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Meet Liam Kenrick


Liam sits at the top of a slide.

Liam, who was six years old when this story was filmed, lives in South Dakota and loves reading, playing with friends and family, being outside, running, and going on expeditions in the community. He became deaf-blind from meningitis at age 2 ½ and communicates using ASL expressively and tactile ASL receptively. His mother, Sandy, believes strongly in inclusion and has found many creative ways to make home, school, and community as accessible as possible to Liam. She is passionate about literacy and creating tactile books, and Liam’s braille skills have developed rapidly. Sandy is a regular blogger for the Paths to Literacy website.

Watch the videos to meet Liam, his family, and some of the members of his team: Leslee Wallis, his intervener; Joe Harrison, his TVI; and Shaun Keller, his special education teacher and case manager. Check out the box below each video for additional resources, including some of Sandy’s blog posts.




Meet Liam

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SANDY: Hi, my name is Sandy Kenrick. I am the mother of two boys. One—my oldest—is six years old. His name is Liam; he is deaf-blind. My youngest’s name is Finn. He is three years old; he has typical vision and hearing. Liam was born with typical vision/hearing; when he was 2 ½ years old, he became sick with meningitis. After months in the hospital and therapies and such, we came home with a kiddo who was now deaf-blind. His vision is…he can see lights and darks, some movements, some—he can make out shapes and some objects. He is a braille reader. He also has no hearing. We’ve had cochlear implant surgeries, two of them, both of which failed with different complications because of the meningitis. And so he has no hearing, so he is deaf and communicates using ASL expressively and tactile ASL receptively.

Let’s see it, Finn! Whoa, that was a good one! Let’s see Liam go. He’s gonna go. Yeah, he has a rock. Finn, be gentle. Okay, go, Liam, go! [laughs] Good one!

Liam’s favorite things. Liam, I have to say, his very favorite thing to do is read. He loves to read his books; he loves his braille games; give that kid a new book, he is going to be a very happy boy. Liam really loves to play outside. He likes to go for walks on the streets, play in the park, walk in our neighborhood. Liam really likes to play with friends and family—he’s very social, so anytime he can be with someone that he enjoys hanging out with, that’s one of his favorite things as well. He likes swimming, going to church—very social, like I said. He loves to go to the store, the grocery store; that can be a busy time, but he likes to go. And restaurants—we have a few family favorite restaurants that we enjoy going to together that we’ve worked very hard to make successful trips. He likes going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to play, and one of his other things he likes to do is to run. Run—he likes to run around the house, outside, with a friend. And yeah, very active little guy. My favorite things that I love about Liam is I love his laugh; he is a happy boy, full of joy, very social. I love how brave he is, how he embraces…just embraces life. He’s adventurous. He is independent and not afraid to let you know what he wants. He loves to make people laugh; he’s a hard worker; he loves to learn and is very curious.

Communication

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SANDY: Is your brother Liam?

FINN: Yes.

SANDY: Yeah? Can you tell us how Liam talks?

FINN: With his hands.

SANDY: He talks with his hands. Can you talk to Liam?

FINN: With his hands.

SANDY: You hold onto his hands like that. Can you sign Liam’s name? And can you sign your name sign? What’s “Finn”? There’s “Finn.” Very good.

Liam uses tactile American Sign Language when he’s getting his information receptively, and expressively he uses American Sign Language. Tactile sign language is where, you know, I’ll be signing to him, and he will be trailing with his hands over what I’m signing.

SANDY [signing]: Book titled “Liam Can Go.” Your turn.

LIAM [signing]: Liam can go!

SANDY [signing]: Yes.

LIAM [signing]: It’s broke.

SANDY [signing]: Liam, right here. You read.

LIAM [signing]: Liam can go with Mom.

SANDY [signing]: Yes, with Mom.

SANDY: Before Liam became deaf-blind, he spoke verbally, English, very well, and so when he became deaf-blind, we all had to learn a new way to communicate. Liam had to learn, we had to learn; we all were clueless about anything American Sign Language. After he became deaf-blind, he was still using his voice verbally, and so that helped a little bit—us at least know what he was telling us. But it was very frustrating for him and heartbreaking—like he didn’t know what we were saying back to him; he was very confused. So we started out simply using tactile objects, real-life objects, so object cues. For example, if it were getting close to time to eat for dinner, we would give him a spoon, and then we would, you know, pair that with the sign for “eat.” He still didn’t really know that his hands had power, that he could talk with them yet, so we would use the coactive sign and help him make the sign, we would sign, at the very beginning. Another thing that we did—our next steps were using the coactive signing again where we were helping him to form the signs is we would just start pairing, if he was still voicing at the time, we would pair what he was voicing with the sign and acknowledge him. If we were trying to teach him one—I remember trying to teach him the word for “orange.” Eating was a very motivating time for him, so a lot of his first signs had to do with food. So at lunch we would give him an orange and we’d make him sign “orange” before he could have one or, you know, when we were giving it to him. So that’s kind of how we started. The real turning point was when he realized that signing with his hands gave him power to communicate. Once he realized that, he just improved, improved, improved, improved.

LIAM: [counting in ASL]

TEACHER [signing]: Yes.

SANDY: One other thing I just wanted to add about how he communicates and what’s important to him is Liam always likes to be touching the person he’s talking to somehow, whether it’s just his knee on you so he knows you’re still there, whether if you’re sitting at lunch he’ll put his little foot…like I sit kitty-corner to him, so he’ll put his foot on me to make sure, you know, he can just feel that someone’s there next to him. Sometimes he’ll just have his hand on the person that’s next to him. So having that touch is really important to him. And also, with his vision, if he has two people that are sitting next to him…if one person says, for example, “I threw a ball.” Well, he would quick turn to the other person and make sure that they knew that this person said that they threw a ball. So he likes to make sure everybody saw, or felt, what was being communicated with the other person.

Literacy

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SANDY: And on to one of my favorite topics: literacy. Before Liam became sick with meningitis, one of his favorite things to do was read. So after, when we brought him home, now deaf-blind, he happened to stumble upon his little box of books. And he…I distinctly remember him picking it up—picking his books up—and whipping them across the room. He no longer loved his books. And as a mom, that was heartbreaking to me, and I decided that day—it was very early on—that Liam was going to love to read again. He was going to love literacy again. And I was going to do everything—I didn’t know anything about working with a child who was blind, helping them to read or to love reading—but I was going to do everything I could to make books accessible to him and for him to be able to enjoy books again. And so that started us on our journey of…one of my first books is I just…I just made a book for him—it was very, very soon after the throwing book incident. I found these little blank cardboard books at the local hobby store. I glued some shapes onto there. I asked my son’s TVI—I didn’t even have a brailler or knew anything about braille at the time—I asked him if he could braille me a few words, so he could just have exposure to braille, and I made a shape book for him. A whole bunch of different shapes that you get to feel. And I’ve been modifying and adapting books for him ever since.

SANDY [signing]: No, no, it’s your turn.

LIAM [signing]: Liam can go with Leslee.

SANDY [signing]: Liam can go with Leslee, yes!

LIAM [signing]: Liam’s house.

SANDY [signing]: Yes, Liam’s house, yes.

LIAM [signing]: Finn with Grandma?

SANDY [signing]: Liam can go with Grandma.

LIAM [signing]: Car.

SANDY [signing]: Car, yes.

LIAM [signing]: Liam can go with Papa.

SANDY [signing]: Yes, Papa. Finished.

LIAM [signing]: Show him book?

SANDY [signing]: Yes, can.

INTERVENER: Part of the first grade literacy program is learning the speech and the recognition of all the vocabulary, and then the letter recognition, and they use a program called Words Their Way. So this booklet has various words starting with the different letters of the alphabet, and we have made reinforced pages for Liam to be able to identify the letters, and it’s got the braille letter and then the word for each of those items on the page. So this was at the beginning of the school year. We have gone through and used these continuously as just a review for him to kind of warm up when we’re going to do working with words. And so here shortly I’ll be going into the classroom, and he’ll be selecting one of these pages, and then he will read the entire page to me. And usually he will fingerspell the word and then do the sign, which is just incredible. Another thing that we do after we do this is come into our other work area, and we then reinforce by him using a Velcro strip board and perhaps doing more word work with the letter and then the words on these little Velcro cards. We do a great deal of material modification for him. And so he could select a card with the letter or the word on it, and then it’s got the Velcro on the back, so he could match it up with where it belongs. We’re also getting into consonant blends now with the sh, ch, wh, and th. And for him, in addition to learning the individual letters, all of these consonant blends have an entirely different braille identifier. So he has learned what these are, and again, I could teach him what the sign—the braille sign—for sh is, and spell “sh” for him, and he has been able to identify it within words ever since. So it’s incredible that his ability to read braille now has gotten to the print, instead of the larger braille that we started with, and now he’s able to read complete sentences.

Movement

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SANDY: Liam…in very familiar areas, such as his home or church or Grandma and Grandpa’s house, he can…like I said, my house—he knows the whole house. He can go to his room, to find my room, find his brother’s room, find the kitchen. He literally can run circles through our house. He gets around our house great. Grandma and Papa’s house—he knows it well, but there’s a lot more…you know, just different angles. So he knows when, for example, like a corner is coming, so he’ll slow down. He’s got those landmarks made. And same with church—he’s just been there, running up and down the hallways. He just the other day told me he wanted to go to the bathroom by himself and that I should stay up in the front of the church, and I was like, “Fine, go,” although I secretly tailed him. But he went all the way from the front of the church to the back of the church and found the bathroom—went and did his thing by himself. And so he gets around really well in areas that he’s familiar with. And so when he’s introduced to areas that are not as familiar—say, his new classroom at school this year—his TVI and his intervener, we met at school before school started, and his TVI took him around the whole perimeter of the classroom. And they tried to make it where there were specific walkways that he could go. They had his desk…a clear shot from the door to his desk to some of the things he needed to do. But Liam before then was able to at least get just the full feel of the perimeter of the room. Same with when he first was at this school and he started kindergarten, they did the same thing. They took him down the main trails…pathways that he’d be taking from his workroom to the classroom to the office, from the back door to the front door to the gym, all of those things. And he also does use, in the hallways, he does use a cane. He’s been working with his cane. He started out with one of the—I don’t know the technical name—but the canes that have the big balls at the end of them. And then now he’s graduated to one that just has a little bit of a smaller one that at first kept getting stuck in cracks, but now he’s pretty good at using that cane. We use the cane in school; we’ll bring it when we go to stores that are unfamiliar places to him. When we go to the park, he’ll use it walking down the walkway, using his cane. And then when we play on the equipment, someone usually has to be right there with him, unless it’s a playground that he knows well. Then we can be…he doesn’t have to be holding onto us or us holding his hand. He can be a little more independent then.

Teaming

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SANDY: My son Liam is in first grade in a general education classroom—I am a strong believer in inclusion. It’s been a journey getting us to this point, but this year has been really great. Having a kiddo that is deaf-blind in an inclusive setting does take a lot of creativity and a lot of work to make sure things are accessible and to make sure things are modified for him, that he is included in a way that makes sense, is meaningful. And…that just makes sense for him. And so we work together—his team and I—they include me and treat me as if I’m an important member of their team, and we meet together monthly to see how things are going, see what we need. Everybody does their part. Everybody on the team has something that they focus on to modify for him…to modify and adapt materials for different parts. So I do something; his TVI might do something; his intervener.

TVI: I’m a teacher for visually impaired, an orientation and mobility specialist. Generally we’re teaching braille, we’re teaching cane travel, we’re teaching technology. Communication with the team—you’re always trying to be able to teach others what you know about teaching so that we can provide a consistent and, you know, very good routines for program. The other thing—communication with parents—I think as teachers it’s often our fault if parents are a thorn in our sides because that means we’re not giving them what they want. And so, you know, you really want to communicate—whether it be in the parking lot, whether it be in the school, whether it be email, telephone, whatever. You just want to communicate a lot with parents, and then they become your allies and your strongest supporters.

SANDY: We work really well together, thankfully, and it has to be that way. I don’t know how it could be successful without the help. And without the teamwork.

LIAM [signing]: Eleven.

TEACHER [signing]: Yes.

LIAM [signing]: I found!

TEACHER [signing]: You found, yes!

Community

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SANDY: So communication with Liam—introducing him to new people—like I said before, he is a very social little guy, and often a lot of people are very eager and interested to meet him, but they’re not quite sure exactly how they’re supposed to approach him, especially if they don’t know sign language. So ideally, if I have time to talk to—whether it’s a child, adult, whomever—ideally I would like to be able to talk to them ahead of time and just give them maybe a few little signs, teach them how they just sign, he’s going to feel—you know, trail your hand. And that seems to help when they just kind of…when they understand when you meet him, give him your identifier—whether it’s a ring, or your bracelet, you know. Let him feel who you are, your identifier, so he’ll remember you. And then just kind of see where it goes from there. And often I’ll stand to the side and kind of feed them some signs so that they can respond back and forth with him. And Liam is just kind of a fun guy. He does like new people, and if he feels like that person is really trying to interact with him and trying to have a fun time with him, he’s going to just find a way to interact with them, whether it’s tickling, giving fives, laughing, running with them. Liam finds all different kinds of ways to communicate with people at all different kinds of levels.

I would have to say the biggest challenge that we have, or I have, raising a kiddo who is deaf-blind is I am constantly having to think of ways to adapt and modify his world. It’s really important to me that Liam is included and that the world around him is made as accessible as possible. This includes church, school, home. If we go out to the community, what kind of things do I need to do to make sure that he knows what’s going on, he’s accepted, he’s included. And even leisure activities, community activities—it’s a constant…having to think and brainstorm and create and create and create ways for him to be…just for his world to be accessible to him. Very important, and worth every minute of it, but it still is a challenge.

My hopes and dreams for my Liam...I dream that Liam one day—I just want him to grow up, to be happy and healthy. I want him to be surrounded by his friends and family. I want him to be accepted and valued. I want him to have…as an adult, I want him to have a career that he loves, has pride in, and a career that he has chosen. And ultimately I want him to be as independent as possible.

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