“Who put salt in the water?” Incidental Learning!

Yesterday was Helen Keller’s birthday.  In honor of her extraordinary heart and intellect.  In honor of the brilliant teacher who opened up the world for her.  

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In Helen Keller A Life, author Dorothy Herrmann describes the moment when Helen experiences the ocean for the first time.  Anne Sullivan Macy, Helen’s teacher, explained later that she had anticipated Helen would be overjoyed by the full sensory experience of the pull of the tide and the wetness of the water.

What she did not expect was that Helen would emerge from the waves grimacing and coughing.

When she found her teacher’s hand, she demanded to know who put salt in the water? 

Clearly Helen had not expected that either.

Reading this passage made me laugh out loud.  It also reminded me that even when I try to teach E about the world, I will always have a lot to learn.  I have typical vision.  I experience the world visually, first and foremost.  I will leave out key details.

I keep learning and trying because I am her mom.  It’s challenging.  I forget to describe salient features.  I don’t always notice when she becomes still to listen to a fire truck that is passing because I’m rushing to get to the store.  I sometimes forget to give her a verbal cue before I give her a new object. We have lost so much time in her education.  There are still so many delays.  There is so much to teach.  I feel as though I am just now learning how to reach her. It can be very discouraging.

I find myself wondering how can I expect anyone else to try so hard when she is not even their kid?  Curling up in a fetal position in the closet seems like the only choice.  Then, I remind myself (clearly it’s quite busy in my head) that this is America.  There are laws and systems in place because parents like me – like you –  said “Enough already,” and demanded education for their children with special needs.

We are walking a path that has been paved by the parents before us. It’s a bumpy path with potholes the size of Texas, but, it’s a path nonetheless.  As parents of children with CVI, we have to create our own lane.

What we do for our children, and together for all of our children, will begin a movement to create a system of services for children with CVI when we say “Enough already.”

A key part of “Enough already,” is understanding and explaining the effects of sensory loss because CVI makes it challenging for children to receive visual and auditory information.  Even if your child is making great progress moving from Stage I to II to III in short order, your ability to advocate for access and why it is important remains the same. 

Here is some information you can use when you are discussing how your child with CVI learns.

The website for the National Center on Deaf-Blindness (https://nationaldb.org) contains a wealth of information about the effects of sensory loss and the importance of knowing how to teach children who lack incidental learning(Snuck that one in there on you.  If you are reading this post for the first time, please go back and read the earlier posts about incidental learning. It’s my favorite two word phrase! There’s a quiz later. Not really.)

The following is from the page, Developing Concepts with Children Who Are Deaf-Blind, written by Barbara Miles, M. Ed, and Barbara McLetchie, PhD. (https://nationaldb.org/library/page/1939)

Concepts are the ideas that give meaning to our world.

Here are some ideas that make sense from the perspective of the deaf-blind people who had them, but that might seem “odd” to someone with sight and hearing:

  • a boy thought “going home” meant the feel of a bumpy road and a series of turns in the car
  • a boy experiencing snow for the first time thought it was ice cream and asked for chocolate
  • a girl touched a wet leaf and signed “cry” (it felt like tears)
  • a girl thought food came from a mysterious place up high (it was always set down on the table from above)
  • a young man didn’t know, even after many years, that his family’s pet cat ate (he had never seen it or touched it as it ate, and no one had ever told him)

What each of these examples teaches us is how important it is to always be sensitive to and curious about a child’s perceptions of the world.

We need to continually ask, “What idea might she have or be developing about this experience, object, person, or place?”

If we want to help a child develop meaningful concepts, we must be willing to enter into a relationship and seek to understand the child’s concepts.

Children who lack sight and hearing or who have significant impairments in these senses, need to be consciously given continual access to the world and the society around them.

Most importantly, we must take the responsibility of providing experiences that will maximize the child’s opportunities to develop useful and meaningful concepts of the world. 

(“We” meaning the parents, yes, but also, the teachers, therapists, aides, and administrators who plan learning experiences for our children.)

It can be done.  Would there be a National Center on Deaf-Blindness if there had not been an extraordinary girl who became deaf-blind and an extraordinary teacher who made it her life’s mission to teach her?

I look to history to show us how to get where we need to go.

If even Anne Sullivan Macy forgot about the salt once in awhile, I can continue describing the world to my girl, making her experience books, and teaching her how to communicate through signs and technology

and

reaching out to you on the path we are making together.

 

 

“Vision Time” is not a thing. Incidental learning is. Part One

The Pediatric Cortical Visual Impairment Society will convene for its annual conference at the end of this week at the Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska.  As we prepare for an educational and lively meeting, we are revisiting some earlier posts.  (http://www.pediatriccvisociety.org/conference/)

Every family with a child with a visual impairment (CVI or ocular) needs to understand incidental learning to be an effective advocate for their child.

This post was published on September 14, 2017.

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Okay, my fellow parents of gorgeous children who happen to have CVI.

Here’s the deal.

We have to speak a common language for advocacy.  We have to know some fundamental things about the effect vision loss has on learning to affect change in our early intervention programs and our school systems.  We have to talk the talk.

In most cases, we have to teach the talk.

Will it be easy?  No, but what else do you have to do?

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

(Sorry, I’ll wait while we all catch our breaths from hysterical laughter or choke on a spit-take.  I’ll wait while you get a towel.  Bonus:  Now the floor is clean!)

Knowing how to parent a child with severe vision loss did not come naturally to me.  I have typical vision.  My daughter was the first blind person I had ever met.  At 6 months, when we got the diagnosis of CVI, we were told she was legally blind.  We did not know anything about CVI.

What I remember about the first couple of years:

  • She never looked at me or anything I tried to show her.
  • Her head hung down all the time.  (I thought this was because of the diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy which we also got on around the time she got her diagnosis of CVI.  At Christmas time.  Ho. Ho. Ho.)
  • She never slept for more than 3 consecutive hours.  (So when people at the grocery store commented on how serene she looked  while asleep in the baby carrier on my chest, it was all I could do NOT to scream – “She is not asleep!  She never sleeps!  Her head just hangs down!  All the time! Why won’t she sleep?  I’m dying inside! Argh!”   To be fair, I was severely sleep deprived.  This is against the Geneva Convention, by the way.  People have been charged for war crimes for less.     Just sayin’.)
  • I was never more than an arm’s length away, yet I felt as though I was a million miles away from her. (Nothing made me feel more useless than sitting on a blanket next to my infant daughter, trying to get her attention, while she stared blankly at the light coming through the window behind me.  I asked her therapists over and over again, “Is she in there?” Typing this reminds of how low and sad I felt in those days.  Did I mention that the child NEVER let me sleep?)

There was so much I did not understand.  There was so much to learn.  Over the years, I sought out some fantastic teachers of the visually impaired (Annie Hughes, TVI and Director of VIPS-Indiana is my personal hero.) and Dr. Roman-Lantzy in an attempt to educate myself about vision loss and CVI.

What I learned from them made perfect sense, but had not occurred to me before.  I was struggling.  I wasn’t sleeping.  My older daughter was a toddler.  Nothing made sense at that time.  Basic hygiene was a luxury.  Forget living day-to-day, we were living minute-to-minute.  The transition into the “new normal” of being a family with a child with multiple disabilities was (and is) chaotic and messy.

Maybe sharing some of the fundamentals will help another mother of another child with CVI get a handle on the situation a little earlier, a little easier.

Maybe developing a common language will help us all go into our IFSP meetings and our IEP meetings with an action plan and the information to back it up.

Here’s where we need to start.

INCIDENTAL LEARNING

Incidental learning is the learning that just happens for a typically sighted person.  From the time you open your eyes in the morning to the time you close your eyes at night, you are constantly taking in information about your environment without even trying.

Incidental learning is the information you receive with your eyes without realizing it.

Children with Cortical Visual Impairment are not incidental learners.

Here’s how it was explained to me.

Blue bowlMiss Annie’s Blue Bowl Story
Blindness or significant vision loss has a number of impacts upon a young child’s development.

One of these is the child’s lack of access to incidental learning.
Vision is the “great integrator” of sensory input. No one plans incidental learning, but it goes on every minute that a sighted child is awake. To illustrate this, I often tell parents the “Blue Bowl Story.”
Two babies are in high chairs at one end of the kitchen. One has normal vision, and one is blind. The dad comes into the kitchen and says to his wife, “Hey Honey, where is the blue bowl? I have rented a movie and want to make some popcorn.” The mom replies, “It’s on top of the refrigerator.” So, the dad walks to the refrigerator, he stretches his arm up and reaches on top, he grabs the bowl which is blue, and he walks to the microwave to make the popcorn.
In those few seconds, the child with vision has just had four “incidental” lessons;

1) The word/label “refrigerator” was connected with the object

2) The child is starting to get an idea about the concept of “on top”

3) The child is beginning to understand that even though this bowl is much bigger than his cereal bowl, it is still called a bowl.   It must be the “scooped out/can hold things” aspect that makes it a bowl.

4) The child has a blue ball, and this is a blue bowl, so identifying that color as blue has just been reinforced

What did the child without vision get?
He/she heard the same words, but they weren’t connected to any meaning. Sometimes this is called “empty language.” This story illustrates how important it is for children who are blind or have low vision to have real experiences with real objects, so the language they hear isn’t “empty language,” but is tied to meaning.

Thanks to Annie Hughes, TVI and Director of Visually Impaired Preschool Services-Indiana

Being able to say, with confidence, “My child in not an incidental learner,” can be the start of an effective conversation with your educational team.

Stay tuned for more information and resources about incidental learning.

Stone Walls and New Starts

Thank you to Ian Christy, Illustrator Extraordinaire, Designer,  & Cool Rockin’ Dad for the fantastic illustration in this post!

Imagine you were walking down the hallway of an elementary school.  As you walked, you saw brief glimpses through the slender window in each classroom door.  In one class, a teacher stands writing at a whiteboard, her students taking notes.  In another classroom, children gather on a rug for story time.

In the last classroom on the left, you see a similar scene.  Students sitting at their desks, raising their hands, doing their classwork.  You notice that one little girl’s desk is surrounded by a single layer of limestone bricks.

The next day, you walk down the hallway again to see the usual business of learning.  Some children are walking around their room going from station to station.  One class watches the teacher do a science experiment at the front of the class.

In the last classroom, however, you see the little girl’s desk is now surrounded by bricks stacked about 2 feet high.  She is sitting quietly. No one seems to notice them. The teacher stands at the front of the class continuing the lesson.  The students continue raising their hands.

You become concerned.  You return every day.  Every day you look into the last classroom on the left. Every day, the wall of blocks  gets taller and taller.  Every day, the little girl sits quietly, growing more isolated than the day before.  Every day, the classroom moves on around her.  You begin to feel anxious for the little girl.

She is being walled in, cut off from her teacher, her peers, her classroom, but no one seems to notice.  You stand at the window day after day and watch as she disappears behind cold, hard stone.  ian access

You knock on the door and ask the teacher why the little girl is being walled in.  She looks at you as though you have lost your mind.  She cannot see the wall.

You run to the principal’s office to tell him that the little girl is being enclosed in a kid sized stone tower.  The principal goes to look for himself.  He doesn’t see the wall either.

Every day the wall gets higher.

You demand a meeting with the principal, the teacher, and anyone else who works with this little girl.

You show them pictures of stone walls.  You bring them research about limestone.  You find articles from education experts who have studied children behind stone walls for decades, and, who have concluded  (surprise!)  that stone walls make learning very difficult.

Children cannot learn when they are cut off from everyone else.  Stone walls = bad for learning.

The team considers your presentation.  They reluctantly admit that – maybe – they noticed the wall from time to time.  An aide admits she tripped over a brick once but didn’t want to make a fuss about it.

Someone suggests that the stone wall may not be the little’s girl’s only problem.

“Sure,” you reply, “ she may have other issues, BUT, that STONE WALL IS NOT HELPING.”

The educational team takes another couple of weeks to develop a learning plan for the little girl.

Every day, the wall gets higher.

At another meeting, the team tells you that a teacher who works with “stone wall children” will take the little girl out of the stone wall to another room for 30 minutes a week.

But, she’s sitting behind the wall for every other minute of the school day!”

Then, Rod Serling comes out of nowhere, pats you on the head, and, says, to no one in particular, ” Ladies and Gentlemen, you’re entering the wondrous dimension of imagination….Next stop, the Twilight Zone.”

And, scene.


This seems ridiculous, right?  Or, sadly, mind numblingly familiar?

I have spent sooooo much time trying to explain to people that my kid does not have easy access to the world with her visual system.

I have walked by “Library Time” (my personal pet peeve for children with vision loss in a traditional school setting) where I’ve seen children with CVI sitting passively at tables in the back of the library while the librarian reads a book the size of a magazine to the children grouped at the front.

I have found “art projects” in my daughter’s backpack that were clearly colored in by the well meaning aide who finished it while Eliza was self-stimming in the back of the room.  (I know this because I went to art time one day and found everyone – Eliza’s aide included- sitting at the table coloring, except my girl, who was laying on the floor, rocking. I cannot make this stuff up.)

How are these examples any more ridiculous than watching in panic as a child is enclosed in stone, a situation that no one else seems to find problematic?

They aren’t.


To my fellow CVI families,

2018 is a new start. 

There will be opportunities for us as a community to work together to raise awareness about Cortical Visual Impairment and to demand that our children be educated in a manner in which they can learn.

In this year and every year that follows, we must demand access and expertise.  

Stay tuned

and

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

“It is what it is.” I wonder.

“It is what it is.”  A dedicated TVI with many years of experience said this to me earlier this morning.

This is not the post I had planned for today.  I planned to follow up with more examples of incidental learning, the kind of effortless learning typically sighted people take for granted.  The kind of learning not available to children with vision loss.

It bears repeating:  Children with Cortical Visual Impairment are NOT incidental learners.  This phrase may become my first tattoo.

Take this critical piece of knowledge with you when you begin the ongoing conversation with schools about how to teach you children.  It has been a real challenge to get this point across in every school my daughter has attended.  I wish I had known how to explain incidental learning much sooner.

My secret goal is for everyone who knows me to get to the point that, when I begin to say (maybe a little self righteously),“Have you ever heard of incid…”

They will cut me off with an exasperated sigh.  “Incidental learning. Yes. Good grief. We know.  WE KNOW. Can we please, for once, finish a pizza without discussing how typically sighted people effortlessly process information?”

Then, with a satisfied smile and a mouth full of cheesy pepperoni, my work here will be done.

That was the plan for this post.

But, then this morning, I participated in a conference call between the educational team from my daughter’s school and the staff at our state’s DeafBlind Project.  (There are federally funded DeafBlind projects in every state.  The DeafBlind community has been very receptive to the CVI community.  They have the expertise in teaching children with sensory loss that is often missing in general Special Education programs.  If you are not satisfied with how your child is being taught, ask about the DeafBlind Project in your state.  You can find it here – https://nationaldb.org)  

The conference call was a way for the educators at the DeafBlind Project to offer training and coaching to my daughter’s classroom teacher and her aides (sometimes aides get overlooked, but they often spend more time with the child than the teacher). I will go into more detail about the National Center on Deaf-Blindness and State Projects in later posts.

After the call, our TVI wanted to catch up on my daughter’s progress this summer. She told me about the materials and accommodations she made at the end of last year and into ESY (Extended School Year) for my girl. She explained how she had lobbied for more time in the classroom and more training for everyone.  She was actually preparing to leave early for a family emergency, but, she made sure she came for this conference call.

She wanted me to know that she has been giving this school, this classroom, my daughter, everything she can.

“But, you know,” she smiled sadly at me, “it is what it is.”

I do know.

What it is  is  Teachers of the Visually Impaired working with caseloads so large, and in so many schools, that they struggle to meet the time allotments in each student’s IEP.  TVI who can only provide consultation, at best seeing students 15, 30, 45 minutes a week.  At worst 15, 30, 45 minutes a month. (For students whose vision loss affects their access to their environment every waking minute of their day.)  TVI who, in some states, are expected to provide Early Intervention as well as in-school consultation for students through high-school. (How effective would you be if you had to braille a high school senior’s Geometry homework, then, drive to the next county to show a new mother how to interact with her baby with low vision?  How would the average Kindergarten teacher feel about taking over for a Calculus teacher and visa versa?  Different, equally important, sets of skills.) 

This is what it is.  This is how it is. It is already not enough for children with ocular forms of vision loss.

AND, Cortical Visual Impairment is a new challenge for TVI. They did not get the training on CVI in their teacher training programs. Many of them are recognizing this challenge.  They are asking for more training.  When school districts are unwilling to provide it, they are seeking it out themselves.  They are paying to get themselves the skills to teach our children, to help the world make sense to our children.

I applaud the Teachers of the Visually Impaired who are taking the initiative to learn about CVI and to advocate for children with CVI in their classrooms, often to no avail.  (Don’t give up!  You aren’t alone! These kids matter! I will personally bake you a pie and hug the stuffing out of you if I ever get the chance.)

Today was, finally, a step in the right direction for making school a place where my daughter can learn.  I know it is just a beginning. I have learned to say that I am “cautiously optimistic” when things seem to be improving.

I cannot forget that it has taken me over two years, in this school alone, of arguing, pleading, explaining, attending conferences, and doing my own research to get to this point.

I have had the pleasure of meeting a very dedicated TVI who is going above and beyond for us and for all of her students.  I am so grateful for her time and her effort.  I will continue to learn from her and with her.

Yet, it is what it is.  It is still not enough time. She is still pulled in too many directions.

If it is what it is, I wonder what it can be if we put our minds to it.

I wonder how we, the parents, can help it become what it should be: consistent access to a learning environment, teachers who understand CVI and who can make appropriate modifications in a classroom, enough teachers and TVI to give every child with any vision loss, including CVI, ample direct instruction and consultation.

I wonder.  Do you?