Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

A Field Study of a Standardized Tangible Symbol System for Learners Who Are Visually Impaired and Have Multiple Disabilities

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

A Field Study of a Standardized Tangible Symbol System for Learners Who Are Visually Impaired and Have Multiple Disabilities

Article excerpt

Communication is integrally tied to quality of life. It allows us to share our ideas and feelings, learn from one another, and have control in our lives (Downing, 2005). Many children with multiple disabilities and visual impairments do not develop language, and require specialized instruction to reach their full potential as communicators.

These prelinguistic children may be either preintentional or intentional communicators, but less often are symbolic communicators. Many of them have no verbal communication and use a variety of naturally occurring gestures, body language, and vocalizations to express themselves. They need to have the same opportunities for communication during school routines as do their typically developing peers (Snell et al., 2010). Rowland and Schweigert (2000) suggested that tangible symbols may serve as a bridge from presymbolic communication to symbolic communication for children with multiple disabilities.

Tangible symbols are whole or partial objects that share a strong perceptual relationship with the referent (what is represented) (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2000; Rowland & Schweigert, 2000). They are often used as an expressive or receptive form of communication with children who are visually impaired (that is, those who are blind or have low vision) who have multiple disabilities because they are tactile and make fewer demands on memory and representational abilities than do more abstract symbols (Rowland & Schweigert, 2000). Tangible symbols may be individualized or standardized. A highly idiosyncratic experience of a referent is best represented by individualized tangible symbols, whereas standardized symbols may be used when a referent is experienced in a similar way across individuals and when a dominant feature of the referent is represented (Downing, 2005). Standardized symbols should not replace individualized tangible symbols that a child is already using, nor do they replace the need for some individualized symbols in the future. To date, no research has looked at the efficacy of a standardized set of tangible symbols for children with multiple disabilities and visual impairments.

The study reported here measured the mastery of tangible symbols by 54 participants with multiple impairments and visual impairments in a school setting. Forty-four participants received the intervention, one of whom died shortly after the intervention began, and 10 students were in the control group. The selection of the standardized symbols was individualized, with structured opportunities for the participants to associate the referents and their associated tangible symbols. Both objective pre--and postintervention decontextualized testing and the daily collection of data were used. The purpose of the study was to track the rate of the identification of symbols by each participant, the specific symbols that were identified, and the developmental factors (that is, play, communication, ambulation, intentionality, hearing, and vision) that had an impact on the participants' identification of the symbols.

Research on the efficacy of tangible symbol interventions

Only a few studies have documented promising practices using a tangible symbols system (Lund & Troha, 2008; Parker, Banda, Davidson, & Liu-Gitz, 2010; Rowland & Schweigert, 2000; Trief, 2007; Turnell & Carter, 1994). In addition, only one other study (Rowland & Schweigert, 2000) measured children's progress for longer than a few months, and only one study (Trief, 2007) included 25 participants with both multiple and visual impairments across multiple schools. Turnell and Carter (1994) taught an 8-year-old boy with multiple disabilities to use mounted partial objects to communicate requests. Fifteen opportunities per day were provided for two consecutive days. The boy learned to make meaningful requests with all three tangible symbols that were introduced in 29 sessions.

Rowland and Schweigert (2000) implemented tangible symbols with 41 children with intellectual disabilities (including 23 who were also visually impaired), with an average intervention period of 6. …

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