Understanding What Shapes Us: Building a National TA Network

Posted on June 17, 2015


Jay Gense  - Former Project Director, NCDB

Several weeks into retirement from my position as Director of NCDB, I find myself reflecting on a deeply rewarding career in a field that I loved and continuing my commitment to doing what I can to help ensure a quality future. Now that I am playing tennis more and sitting in front of a computer less, NCDB has invited me to share some thoughts and perspectives about our field and about our evolution over the last few years as we have worked to create and implement a national deaf-blind network approach to TA service delivery. 

This is the first of two posts and in this initial post I’d like to bring attention to some foundational demographic trends that have and will continue to shape our field, as well as identify some gaps that exist in our service delivery infrastructure. As follow-up, I’ll offer perspective about why these trends and delivery gaps should drive our thinking about and planning for the future, the need for a networked approach to services, and the unique gifts we have as a field to forge ahead with confidence. 

Interestingly, some trends haven’t changed much over time while other trends highlight very significant and, arguably, profound paradigm shifts. While not new to many reading this post, I think it’s important to begin thinking about the future by reflecting on two trends: Prevalence and Educational Placements.

Nationwide there are about 10,000 infants, children, and youth identified as deaf-blind. This very low prevalence has been relatively constant for decades. As was true when I started my career in the mid-1970’s, deaf-blindness is and likely will continue to be the lowest of the low incidence disabilities. However, some prevalence trends speak to ever-changing and increasingly complex nuances. First is the increase in the overall number of children with disabilities in additionto their deaf-blindness. Currently, about 90% of children who are deaf-blind have additional disabilities. Second, while the distribution of children across age groups has remained relatively stable over the years, there’s been an overall decrease in the percentage represented by infants, birth – 2 years of age (6.2% - 5.9% for data-geeks who care about specificity). Considering only birth through age 1, we see that there are less than 100 infants included on the national Deaf-Blind Child Count. I find that alarming. Clearly early intervention is critical for children who are deaf-blind, and it’s essential that we are identifying children as early as possible and referring them to appropriate services. 

In my opinion, nothing impacts our planning for the future as significantly as do the trends related to educational placements. During my career we have experienced children moving from secluded, separated environments to placements in local programs. The percentage of young children ages 3-5 educated in a regular early childhood education setting has more than doubled in the past decade. For older children, we now see about 65% of elementary school aged children being served at least a portion of their day in a regular classroom in their local school. This percentage continues to grow.

I began my career at a time during which the vast majority of children were placed and served in one of about 300 segregated settings across the U.S., including state institutions, residential schools and segregated classrooms. Thankfully, today’s children who are deaf-blind are living at home, attending school in his/her neighborhood, and participating at least part of the day in a regular education classroom. They are, however, dealing with increasingly complex learning challenges and very much requiring highly individualized services and supports. 

Next, consider these trends in prevalence and placement as they relate to 4 significant gaps that currently exist in our national infrastructure in serving children, families, and schools

  • As inclusive placements continue to rise, so too does the number of service providers working with children. Local teachers typically don’t have the background and training required to provide quality services. They very much require supports from a strong TA system. TA providers (mostly, State Deaf-Blind Projects) are constantly challenged in bringing necessary knowledge and resources to local providers and to parents.
  • There is a critical shortage of teachers of the deaf-blind and other deaf-blind specialists. This leaves the State Deaf-Blind Projects serving as the primary source of expertise in virtually every state. We most definitely have a systemic gap of capacity nationwide.
  • Intervener services are an important individualized support that provides access for many children. Intervener services are still very much an emerging practice in the United States and, currently, the infrastructure for providing these services varies significantly from state to state.
  • We are, of course, fortunate to have federal funds supporting State Deaf-Blind Projects and a National Center. While we certainly can acknowledge significant improvements in efforts to better align services across the various projects over the past several years, there continues to be a need for improved systemic integration and alignment of services provided through this national Deaf-Blind TA Network. Without such alignment and integration there will be duplication of effort, minimal replication of quality services, and unnecessary expenditure of scarce resources. 

I believe that these trends and gaps must drive our thinking in planning for the next generation. Planning for the future requires both reflection of the past and careful analysis of current circumstances. The truth is that our field must create its future based on current realities; these realities present a very different picture than were the realities even a few years ago, let alone one generation ago. Serving 10,000 very complex children placed in thousands and thousands of school districts across the country requires different approaches and partnerships than those required when children were segregated into a few hundred programs. Again, we are fortunate to have federal support for nearly 50 deaf-blind projects, but the only way we'll succeed in serving children today is through collaborative networking. Children will not be better served through isolation or autonomy. In my next blog post I will highlight how the intersections of demographic trends and service delivery gaps discussed here are best managed through careful construction and implementation of national networked systems of collaboration. I also will offer perspective about the solid historical basis for such collaboration that exists in our field, and the opportunities that are currently afforded us all. The future is indeed bright, but we must be purposeful in embracing opportunities that lay before us. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and responses.

Comments (8)

Thanks, Jay, for the post. And all of you for commenting. Historical perspective, positive trends, statement of challenges and words of encouragement - much appreciated!

Today, when I have some desk time, I'm finding in this discussion, and in the materials gathered for the DB Summit 2015, just what I need to communicate to our SEA liaison and an IEP team about interveners and the need for team training. No question it takes more time to network nationally in multiple arenas. In the middle of deadlines, and state collaborative needs, it takes intention to direct my mouse to click on the recent NCDB post link in my email. Voila! A little decision with big rewards.

Katie  Humes

Posted Jul 2, 2015 by Katie Humes

It is great to see people from our community posting thoughtful comments about our future as a field. I don't think there is any question that interveners (and other qualified personnel to work with and support them) is going to be key to educating students regardless of where they are placed. In some ways the trend of more interveners, while certainly supporting better outcomes for kids, is another area that will challenge our capacity as a network to provide TA to all those in need. The needs created by the trend of interveners combined with the others that Jay talked about will not be possible to meet unless we do it in an increasingly collaborative manner. There will never be sufficient resources to support TA to all who need it on an individual basis. Teresa you are right on, we are already a collaborative community and do so much together. We are in a very different place than even two years ago, but we need to be more deliberate and purposeful in how act as a community to increase our reach and efficiency. Some questions I have:
What would deeper more structured collaboration look like what mechanisms and frameworks could we use?
How do we continue to shift from an expert model of TA to a collaborative community based model that would be more sustainable and self supporting?
Can we support local providers in a more collaborative manner (instead of states going it alone) where we build mechanisms for them to connect and support each other?
We as deaf-blind projects cannot meet the need as it is and the trends in the population and in the practices we are driving are only going to increase the need.

Sam Morgan

Posted Jul 1, 2015 by Sam Morgan

Sorry for a few typos in the previous post, folks, I inadvertantly hit the "share your comment" button before I was finished and had a chance to proofread. I do not see an "edit comment" feature on this blog, so ...I think you get my point. Smiles.

I welcome dialogue and more than that, encourage our network to collaborate on this so that there can be action. It's what we had to do to get the Educational Interpreter designation incorporated. Then it takes time for the infrastructure to catch up. It can happen! We have a pool of dedicated teachers, instructors, administrators, TA service providers, state DeafBlind Projects, etc. we have leadership, tapping into advocates who are DeafBlind themselves...

Barbara Martin

Posted Jul 1, 2015 by Barbara Martin

Hi Jay et al, I'm glad to hear your are enjoying your tennis deserve it! Thank you for staying in touch with us. Here are my thoughts on this post:

Teresa and Julie's responses are well-stated, so I will not be redundant with those points, but would embrace their comments and your posting's inclusivity in the Spirit of my response.

Since I joined the OHOA collaboration in 2011, I have seen some amazing tools emerge for training of interveners. These tools can be used effectively in conjunction with a an IEP, with the guidance of TA providers or consultants, however, when addressing early intervention as well as educational placements, responsible agencies will not incorporate a service provider listed as a "DeafBlind Intervener" without
1). it being listed as a qualified "specialized service provider" for students who are DeafBlind under the IDEA legislation reauthorization. This starts the ball rolling. Without the designation, SEA's and LEA's will not benchmark a position that can be incorporated into the database of approved job descriptions, pay scales, and certified/classified ranks.
2). In order for #1 to happen, and for Interveners to at least have equal recognition of an Educational Interpreter for the Deaf, the National Certification for DeafBlind Interveners must be in place, or they will continue to classified as instructional aides. This is wrong on so many levels. Having served as an Educational Interpreter for the Deaf for 28 years, and also having served Students who are DeafBlind for that same 28 years, it was not until 2009 that I fell into working with a student who has complex needs (CHARGE Syndrome on all points of that spectrum). I was hired as an Educational Interpreter for the Deaf, and my DoSE and I realized through collaborate team effort (including the parents) that an Educational Interpreter was not the appropriate provider for this student. *What I had to do was 100 times more difficult!*

A designation of Specialized Service Provider: DeafBlind Intervener under the IDEA and the national certification of DeafBlind Intervener are needed to help bridge the gaps. Indeed, it is a "repeat performance" for me, since I am the mother of a now Deaf adult who will turn 34 years old this September. I fought these battles. I spoke before state and national boards of education. I helped to write policies and guidelines for educational interpreters, and I fought for my son to have a qualified, certified Educational Interpreter who was designated full time with benefits at the LEA and SELPA under which he was served. The infrastructure is now in place for Interpreter Training programs, but they largely focus on the task of community interpreting and ignore educational interpreting. Still, the framework has produced service providers that are akin to placing an person with a Bachekor's degree in Accounting instead of a person who has a Bachelors in Education with a teaching credipential, but it "somewhat" has bridged that gap.

I urge parents in the NCDB network, colleagues and administrators to push for proper credentialing, job descriptions, a pay scale commensurate with the difficulty and physical demands of the task of providing Intervenion services and an infrastructure that is supportive of training and technical assistance until we can reach a level where there are seasoned, certified, qualified and experienced DeafBlind Interveners who can also become national trainers. This happens in the Educational Interpreting world. The only way we can get specialized training and support beyond the BA degree in Interpreting is to attend additional in-depth workshops that teach us specific techniques and strategies that are specific to providing services to students in an educational

Barbara Martin

Posted Jul 1, 2015 by Barbara Martin

great points Julie ... and Teresa. I very much agree that our fields' abilities to appropriately address the positive trends we are experiencing relative to regular education placement are (and will be) significantly impacted by future availability of quality intervener services. As children continue to be placed in regular education placements, there are, arguably, increased challenges in ensuring access to communication and to varying physical environments. Quality intervener services can provide the needed access. Establishing a national infrastructure to ensure AVAILABILITY of quality intervener services for every children that requires such is an opportunity for the national DB network that can't be compromised.

D. Jay Gense

Posted Jun 19, 2015 by D. Jay Gense

First, Jay, I really think you need to enjoy retirement and play more tennis---smiles. Second, I appreciate the discussion around the increased changes within our state db projects esp the fact that a high percentage of children who are deaf-blind have many additional disabilities and these children are included more and more in general education classrooms with typical peers. However, unless we can get some language into regulations supporting the efforts of interveners just like we did years ago around educational interpreters, I feel we will still have educators and staff not trained to work with this population. I totally agree with Julie Durando that there is a big difference when working with teams/educators who have been trained in evidence-based practices that we know work for children who are deaf-blind versus those that have not been trained. I also continue to believe that national and sometimes even state work, canNOT get to the core of learning unless we get to ONE network that is providing "real-time" training or consulting. I do think we are improving so much in working as one network, but we still have many steps to go up the mountain for better outcomes for children.

Teresa Coonts

Posted Jun 18, 2015 by Teresa Coonts

Great point Julie.

Cassondra Glausier

Posted Jun 18, 2015 by Cassondra Glausier

I am torn on your opinion that "nothing impacts our planning for the future as significantly as do the trends related to educational placements" because placements in more inclusive, neighborhood schools does increase the number and geographic spread of individuals who need to be trained. However, the way in which interveners are or aren't incorporated into the service delivery options could drastically impact the future of our field. I don't know that actual amount of need [for TA and training] would be changed, but awareness and demand to address needs likely would. TA plans for teams with trained staff and interveners usually look very different than those without. Perhaps someone else can weigh in....

Julie Durando

Posted Jun 18, 2015 by Julie Durando

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