Slater, 17, sits in front of a computer screen, fingers poised over a large-print keyboard.
“Dear Aunt Lori,” she types.
The computer software she’s using reads the letters and words aloud as they appear, magnified, on the screen. She pauses, and looks to her teacher, Sharon Stelzer, for guidance.
“We need to think about our topic sentence,” Stelzer says. “What do you want to tell Aunt Lori?”
For the next half hour, Slater composes a lengthy email to her aunt, filled with details of her life at Perkins. She tells her about gym class, and celebrating the 100th day of school with classmates in the Deafblind Program.
Slater has moderate hearing and vision loss and is nonverbal. To communicate, she uses a voice output device equipped with a keyboard and pre-loaded with frequently used names and phrases. When she taps a word or letter on the screen, the device reads it aloud.
“That is her main mode of communication – we’re not trying to change it,” Stelzer says. “We’re trying to expand it and structure it.”
Compensatory access lessons like this one teach Perkins students how to process and share information in ways that don’t require sight. It’s one of nine blindness-specific Expanded Core Curriculum skills taught at Perkins.
For students who are blind without other disabilities, compensatory access lessons often center around braille, the raised dot system of reading and writing. In the Deafblind Program, Stelzer and her colleagues adhere to the Total Communication philosophy, where students are encouraged to use any and all forms of communication that work for them.
“In this class we go from print to objects and tactile symbols all the way to pictures,” says Stelzer. “It’s really multifaceted.”
During a morning class, Stelzer asks students to talk about school vacation. One student uses a picture of a smiling face to describe his feelings about the upcoming break. Another student circles the word “happy” from the choices written on the white board.
“Slater, are you happy or sad about vacation?” Stelzer asks.
Slater quickly types her response for the class to hear: “H-A-P-P-Y, happy.”
“Me too!” says Stelzer. “I feel the same way.”
For students who are blind or deafblind, developing strong compensatory access skills is paramount to their personal and academic success. Being able to express an opinion, ask a question or understand a request allows them to participate in conversation and connect with others in a meaningful way.
For Slater, communicating her thoughts to others brings her obvious joy. Her face lights up as she hits the “send” button on the email to Aunt Lori.
“We have to work on punctuation but the content is really good,” Stelzer tells her. “Aunt Lori’s going to love this.”