibilities of being the mom of a baby with special needs.  And, I remembered the equally strong worry that something would happen if I wasn’t with her. In the first year, the only person I eventually left Eliza with was my mother, a retired nurse – after I had checked her references, of course. You can never be too sure.

The children!  That’s why we were there!  That’s why we are learning as fast as we can and asking questions and reading articles and advocating in schools and beyond.

I got to meet Savannah and her mom, Lacey (Moms on Monday #18 is a loving tribute to a beautiful girl and her dedicated mom).  I got to meet Adam and his parents, Lara and Todd.  (Lara assured me she will be a Mom on Monday someday.  This is in no way a blatant attempt to persuade her to answer those questions I sent her.  Not. At. All.)  These pictures were taken at the end of a long day and both kiddos were ready to go home.  They were very patient to let us take pictures. Adam gave me a very polite High 5.

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Image: A curly haired girl with glasses in a wheelchair between two smiling women
Image: A dark haired boy, sitting in a chair, leans over the tray of his chair.  His father kneels behind the chair with his arm draped over the back while his mother leans in on the boy’s left.  Both parents are smiling.  And, the mother has promised to be a Mom on Monday.

I will follow Adam’s lead and give you my own cyber High 5 to conclude this post.

More to come on the information given and stories shared at Early Connections 2018.

 

More of Ian Christy’s art can be found at https://www.instagram.com/i.christy/

or

http://www.scruffcheek.com

 

 

 

 

Nicola McDowell’s CVI Journey

Hello fellow families of beautiful children who happen to have a diagnosis of cortical visual impairment!

I had the great joy to attend the Early Connections Conference at Perkins School for the Blind yesterday.

There will be posts to follow.

In the meantime, I wanted to be sure to mention a recommendation that the CVI Teacher, Ellen Mazel, gave during a presentation about complexity.  She recommended that people interested in learning about what it is like to live with CVI watch a YouTube video posted by an adult with CVI, Nicola McDowell.

Parents, we need to watch this video.  We are on the frontlines of educating the medical and education communities.

This is a video you can easily send to your pediatrician and your school team with the information that CVI is the #1 pediatric visual impairment in the U.S. and the first world countries.

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=nicola+mcdowell&qft=+filterui%3amsite-youtube.com&view=detail&mid=69BB6512FDFB3ECEAF0569BB6512FDFB3ECEAF05&&FORM=VRDGAR

Nicola McDowell has done all of our families a great service in describing the anxiety in her life caused by cortical visual impairment.  I was fascinated by her description of what she sees, and how she has to strategize future social occasions to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Nicola’s story helps me better understand my daughter’s experience.  Her information is invaluable.

Check it out!

 

 

 

 

Moms on Monday / Melissa Keller

Good morning,

I had a post lined up for today.  Then I learned late last week that a friend of mine, Melissa Keller, died after a long battle with ovarian cancer.

Today, in Bloomington, Indiana, her family and friends are going to meet at the local Unitarian Universalist church to celebrate her.  She should be celebrated far and wide.

I do not live in Indiana anymore.  I am sitting here in Virginia with an ache in my heart and a smile on my face as I think of Melissa.

I did not get to know her for as long a time as some of her friends.  She actually reached out to me 5 or 6 years ago.  She was a professor at Indiana University who taught early childhood courses.  She read in the local paper about the work I was doing with an agency called Visually Impaired Preschool Services to bring early intervention for infants and toddlers with blindness in Indiana.  She had convinced IU to rent a bus and had taken her early childhood class on a field trip 2 1/2 hours away to Louisville, Kentucky where the VIPS office and preschool facility is.

She emailed me after the fact.  I was surprised and amused that a bus full of Hoosiers showed up on VIPS’ doorstep.  I had known nothing about it.

She and her students toured the facility.  They observed some of the preschool classes.  She appreciated the reverse inclusion model at VIPS where typically sighted peers attend classes geared toward children with vision loss.  Everyone benefits from a more tactile approach. Everyone learns empathy. Everyone is celebrated for who they are and for what they can do.  Everyone learns at their own pace.  Simple as that.

She wrote me a complimentary email after the tour and invited me to speak to her classes which I did. She wanted her students to become aware of the possibilities of a career in early intervention.   After a presentation one year her classes made tactile toys and books for the VIPS welcome bags we provided to new families.

Melissa and I had known each other for a few years when she sent me a Christmas card.  In the card, she wrote that it had just occurred to her that I may not know she had a connection to a famous woman I mentioned sometimes when explaining the urgent need for improving educational services to blind children.   She included a copy of a picture of Helen Keller.  On the picture, in square neat letters on the lower right corner was a note to a family member (I can’t remember the name. I think it was a cousin.) and signed, Love, Helen Keller.

I was honestly stunned.  Her last name was Keller, for Pete’s sake, but I had never even thought to make the connection.   We talked a little about the family a couple of times and that was that.

I wondered if her distant relative was a factor in her interest in VIPS.

It is possible although she had a long career as a champion for children as a teacher, principal, and professor in her own right.

Melissa Keller was a loving mother, grandmother, daughter, wife, friend, and teacher.  She was also a terrific writer.  Her CaringBridge site kept her fans entertained and informed as she and her husband, Thomas, traveled all over the world in a modern day hero’s journey to keep cancer at bay.  She made us laugh while our hearts broke.

She wrote a book about her experiences with her husband’s family called Crazy is Relative.  It is funny and bittersweet and very revealing about how people are shaped by their experiences in ways we cannot know unless we tell our stories.

I just wrote that Melissa Keller “was”.  I am struggling with that.

She is.  She remains in my thoughts and in my heart.

She liked to end her Caring Bridge posts with lyrics from songs she loved or was listening to at the time.  Here are some of my favorite lyrics with Melissa in mind and in heart.

Joyful Girl by Ani DiFranco

I do it for the joy it brings 

Cuz I’m a joyful girl

And, the world owes me nothing

We owe each other the world. 

I do it cuz it’s the least I can do

I do it cuz I learned it from you 

I do it just because I want to

I want to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CVI Teleconference Call

Did you know that there is a weekly teleconference call for families of children with CVI on Tuesday nights?

This weekly call has been a source of knowledge and comfort for families like ours.  The moderator of this call is a kind and wise woman named Judith Millman.

I asked Judith about the history of this teleconference call that has been a lifeline to families across America for 11 years.

Why did the call come about?
The original idea for the Telephone Support Groups came from Dr. Alan Morse, the President of the Jewish Guild for the Blind (now LighthouseGuild). He felt that there were parents of children with visual impairment all over, particularly in rural parts of the country, who were isolated with no support systems in place and that the Guild had the resources and contacts to play a constructive role in their lives. About ten different vision conditions were targeted but CVI, being the single largest cause of children’s visual impairment became one of the first groups that was started (in 2007). It continues to be the largest telesupport group (by far) that LighthouseGuild sponsors.

How did you get involved? What is your background?
I am a social worker by training and worked most of my career in vision services. I started at the Lighthouse in Westchester Co. (White Plains, NY) as a social worker. By the end of my 30 year career there, I was the VP for the Lighthouse in the Hudson Valley, overseeing services for consumers in 7 counties. When I was about to retire, a colleague of mine, Dan Callahan, who was hired by the Guild to start the telesupport program, recruited me to facilitate the CVI group which was just about to be launched.

What are some common questions?
How can I get appropriate services for my child? The school district doesn’t seem to know much about CVI. Can you recommend an ophthalmologist who knows about CVI–mine doesn’t and told me that my child is blind. Where can I find a TVI and an O&M who really understand CVI? How can I help my child learn to use his/her vision? What strategies are helpful?

Have questions changed over the years?
I’m afraid that the questions haven’t really changed over the years. A positive factor is that more information is available via the literature, websites, distance learning courses, etc.

What are common themes in CVI that you don’t see going away – or that are increasing?
The tremendous role that parents have to take on to advocate for appropriate services–even more difficult in light of shortages in the field of TVIs and O&Ms.

What would you want parents of children with CVI to know?
You’re not alone.

CVI is the leading cause of visual impairment of children in the US. There are resources available, including a telesupport group, distance learning courses through Perkins School for the Blind, Dr. Roman’s book, webinars, etc.


If you are interested in joining the CVI teleconference call, email judithmillman@aol.com.

Thank you to Dr. Alan Morse for a wonderful way for families to create community across the miles.

Thank you Lighthouse Guild for sponsoring this call!

Adventures in Advocacy / Get To Know Them Before You Need Them

Hello fellow families of children who have CVI and deserve a free and appropriate education (FAPE!),

As you blaze your child’s personal trail in your local school system, I hope it is an easy trail to blaze.

I hope your school has ample educators who have heard of Cortical Visual Impairment. I hope these educators (and support staff) understand how children with CVI are NOT incidental learners (See blog post on Incidental Learning if you are unfamiliar with this term. It’s important.)

I hope your child has access to a Teacher of the Visually Impaired who is a Perkins-Roman CVI Endorsee.

I hope that TVI has a small caseload and can devote the time it takes to train your child’s educational staff and to modify the materials your child needs to have ACCESS to her curriculum and her school environment.

While I’m hoping, let’s just add a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) who is also a Perkins-Roman CVI Endorsee.  And, let’s hope that COMS also has a small caseload of students and ample time to help your child navigate and make sense of her physical environment.

I hope your child’s teacher and support staff have ample time to make and modify materials since your child needs to have ACCESS to learning on a daily basis… like any other child.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that my hopes haven’t been realized yet.

For the sweeping changes in educational policy that need to occur for children with cortical visual impairment to finally have access to learning, parents will need to reach out to legislators at all levels of government.

Talking points:  

  • There is a national shortage of teachers of the visually impaired.
  • There is a national shortage of Certified Orientation & Mobility Specialists.  (You may have to explain what that is.) 
  • There is a national shortage of teachers trained to teach the children with the #1 pediatric visual impairment in America, Cortical Visual Impairment.  (You’ll definitely have to explain this one.)
  • For children with Cortical Visual Impairment, vision can improve.  It is absolutely critical that children get diagnosed early and receive early intervention services from providers who understand CVI.
  • Many states do not provide vision-specific early intervention for infants and toddlers with vision loss, including Cortical Visual Impairment.
  • Our children cannot wait any longer for our education system to catch up to CVI.

Visiting your local school board meeting and asking them about shortages of teachers of the visually impaired and a lack of educators trained to work with children with CVI can get the ball rolling.  It can start an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s a conversation that needs to be started.

It will require sitting through school board meetings, but, as a CVI parent, you have sat through far worse experiences.  (Just a guess. For me, it was Eliza’s “sleep” studies or, more accurately,  “cranky-all night-Mom-wrestling sessions.” ) 

Mark Richert, Director of Public Policy at AFB (American Foundation of the Blind) has a couple of suggestions for parent advocates. 

Find your representatives and reach out to them before you need them.

Some folks don’t know who their local, state, and federal officials are.

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https://openstates.org

This site can help you locate your state representatives.

https://www.govtrack.us

Govtrack will help you locate your federal representatives.

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Open a line of dialogue with the people who work for your local representatives.  They are moms and dads just like us.  They care about children.  They care about their constituents.

Before a big “ask,” it is a good idea to get to know your officials and the people in their offices.

You can can call their local or D.C. offices and ask to speak to the staffer who works on special education issues.  Then, introduce yourself and mention a few talking points, or read from the example below.

An example email:

Dear Sen. Washington, 

I am one of your constituents.  I appreciated ___________________________  (something positive about your representative’s work). 

I wanted to take a moment to reach out to you to tell you that I am the parent of a child with special needs and vision loss.  My daughter has cortical visual impairment, the #1 pediatric visual impairment in America.  

(You can share more of your personal story and include a picture.) 

I wanted you to know that issues surrounding the education of children with special needs and sensory loss are very important to me and my family.  

I hope we can count on your continued support of our children.  

Thank you for your service, 

Thomas Jefferson

Someone from the office will write you back.  Then, you have a contact.  You can direct future issues and questions to this person.  If you are going to be in town, you can request a visit with your representative.  By establishing a relationship, you are laying the foundation to effective future advocacy.

(Sidenote:  You may think it takes a lot of people emailing about a topic to get someone’s attention.  Not so.  When legislators get more than 3 emails or phone calls about one subject they take note.  Every call, every email counts.)

When you are emailing your child’s educational team, cc: your senator, representatives, etc…

Mark suggested cc’ing your elected officials on emails regarding your child’s educational experiences.  This can help our legislators understand the scope of what we are facing when our children with CVI enter the school system.  It will certainly get the attention of your educational team.  I haven’t done this yet.  If you do, let me know what happens.  I’m intrigued.

P.S. I’ve heard that it’s better to take taxis rather than Uber or Lyft when you are going to advocate on Capitol Hill.  Taxis are plentiful in D.C. and street addresses are tricky.  It can be hard for an Uber or Lyft to find you.

fight win!

Image: Edna Mode from The Incredibles stands with her arms above her head and yells “Go! Confront the problem! Fight! Win!”

Moms on Monday #19 / Brenda from WA

Good evening, fellow CVI families!  It’s still Monday!  We here at CVI Momifesto like to keep you on your toes.

Today I heard a quote that resonated with me.

“Anger is inevitable.  It’s what you do with it that counts.”

This quote made me think of the CVI moms who are organizing and moving mountains for their children.

Jasper’s mom, Brenda, is getting a lot done with her anger.  I salute her.

If you have done any research on cortical visual impairment online or on social media, you have probably found the blog Start Seeing CVI and the companion Facebook page.  You may have heard about a CVI Advocacy Call recently hosted by the American Foundation for the Blind – the first national conference on advocacy for children with cortical visual impairment.  (Editor’s sidenote:  This call was a big dang deal.)

If you were on Facebook this month you may have seen this –

April is CVI Literacy
Image reads April is CVI Literacy Awareness Month

You may also have run across pictures of remarkably attractive children and their mothers wearing this t-shirt.

brenda's t-shrit

Image:  Black t-shirt with Start Seeing CVI and the 10 CVI characteristics

And, what if I told you all of these amazing efforts were the result of one dynamic, unstoppable mom?

Yes, it’s Jasper’s mom, Brenda from Washington.  She graciously answered questions I asked her about Start Seeing CVI, the motive behind the famous t-shirt, and just how she was able to make April CVI Literacy Awareness Month and September CVI Awareness Month.

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Why I started Start Seeing CVI

When you are raising a child who has cortical visual impairment (CVI), the lack of awareness, and education, and knowledge of CVI is one of the hardest lessons. My son Jasper was diagnosed with “cortical blindness” at one week old. The birth to three experience was spent learning about CVI and explaining it to his many providers. For a short time, as a baby, he had a “vision educator,” who was trained to identify a vision issue and knew a little about CVI but not nearly enough. Through birth to three years, my son never had a regular teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), and we live in a major city, Seattle. In a way, it was better, because his early intervention team was willing to learn and listen to me and there was no TVI ego to contend with. That changed with his transition to the public school system.

The original Start Seeing CVI t-shirt was created in 2014 during Jasper’s first full year of preschool. He was in Phase II CVI, as scored by Christine Roman. His TVI did not want to make any modifications to materials to give visual access to my son with CVI. It did not help that the young special education teacher backed him up. When doing anything with Jasper, you have to think of his cortical visual impairment first. You have to think about the CVI ten characteristics first. How could the school team not see that? And how could I get them to think about his CVI? Do I need to send to him to school with a note pinned to his shirt every day?

And so I created the t-shirt. How could they miss it now?

Jasper's t

Image:  A boy lying down with his arms covering his face wearing a Start Seeing CVI t-shirt

The Start Seeing CVI blog came a little later, from that same place. It evolved from my original blog – writing about the experience of raising a child with special needs – to writing increasingly about having a child with cortical visual impairment.

Nobody knows about CVI because nobody is talking about CVI.  Nobody is talking about our kids.

Look around, on social media, nobody is talking about CVI. You can find Helen Keller quotes and Braille topics by the dozen, but nothing on CVI. No CVI graphics or quotes or memes. The organizations that serve students who are blind and visually impaired, and are supposed to serve our kids with CVI too, are not talking about CVI. American Printing House for the Blind (APH) is a good example. To look at social media, at a place like APH, you would think that most people who are blind or visually impaired are Braille readers. But the reality is more like five to six percent. Cortical visual impairment is the leading cause of visual impairment in our kids; they comprise the biggest portion of the demographic. But nobody is talking about our kids with CVI.

Perkins School for the Blind is talking about CVI and asking the critical question, What more can we be doing for students with CVI? And that is likely due to a few things, including their relationship with Christine Roman.

CVI has been around for a few decades now, you can find it in the medical literature as far back as the early 1990s. Nobody knows about cortical visual impairment because nobody is talking about cortical visual impairment. I wanted to change that.

As I travelled around, attending CVI conferences and trainings and workshops (I do not take vacations) and meeting other parents, our stories were the same. My child’s providers have not heard of CVI. My child’s providers do not know enough about CVI. My child’s TVI is not knowledgeable about CVI. It was not just my experience, it was the universal experience of CVI parents all across the country. I hoped that writing about CVI, and writing about Jasper, might bring both better understanding and awareness of CVI.

There is also so much misinformation out there around CVI.

Especially some of the online groups that are supposed to be about support, I avoid them. Even some websites or CVI “fact sheets,” if you happen to be given one. It is so important that CVI parents have information, but it is even more important that the information be accurate.

Not everybody out there who is teaching you about CVI is qualified to do so. Stick with the experts, not the people who are trying to sell you something. Providing accurate information and resources is a huge priority on my blog. I have no interest in debates around cerebral vs cortical.  It is an old argument and does not serve my son, or any family trying to get support for their child with CVI.

Why & how I was able to create two months of awareness 

(“Not 1 CVI Awareness Month…2 CVI Awareness Months!” – CVI Momifesto )

Since fall I had been trying to find a home for a CVI advocacy conference call. There were about six different conversations going on, with different people, parents, providers, and I wanted to get everybody together and on the same page.

American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) was willing to take a chance, and last month, in March, was the first ever national teleconference on improving education services for students with CVI.

Awareness and education and knowledge need to increase across the board – from diagnosis, to early intervention services, to public school, neurologists, occupational therapists, ophthalmologists, orientation and mobility specialists, pediatricians, physical therapists, special educators, speech language pathologists, and teachers of the visually impaired.

It has got to start with the university teacher preparation programs. I say that as a person who was enrolled in such a program, and they were not teaching cortical visual impairment or the CVI Range.

My son’s diagnosis of CVI is not optional, and teaching CVI is not optional.

On the AFB call, the universities made a lot of excuses, and yet the University of Massachusetts Boston is teaching CVI, and the CVI Range, and has a dedicated and required courses on CVI. So it is possible. My son deserves providers who are proficient in CVI, and so does every other child with CVI. And it has got to be somebody who will be at the IEP table. Our kids not only deserve this, they have a right to it.

jan

At the same time, we are focused on APH. In January, APH posted on its social media account about their plans to “Make Big Things Happen” this year for students who are blind or visually impaired. And there was not one word about cortical visual impairmemt, and how they would “Make Big Things Happen” for students with CVI. I almost let it go – but instead I commented, What about our kids with CVI, you won’t even make the CVi Connect app a quota fund product for them. My comment did not go unnoticed. In a short time, MaryAnne Roberto commented from Pennsylvania, and Gunjan from Pennsylvania, and Anna from Ohio, and Riley from Oregon, and Rachel from Maryland, and Rebecca from Virginia. The comments from CVI moms kept coming.

A group of us came together around that experience. We are committed to improving things for our children with CVI. We are raising our parent voices on behalf of our kids.

And this is just the beginning.

If you are a parent or provider of a child with CVI and want to lend your voice, you can go to Start Seeing CVI Advocacy or the Start Seeing CVI Facebook page to learn more.

Jasper

Image:  A smiling boy in glasses and wearing a hat with a wide brim and striped shirt.

 

Thank you, Brenda and Jasper!  Thank you, Brenda for your courage and your tenacity. 

Death by IEP / Why formal assessments do NOT work for CVI children or other children with sensory loss

I posted recently on my frustration with the “formal” assessments therapists and educators have tried to use on my daughter over the years.  (The long winded post, Death by IEP / Assessments and Access, has great quotes from experts in the field about the problems with assessments geared toward children with typical vision and hearing.) 

I learned early on in Eliza’s life to politely tell evaluators where they could put the assessments which would inevitably result in a grim column of zeroes or checkmarked boxes of “no”.  Right back in their briefcases, of course.  Ahem.

(I call dibs on “Grim column of zeroes” for a band name.  “Checkmarked boxes of no” sounds like the world’s worst cereal.  Nothing like the flavor of failure to start the day.)

The grim column of zeroes represents the failure of formal assessments to accurately gauge the abilities of children with sensory loss.  It does not reflect their capacity to learn.   It literally means nothing. 

This has been a topic of conversation for CVI moms on Facebook recently.  Probably because it is IEP season and we are all hunting resources for appropriate IEP goals for our kids.  I am personally working on IEP goals that have higher expectations for my non-verbal kid who will wrap you around her finger with her cuteness, a method of sailing through life that has served her well so far.

IMG_0834Image:  A girl smiling broadly swings at the park.

By asking around about the problem of assessments, it was suggested to me that I look into the work of Dr. Jan van Dijk.  I thought I would pass along what I found.

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From Perkins eLearning: In the early 1960s, Dr. Jan van Dijk of the Netherlands was asked to assess children with sensory impairments and multiple disabilities.

He found that existing assessment tools were not useful because they assumed that the children had been exposed to typical experiences; and he felt that children with sensory impairments and multiple disabilities, due to the very nature of their impairments, had not had the opportunity to experience the world in a typical manner.

Dr. van Dijk dedicated his 50-year career to helping children who have multiple disabilities in addition to deafblindness. His child-guided strategies are recognized and used throughout the world.

What is child-guided assessment?

Child-guided assessment is a procedure to bring the best of the child to the surface.
Children with multiple disabilities live in a fragmented world, often full of stress and anxiety.
The assessor wants to meet the child within this very peculiar world, to discover how learning in its broadest sense takes place. He tries to resonate with the child’s behavior by following the child’s lead.
When the child feels that he is controlling the situation, it is likely that he will open up and will follow the assessor’s suggestions for finding undiscovered paths for learning and emotional stability.

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I watched one of Dr. van Dijk’s webcasts yesterday.

http://www.perkinselearning.org/videos/webcast/child-guided-assessment

In my humble opinion, this is 29 minutes CVI moms need to watch to better understand why formal assessments don’t work and how to explain this to IEP teams.  Dr. Jan van Dijk (who died last year) was an expert on working with children with multiple disabilities.  And, as one CVI mom said to me recently, “CVI doesn’t stand alone.”

I felt as though I understood my complicated kid better after watching it.  It’s important information and gives a glimpse into the way to reach our children.

Also, it’s fun to listen to Dr. van Dijk’s accent.  (I am easily amused. Or, just weird after seeing one too many grim column of zeroes.) 

If you get a chance to check it out, let me know what you think.  I’d love to know if you found this information helpful and if it helps you make progress with your child’s team.

Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

Adventures in Advocacy / DC + MD AER Conference

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at CVI Momifesto. Spring is conference season.  Time for the experts in everything  to get together in quaint or exotic places to compare notes, to share their research, and, maybe to learn a new trick or two.

It’s been a great conference season in terms of building momentum and raising awareness about the learning needs of children with CVI. Needs that continue to be unmet in most educational settings across the country.

(Then, it’s Spring Break, and all bets are off for writing any blog posts as your children run amok in your house demanding to be fed, nurtured, and challenged at board games.  But I digress.)

So far this year, CVI was a hot topic at the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.  Also, several AER conferences admitted presentations by educators and parents about Cortical Visual Impairment.  The  Northeast AER conference included presentations on CVI (from Dr. Christine Roman-Lantzy, Ellen Mazel, and Peg Palmer among others) in each slot in their schedule.  Virginia AER had several presentations including a parent’s perspective on the challenges of getting a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a child with CVI.

At the Pacific Northwest AER conference, MaryAnne Roberto, a CVI Endorsed Teacher of the Visually Impaired (Envision CVI Consulting), presented on Current Trends in CVI to standing room only crowds.

On March 15th, this CVI mom drove to St. Michael’s in Maryland for the DC / Maryland AER Conference to reach out to Teachers of the Visually Impaired and Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists.   Thanks to Karen Frank and the AER folks who allowed me the chance to talk up the urgent need for educators to get more training to help children with CVI build functional vision.

 

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Image: Rob Hair,  Michelle Horseman, and Karen Frank from the Maryland School for the Blind
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Image: Dr. Michael Bina from the Maryland School for the Blind and Rebecca Davis

The Executive Director of AER, Lou Tutt, attended this conference and sat in on my presentation.  When I suggested to the audience of teachers that they contact AER to tell them they support more training for TVI in Cortical Visual Impairment, I didn’t have to give Mr. Tutt’s email address.  I just said, “There he is.”   He was a great sport about it.

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Image:  Lou Tutt and Rebecca Davis

If you have any luck sharing your stories at a conference or a meeting of educators or doctors (or legislators… or anyone who will listen), send us your story!  CVI Momifesto would love to expand the scope of both personal stories and adventures in advocacy.