Speech language and deafblind projects with Megan Mogan

Megan Mogan is a former Speech-Language Pathologist at Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, who specializes in early communicators, including deafblind.


Valerie: Hello and welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. Each week, our hope is to provide you with an inside look at special education topics– in particular, visual impairment. Through a series of interviews with leaders in the field and a fresh look at our webcast series, we know you will learn something new when you are on the go. Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and let’s hear what this week’s podcast is all about.


Valerie: Hello. Welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. This is Valerie. On today’s podcast, I am joined by Megan Mogan. Megan is a former speech language pathologist at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind, the Tucson Campus, and most recently has become the deafblind specialist with the Arizona Deafblind Project. She is here to discuss both of these careers with us, as well as just a general catch up. Let’s see what is going on with Megan.

Valerie: Thank you so much, Megan, for joining me today.

Megan: And thank you so much for having me.

Valerie: So I was curious if you could tell us a little bit about the work that you’re currently doing.

Megan I’d love to tell you about the work I’m currently doing. And that’s a little bit of a funny question for me because I just started a new position here in Arizona. And so I guess for some context, I was trained and I’ve worked as a speech pathologist for the last 18 years here in Arizona, for five years in the public schools and then 13 years at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind. And just this past January, I started a new job working for the Arizona Deafblind Project. And so I still get to bring a lot of my communication background to this job, but I’m also on a very steep learning curve as I navigate the new position.

And so, for your listeners, every state in the US has a deafblind project that’s funded through the Federal Office of special education programs. And one of my main jobs here in Arizona is really to support families and teams of people who have or work with children and youth with combined vision and hearing loss. So really, as of January, I switched from directly working with students to now working with those students’ families and educators.

Valerie: Wow. So your career’s really evolving.

Megan: Yeah. I guess you could say that. It seemed like a perfect fit for where I was at when I saw the job posted. And I knew that Cindy Robinson, the longtime director of the Arizona Deafblind Project, I know that she was retiring. And so she had some very big shoes to fill. It won’t be easy, but she’s really set up just a wonderful project here in our state.

Valerie: Wonderful. So over 18 years a speech pathologist, we don’t want to leave that out. So as you started your career, what made you want to specialize as a speech pathologist?

Megan: Well, I’m one of those weirdos that in high school, when they force you to kind of research a career that you could possibly work toward and figure out that the qualifications you’ll need, the schooling you’ll need, I picked speech language pathologists because my best friend’s sister was a speech pathologist. And so since I was 15, that’s what I’ve been working toward– or that’s what I worked toward, which isn’t perhaps the usual story, but that’s it’s my story. It’s not out of some– I don’t really have family members that worked in speech pathology and I didn’t know anything about it. But I learned as much as I could and followed the training toward that path.

I guess the more funny story is how I came into being a speech pathologist specifically in the field of sensory impairment. I always loved finding out everyone’s answer to how they came specifically to the field of deafblindness really such a low incidence disability, and my path to that was really accidental. I sat down with, actually, Cyral Miller in Texas a few years back at a dinner table, and we talked about all the people we knew, including both ourselves that were accidental professionals in this field.

I wish I had some inspirational story about a lifelong passion to work with kids with sensory impairment. I mean, that’s definitely the way I feel now, but in truth, when I was working in the public schools, my commute to and from my old job was so long and I had just had a baby and I just knew I didn’t want to spend over an hour of my day in my car every day. So I just got this email in my inbox about the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind needing a speech pathologist, and this was a school just a little over a mile from my house. And I just decided to apply and interview for the job.

And I look back on that and I have no idea why they hired me because I really knew absolutely zero about sensory impairment. And I also had started my school year at ASDB pregnant with my second child, so not only did I know nothing, I was like working off of major sleep deprivation for most of the first two years on the job.

Valerie: Goodness.

Megan: Whenever you’re new to anything, you find your people. And so my second year or so, I started to work alongside really some of the most skilled and experienced TBIs and teachers for the deaf and paraprofessionals. We’re lucky in our state to have the title Deafblind Intervener. It’s someone who is specially trained to facilitate access to the deafblind individual across the school day. Access to communication, access to information, access to social interaction. So really skilled person.

So anyways, I had never, ever communicated with a deafblind person before. And to be perfectly honest, to me at that time, that student seemed really kind of in his own world. And a lot of the time, it just seemed to me to be kind of a long shot that we could possibly connect. Like my ASL was really limited. The student didn’t really use his vision very well all the time, and I couldn’t really think of a topic we would even want to communicate about together.

And so if that was just like me as an adult, you can imagine what his access and interaction with his peers in the classroom was like. It was very, very poor. So every day, his peers would gather around this little circular table in their classroom and share their journals about an experience from the day. And his intervener would do her best to sign what the students were saying, but kind of all the older adults in the room knew it really wasn’t very quality input. Like once the signs were made, they went away just as quickly. It was fleeting information.

And we know that students who have challenges and auditory and visual processing, it really makes it hard for them to constantly interpret that input that goes away once it’s made. So just wasn’t it really super meaningful activity for this deafblind student. And so there I was sitting and working with all the other students and had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that there was one person at the table not getting any information. And having zero training in deafblindness, zero experience with deafblind individuals, and still very much new to working with students with visual impairment and multiple disabilities, I just did what I think most everyone in the field does. I just improvised.

I grabbed like a slant board that was nearby and a pack of magic markers. And when the deafblind student’s classmates were telling their stories or reading their journals, I just drew a picture on a white piece of paper of what they were saying, and I used stick figures and basic line drawings, which it’s really the max of my level of artistic ability. But something really cool happened. The deafblind student stayed really tuned in at the table more so than he’d ever been.

He sat next to his peers the whole time. And I was basically just transferring those students’ thoughts to paper. And when I look back on it, I imagine like this giant cartoon light bulb over my head going off, because that was kind of like my aha moment where it’s all about access– access, access, access. And just that simple thing, access, the doors open for the deafblind student in terms of his relationships with his peers and other staff, his access to learning maybe new vocabulary through these drawings, and access to using his residual vision with more frequency and length.

Connection is a human need. We all have it. And for, I guess, people in our field, we have to really constantly be on our toes thinking of creative ways to build connections through access.

Valerie: Even though you were new at doing this, you were cognizant of the fact that someone there was not able to participate.

Megan: Right. And–

Valerie: Apparently knew what to do to help them, which is fantastic.

Megan: I don’t know about that. It was just more like panic than anything. But that’s, I think too, where the training is so important. I just did not come from a place of training about either making up for the loss of a sensory channel or making the most of what’s left of a sensory channel, whereas teachers of the visually impaired and teachers for the deaf [INAUDIBLE], and that’s what their training is about. And so having to work with someone who’s missing something of both sensory channels, the vision and the hearing, was a whole new ballgame. And so it does take a whole group of people to honestly make a lot of mistakes, a lot of trial and error, and come out on the other side with creative solutions.

Valerie: So what led you into doing your newest project, working with the Deafblind Project?

Megan: So after this experience, when I first had a connection with my deafblind student, I got more and more students on my caseload as a speech pathologist who had that combined vision and hearing loss. And it just became apparent to me– I started knowing more and more about what I didn’t know. And so that’s when I did go and visit Cindy Robinson at the Arizona Deafblind Project and I asked her for training. And that is one of the jobs of the Deafblind Project is to provide that technical assistance, that training to professionals that work with individuals who are deafblind.

And I was very, very lucky. In Arizona, they have what’s called Intervener Team Training, meaning you can attend an ongoing– it was at that time a two-year training process with a cohort with a team of professionals that are all working around their single student. It was really just a kind of a model ahead of its time, I believe. And I just feel like it’s one of those timing things where I was super lucky to fall into that and be trained.

And on the other end of that training, I worked some more, and worked some more, gathered some more experiences, and was lucky enough to be asked to be a trainer for future cohorts of Intervener Team Training. And so I got some presentation experience under my belt, which was scary at first. But it got me on board with the Deafblind Project, and the rest is history.

Valerie: Wow. It’s neat how everything kind of falls right in line when you think about it.

Megan: Yeah. It’s being in the right place at the right time and then timing is everything.

Valerie: So I’m assuming one of the challenges you faced working with your first deafblind student was how to communicate, like you did with the stick figures.

Megan: Yeah.

Valerie: What other challenges did you face along the way in your careers?

Megan: Yeah. And I think I touched upon this a little bit before. My biggest challenge was that I had such little training. It wasn’t like my undergraduate and graduate work and my practicum in speech pathology. I just never worked with students with visual impairment and multiple disabilities or students who are deafblind. And I don’t know. I remember feeling so guilty because I would go to work with a student, and the paraprofessionals in the classroom knew exponentially more than I did about how to teach our students and they were making a minimum wage while they were doing it. And at the same time, they had to train and teach me.

So I had to learn to be really kind with myself because I have that– and I would attribute this to being an SLPish characteristic, but I don’t like to not be good at something. So I kind of put myself in a place to be open to really a lot of learning ahead of me because that was my biggest challenge was filling in the gaps in training and my lack of experience in students with sensory impairment.

I think in my new role, I would say first and foremost, my new challenge is trying to find creative ways to get people to understand the impact of the combination of vision and a hearing loss. Most of the children and the youth, we serve they have usable residual vision and hearing, and so they don’t necessarily fit into the image folks have in their mind of the picture of deafblind– totally deaf, totally blind.

And so, I think the challenge for most people that work in the field of deafblind is especially is really educating people that any level of loss in visual and auditory channels, the combination of it really has that multiplicative effect, not an additive one. So you’ll always hear people saying, it’s deaf times blind, not deaf plus blind.

Valerie: Interesting.

Megan: Yeah. And it’s a challenge where there’s just so many layers, of course, but like we’re at a time in our country really where public education systems are constantly asked to do more with less. And by less, I mean money. And so when you have less money, you have less staff, you have less training, you have less resources, and you tend to see– and I know deafblind students aren’t the only ones, but you see these students squeezed or fit into programs instead of people building programs around the deafblind students. And that’s like the worst possible scenario for a deafblind child, just like the worst.

Valerie: Like a square peg, round hole.

Megan: Exactly.

Valerie: And that’s a disservice to the student.

Megan: Right. And as much as it’s a challenge to me as an educator, it’s a huge challenge for a parent of a deafblind child. And I’m not going to sit here and speak for parents of deafblind children, but I do try to listen and work off of their perspectives now as I transition from directly serving my own caseload of students at a school at a single campus to now serving a whole state of educators and families. So a challenge for sure, but I definitely won’t be losing my need for creativity anytime soon.

Valerie: Well, it certainly sounds like your new position is a great fit for you.

Megan: I hope so. I think so. Yeah.

Valerie: And so you feel things have changed in regards to training for those who are just up and coming in the field?

Megan: I do. And I think technology has a huge role in that shift or that change. I come from a state that just spans a giant geographic area. A lot of people don’t– when they think of Arizona, they think of cacti and 100 plus degree temperatures, but we have just a really rich and diverse area that we cover, from the North, the Grand Canyon and pine trees, all the way down to the desert and the Mexican border. And it’s a lot of miles, and so it’s hard to deliver person-to-person, face-to-face training, and technology has helped kind of fill in that gap where we have people who want to learn from a distance, and to get on video conference calls, web interactions that can fill in both immediate needs and long-term needs. And so I do value that mode of training, as I also learn to navigate it a little bit better and to use it in a way that’s going to have good outcomes where people can feel more competent or to confirm what people are already doing well and to really bring that over to the other side of good student outcomes.

Valerie: And would you have any advice? If we go back to little Megan Mogan–

Megan: Don’t think about that.

Valerie: What advice would you give yourself?

Megan: Well, just to confirm that it is a scary feeling to lack training and experience, scary to not know what you’re doing, but find the people. Find your people. Find the people who when you walk into their classroom, you have that feeling like, ah, something’s happening in this classroom that’s special. And take the time to really sit down and observe before you do anything.

What is it that the teacher is doing? What is it that the student is doing that’s making that connection? You have to really, really carefully observe and watch the very subtle, subtle things that skilled people who really have it are doing to connect with their students. And on the other side of that, what are the students doing? What is the teacher noticing about the student that’s so subtle, like you would miss it if you weren’t paying attention that’s letting them the teacher know, aha, I see what you’re doing and this is the next step in our communication in our conversation.

But also say– and again, we’re really lucky now, 18 years past the fact, but it’s just such a wealth of online articles and websites and communities that practice. David Brown– I was at the deafblind summit in February, and he reminded us all to find your gurus. And I definitely tried to do that when I was first starting out. I found the work of Barbara Miles, David Brown, Linda Hagood, Lilli Nielsen. That work all really, really resonated with me, and I tried to drink it all in as best as I could.

So I would tell little Megan Mogan, find your people because that’s where it’s at. People have already have already done this and figured it out, so that limits some of the time you have to spend in that trial and error mode.

Valerie: Sounds like good advice for yourself.

Megan: Yeah.

Valerie: So is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about?

Megan: Well, I would just encourage people to– even if they feel like they don’t know something, like I never pictured myself being a presenter or being a instructor or like through elearning or writing blog posts, and it just took like one person– it was Charlotte Cushman, from Paths to Literacy. She attended a very little presentation I did at like my local state-level AER conference. And she just came up to me afterwards and she said, you should really write up this creative idea you have.

I have no idea if it was actually a creative idea or not. But just that one sentence of encouragement got me started and kind of transferring everyday ideas into a little blog posts. Eventually into like a course, into workshops and presentations. So I just encourage people that if you have one idea or one activity, one success, please share it. It’s worth it. Chances are, you’re filling in the gap for someone else– like you, like me that maybe doesn’t have the training or the expertise in that area. And we are a special community and an important one, and I just am still– I’m still learning and I’m still finding so many people that just have just the best ideas.

Valerie: I actually did a podcast with Charlotte. Charlotte’s one of my favorite people. And she was telling me about how they used a plate– I think it was with marbles or beans or something on the plate and they put it on this little boy’s stomach, and he was able to tell that it was moving. And that was his way of sensing.

Megan: Oh yeah.

Valerie: And that really blew my mind because how resourceful and creative. I mean, it’s definitely a skill you really should have if you’re going to be a TBI or a paraprofessional or a speech pathologist to be resourceful and creative because not every kid is the same.

Megan: Yeah. And I think too, we tend to fall into this trap of thinking we need like fancy equipment or really expensive resources, when, like you said, a paper plate with marbles or beans inside, it’s magic markers and white paper. There is stuff all around us that can serve as the topic to learning, as the topic to a back and forth interaction, as the topic that will be that one thing that connects you to the student. And it’s a magical thing when you figure out not only what the topic is, but that that’s your connection. That’s your bridge back and forth to the student from the student.

I think many people are scared they’re going to make a mistake, and you really can’t make a mistake. You just learn from something that didn’t work.

And it almost always snowballs into the next topic. That’s the other cool thing is you figure out like, oh, what’s going to happen on the other side of this once this interaction is over. What if it ends in 30 seconds?

And first of all, it almost never ends in 30 seconds when you have a topic that the student likes. And second of all, a paper plate with marbles in it turns into about 20 other things when you start banging it on something or throwing it up in the air, spinning it. There’s lots of different conversations to be had around a topic of a paper plate filled with beans, and it’s our jobs to figure out what the student wants to talk about. And by talk, I mean interact about because that’s the other– you can have lots and lots and lots of conversations that involve no words, involve no sign language.

Valerie: Well Megan, thank you so much for chatting with me today. It’s always a pleasure.

Megan: It is. Thank you so much for chatting with me. It’s always fun to talk about what is now– I know I didn’t say it was to start with, but what is now my passion and my inspiration to work in the field now with a bunch of amazing, amazing people.

Valerie: Well, I’m sure your friend’s sister is very proud of you. And I’m sure you’re someone out there’s people as well.

Megan: Oh, that’s very cool for you to say. Thank you so much.

Aired Date: July 09, 2019

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