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$1M grant helps U prepare teachers and therapists in deafblindness education

Special education teachers and occupational therapists will learn together how to meet deafblind students’ needs.

The world needs more Anne Sullivans. At the turn of the 20th century, Sullivan famously became the teacher of Helen Keller, a child with deafblindness. More than a century later, children with deafblindness are still in need of the specialized skills that teachers like Sullivan can provide. But the numbers of such teachers are, sadly, too few.

A new $1 million grant to the University of Utah’s College of Education aims to help fill that gap. The U is already one of only a handful of universities offering certification in deafblindness education, and the grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs will fund over the next five years the graduate training of 16 special education teachers with an endorsement in deafblindness (TSDBs) and 12 occupational therapists (OTs) who will participate in interdisciplinary coursework and fieldwork. Sixty-five percent of the grant will go toward student scholarships.

“Children with deafblindness stand to gain from the preparation of TSDBs and OTs who are knowledgeable in both fields and who are able to deliver effective services to children as a strong collaborative team,” says Sarah Ivy, assistant professor of special education and Lorie Richards, associate professor of occupational and recreational therapies, co-leaders of the combined TSDBOT project. “By acquiring an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each other’s professions and learning together through collaborative activities and projects, scholars from the TSDB and OT programs at the U will be better prepared to serve school-age children with deafblindness and support children with other disabilities as well.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind

A teacher works with a student with deafblindness.

Specialized teachers for specialized needs

Around 11,000 children in the United States experience deafblindness, a condition featuring hearing and visual impairments. “The combination of which,” Ivy says, “results in a specialized set of needs that cannot be met by simply combining vision and hearing services.”

In addition, nearly all children with deafblindness experience other disabilities – sometimes many more. The effect of multiple sensory impairments on education, Ivy adds, are multiplicative, since ways of teaching children experiencing either deafness or blindness alone would rely on the intact sense.

Only six universities, including the U, offer certification or endorsement in deafblindness education and only two states, Utah and Illinois, recognize the certifications of TSDBs.

“Therefore, it is clear that the supply of qualified personnel is nowhere near even approaching sufficient to address the needs of 11,000 children with deafblindness in our nation,” Ivy says.

The U’s deafblind graduate program began in 2012, and the 23 graduates thus far are all employed in serving the educational needs of children with hearing and/or visual impairments. The U is a leader in deafblind education; 12 of the state’s 15 “deafblind consultants” (i.e., TSDBs) are U graduates.

At the same time, OTs that are trained as generalists need in-depth training for working with this specialized population. Movement and touch are critical senses that can also be impaired in some children. OTs are well prepared in the assessment of a child’s sensorimotor development, self-help skills, and sensory processing, and can also select or create adaptations and carry out interventions for children to increase their active participation and independence in a range of activities. Just as TSDBs can provide insight to OTs working with children with deafblindness, “OTs are positioned to provide valuable information to TSDBs regarding their students’ strengths and needs in critical areas of development, and therefore are critical members of the educational team,” Richards says. OTs who want to work in the deafblindness area, however, have had to learn on the job and attend continuing education activities to increase their knowledge and skills, she adds.

Training together to fill a need

The new Project TSDBOT, according to Ivy and Richards, will address the national shortage of TSDBs and OTs, as well as address the critical need for knowledge and skill in collaborative teaming among these professionals, necessary to serve children with deafblindness given the intensity of need and increasing complexity of the population. The Project Development Team includes Chris Bischke and Sondra Stegenga from the Department of Special Education and Sarah Gray from the Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies in the College of Health.

The deafblind program and OT program have multiple tracks and degree options, whether as part of Project TSDBOT or not:

  1. A master’s degree in Special Education with Utah endorsement in deafblindness (admitted students must already have a license in another area of special education)
  2. A master’s degree in Special Education without endorsement in deafblindness (admitted students do not already have to have a teaching license)
  3. A deafblind endorsement without a master’s degree (admitted students must already have a license in another area of special education)
  4. A master’s degree in Occupational Therapy

The deafblind and OT programs are master’s-level programs. Students must already have an undergraduate degree, and education students must already hold a special education license if they would like to receive an endorsement. There are also thesis options for those students who may be interested in a doctorate down the road.

The project will help OT and TSDB students gain an understanding of each other’s disciplines and learn how to work together while ensuring they complete their individual programs and meet the standards and competencies of their respective professions.

“The TSDB and OT scholars will not be prepared nor qualified to ‘fill the other’s role,’” Ivy says, “but will be better prepared to work as a team in collaborative environments through their interdisciplinary experiences.”

“This grant will allow the U program to build on its outstanding reputation,” she adds, “extending our reach to meet the national needs of children with deafblindness while improving the existing TSDB and OT programs to prepare scholars with special skill sets in collaboration, teaming, and working with learners with deafblindness.”

“Occupational therapists who work with children are committed to ensuring that these children obtain the ability to fully engage in their occupations, those needed or desired activities, such as educational activities and life skills that result in quality of life,” Richards says.

Teachers for students with deafblindness are committed to ensuring that no child is left behind, Ivy says. “We believe deeply that every child deserves an appropriate, meaningful education, and know that everyone is capable of learning. Teachers for children with deafblindness have an advanced level of education and I think this is a reflection that these professionals are a particularly intelligent, passionate and dedicated group, who are motivated by social justice, are deeply compassionate and seek out challenges. But I am biased.”

To learn more about the deafblind program, contact Sarah Ivy at

To learn more about the OT program, contact Lorie Richards via email at