Dr. L. Penny Rosenblum, AFB's director of research, recently spoke with Paul H. Olson, president of the Council of Schools and Services for the Blind (COSB), about the Access and Engagement Survey.


Paul H. Olson: Hi everyone. This is Paul with North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind and the Council of Schools and Services for the Blind—otherwise known as COSB.

I'm here today to talk to Penny Rosenblum from AFB. She is the Director of Research at AFB and I think most of you know her. If not. we'll have her tell you a little bit about her role there, and I have a few questions for Penny about their most recent big project—the Access and Engagement Survey that AFB took the lead in conducting this spring in response to the pandemic. We are going to try to keep this concise.

Please know that there is so much more we could share beyond today. We are just skimming the surface. Before we start though on some questions about the survey, I would like to congratulate Penny. She just was awarded a special award by the President of AER and I believe kind of a joint award with the Vision Division of CEC— that is a special recognition for her efforts this year under our circumstances. So congratulations, Penny! It's well deserved.

I think you also would like to acknowledge some of your colleagues who helped create, deploy, analyze, and report the study findings of the Access and Engagement survey. So Penny, I'll let you make a few introductory comments and then we'll get started on the interview.

L. Penny Rosenblum: Sure—sounds great, thanks, Paul. I appreciate you guys at COSB taking the time to learn more about the Access and Engagement survey. Really that President's award shouldn't just be for me from AER and DVIDB of CEC. It's really for our team and we have a phenomenal team. I want to acknowledge Dr. Tina Herzberg, whose idea it was to do the study, and Tiffany Wild from The Ohio State University. Tina's from University of South Carolina upstate. The three of us took the lead in developing the survey.

We had lots of help along the way and appreciate everybody who gave input on the questions. I really want to acknowledge Dr. Paola Chanes-Mora from AFB who works with me. Maria Delgado from APH who took many hours to put the survey into Spanish. Our research team is myself, Tina Hertzberg, Tiffany Wild, Deneen Fast—who's also at The Ohio State University, Katherine Botsford who is with Vision Rehabilitation Research (sorry) Vision Education Research LLC. I think many of you know Katherine. She's worn many, many hats. We also have Justin Kaiser and Rhett McBride. And we have three graduate students who are also lending a hand with data analysis. So it's a big team.

We're a great team and we're really in the midst of looking at these data so folks know we hope to have the report out in September. You can go to the [AccessEngagement.com] website when the time comes. Or if you visit us at [AFB.org], we'll be sure to have it up there prominently.

So, lots of ways for you to get it, and we'll be sure to send it out to all our other organizations that have been a part of it, including COSB. There were actually 20 organizations and schools and a university collaborating with us.

Olson: Great. You do have kind of a dream team, but as big as this project was I'm sure everyone had a lot of work to do! So thank you to that team, and thanks for acknowledging them, Penny.

All right, let's get started. I have a few prepared questions for you. To begin with, just give us a brief overview of the survey, and why it was so important.

Rosenblum: Well Paul, I think as all of us know Covid has touched everybody's life—literally around the world, but surely in the United States and Canada—and I do want to say this is a US/Canadian study. Today I'll focus on talking about our participants from the US, but folks need to acknowledge we also have Canadians involved.

When Tina Herzberg saw that the Flatten Inaccessibility study was put out in April, she contacted me and said "Hey, we need to not just look at the experience of Covid from the lens of adults with visual impairment, but how it's impacting the education of children with visual impairment." So, we were able to very quickly put together our team and our survey and we released on April 22 and was open for three weeks. And Paul, we ended up with 1,764 usable responses and this way we're able to really begin to understand how Covid is impacting our children their families and the professionals who serve them.

Olson: Right. I think we all had a lot of impressions and anecdotal information, but really the only way to get to the heart of it is to to really reach out to all those populations. So, thank you! So, what specific challenges did you find that teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialists were reporting as they served students under those circumstances this spring?

Rosenblum: Absolutely, and we found a lot. I went ahead and looked thinking about primarily our TVIs and O&M's at residential schools and outreach for residential schools and just let me just give you a couple quick numbers, because you know us researchers, we got to give you numbers, Paul. To give us a perspective here we had 666 TVIs and of those 16 were residential TVIs and 7 were in outreach. We had 134 O&M folks and of those 22…16 were residential and 4 were outreach.

Then we had folks who were duals. We had 171 of those folks and 10 of those were at schools for the blind or residential and 11 outreach. Sorry, so 11 would be six percent. I'm just mixing up my numbers and my percents. Though I'll share with you the challenges that our residential and outreach teachers and O&M specialists reported. These really did not differ for folks who were, for example, itinerants for school districts.

One of the biggest ones was access to materials. A lot of professionals left their place of work not knowing that they weren't going to get to come back. So, not having access to a braille embosser, not having access to curriculum like BOP, for example. Building on Patterns. Not having your Wheatley Kit. Not having access to materials to make things for your students. Whether we're talking about a student with multiple disabilities, who maybe you're making a communication book for, or we're talking about an academic student in geometry class, who needs graphs and charts made for them.

So, access to materials for your own professional use [and] access for materials to create things for your student were a big challenge.

The next big challenge was technology. Technology we can look at it in multiple ways. Technology for families—many of our families either didn't have the technology, didn't have the skills to use the technology, didn't have the internet access for the technology, and/or didn't have the time. They are caring for their children. Many families have parents who are employed, or they're caring for other children and they're caring for elderly parents: So, finding the time to learn the technology and get everything going.

And then for our students, of course, a lot of our children don't have the tools at home that they have at school. Their iPad, their refreshable braille display, their augmentative communication device, for example.

And if they do have those at home they run into a problem with—"Hey, there's a glitch." Well, mom or dad or brother or sister or grandma doesn't necessarily know how to troubleshoot that Focus 40. So, that is a problem as well, right?

Olson: If I might interject, that's a big challenge for those of us who might be somewhat knowledgeable and right across from the student in a school.

Rosenblum: Exactly.

Olson: So, certainly a challenge in the home situation, right?

Rosenblum: And then the last thing I'll say, and we'll move on to the next question is—many of our students as we all know have additional disabilities, and we found that in this sample…I can't give you final numbers, but approximately 60 percent of the families reported their child had an additional disability besides low vision or blindness. So, many of our kids aren't the type of kids who are going to just log into Zoom and off they go!

Let me just read you a quote, Paul, that I think really kind of sums it up when we talk about communication with families and in their time and our students’ needs. So this is a TVI providing outreach services: "I have two multiple impaired students who require 100% teacher support. I have to rely on their parents to give the student this support. Both parents are totally overwhelmed! One parent is making an effort to help the child. One parent has quote- disappeared- unquote. He's not answering our calls.”

And we saw this in the data that our families ran the gamut from “I'm very involved” and some families reported more communication and more support from their educational team than during typical school. And some families reported less support.

Some families and professionals also commented that this pandemic was giving them an opportunity to work together in a way they never had, and for families to be able to see their child making progress.

Olson: Right, I think a number of people reported some silver linings, but certainly a lot of challenges. And you just already have waded into that area, but you know, we talked about professionals a lot. You've now gotten into how this affected families. How did families make it work? And can you expound on some of the barriers?

Rosenblum: Sure. You know again I think technology, time, and communication were probably the three biggest barriers. The other thing had a family of an early childhood little person—I can't quite remember the age—who said, “You know, we start out on the Zoom call, and then I end up chasing my child around the house. He doesn't sit for an hour to Zoom with the professionals.”

And so, you know this model, especially for our younger children, is not always the most conducive. Families who are feeling like they're being asked to document student progress by four or five different professionals who are using four or five different systems. So, this person wants me to email photos. This person wants them uploaded to a Facebook page. This person wants an email! That's an issue: lots of passwords and different programs both for parents and our school-age students to quickly learn how to use. And then of course we throw on the accessibility piece. Some of this technology is not accessible.

We also have family members who themselves are assistive technology users so they're supposed to get online to read things—you know—designed for the family to be able to support the kid and they can't access that because the program's not accessible.

And then I'd say another barrier for our children is braille. Getting hard copy braille for a lot of our students. We had parents who were very appreciative of teachers who were doing drive-bys and literally putting packages of braille or other materials on the porch for that child. Then Paul, we had administrators who would not let professionals do these things because they the belief was if we cannot provide for every child in the district then we were not going to provide for anybody.

So we had both families and professionals who felt very caught up in these administrative decisions that— okay if not every family has an ipad and internet access well then we're not going to broadcast anything that involves technology. Or, if we can't get braille in the hands of every child then nobody's going to get it, and that's problematic!

Olson: Now that's very unfortunate you know in the short term those compromises can be made, but obviously it required some strong advocacy during that time frame. Hopefully what the survey will point to where there are gaps it will l embolden people to continue to push for what is appropriate. That's my hope. That's my opinion. AFB probably looks at this somewhat objectively. We provide the information but I think most of us who are in the profession are also advocates. So, my two cents.

Rosenblum: I'm a very strong advocate, and I think AFB, you know, part of our role is to advocate for policies and services so that our students have no limits and can succeed and build independence. So, I think we're all on the same advocacy page, but working through some of these details and bureaucratic red tape means our students and their families and our professionals get disadvantaged and get further behind.

Olson: Well, and again, it's no surprise to anyone that AFB is in the business of advocating, but we know that the data that's being collected is very objective so at that rate again people can take it and use. So again, my next question is looking to the future a little bit. Do TVIs and O&M specialists believe their students are ready for this next 2020 to 2021 school year?

Rosenblum: Well, you know, I'm glad you asked that, Paul. Gonna look down here and read you a statement here. So, we had—you know—we all do these surveys, so we have those, you know, “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” Likert-type statements where you read on a scale of one to five, with the mean closest to five meaning we strongly agree. The mean being closer to one meaning we strongly disagree.

So listen to the statement, folks, about academic students. (survey question) "I believe my students are continuing to make progress in the same way they would if there had not been a change and where and how my students attend school."

We had 86 professionals who are employed at residential schools or outreach. We had 500-plus answer this question, but I wanted to pull just the data that I thought pertained more to COSB and our mean for these 86 people were 2.36. Meaning that we were very close to disagree to neutral on whether they felt that their student was getting the same education.

And when they were asked the question: “Because of the way services are being delivered, I believe the majority of my students will be ready for the next school year”—86 people again in the COSB-type world as I like to think of you folks, and our mean for that was 2.74.

We asked this same type of question…the same two types of questions with the academic are the multiple-impaired students and the means again were between two and three.

So, these professionals that are serving students on campuses at residential schools or specialized schools or working through outreach departments do not believe that their students are getting the same education and are going to be ready for the next school year.

Olson: Which, you know, corroborates perhaps the what an individual might be thinking, and perhaps will help them prepare to do better in the upcoming year, but it that is…those are honest responses and sets the stage for: How do we put resources in place? How do we prepare, knowing that this pandemic is likely to continue for a number of months, if not longer?

Rosenblum: Yeah, I mean, you know in the words of an O&M instructor here, "It's very difficult to teach O&M to the student who happens to be low vision and have multiple disabilities, but I am looking for videos, podcasts, stories to engage them in problem-solving O&M scenarios,” but we all know O&M is a walk in the streets, hands-on profession. How are we going to ensure during this 2021 academic year, where things are not improving quickly with the pandemic, that our students are getting the education that they need so they do not get further behind in ECC areas and in core curriculum areas? We have a big challenge ahead of us.

Olson: You're right, and I have one last question. There's so many more questions we could ask, and I hope this results in more people being aware of the survey. Looking at the results of the survey and using it to do some planning in the coming year, and obviously to advocate for doing the best possible job we can. So, I'm going to end with: Why do we need to go further and what is AFB doing hoping to do next?

Rosenblum: Thanks for asking that question, Paul. Why do we need to go further? First, let me talk from the AFB perspective and then I'll talk from the field perspective.

AFB is very committed to the education of our students with visual impairments, including those with multiple disabilities and deaf-blindness. So, we were very pleased to be asked to take a lead role in the study. It would behoove us the field considerably if we repeated this survey again this fall…if we possibly could…and for sure in the spring when we're a year out from the pandemic.

Surveys are a tool that gives us a snapshot in time, but we really need to understand the long-term impacts and there's other ways as well we could do research such as interviews or focus groups. To do those types of activities takes a considerable amount of time on behalf of staff and in this case many volunteers.

And so from a financial perspective, we need to raise a considerable amount of money to be able to repeat the survey or to design a different form of data collection, as I mentioned. But putting that aside and anybody who would like to reach out and speak with me or Dr. Kirk Adams our CEO, I'm very interested in in looking at financial potentials.

The TVI, the administrator, the O&M instructor, the family member, the school-age student—they can use these data to think about what is it that we can do today to ensure that our students have access but also looking at long-term and systemic issues.

Access to technology—we have platforms being used whether we're in a brick-and-mortar building or online that are not accessible to our students. So administrators should not be adopting anything for their district, their school for their blind or their agency that is not fully accessible.

We are moving into a virtual world already pre-pandemic. Many college classes, many worksite trainings, pre-pandemic used virtual instruction. We're seeing that even more now with K-12 education. If we're going to get the unemployment rate down among people with visual impairments, our students need to be well versed in how to do online learning. Even when they go back to the brick and mortar building

We need to work with policy makers around funding. We have teachers and O&M specialists and other staff members who have very large caseloads and cannot give adequate time to our students. And they also need up-to-date resources and the time to do training themselves so that they can get that Focus 40 to work.

So, you know we have to build. We have to build in time and resources and finances into our educational systems and Covid-19 is bringing a lot of these systemic issues to the forefront. Our students are already often behind. We don't want them getting even further behind because of the challenges that Covid-19 has placed on all of us.

Olson: You know—it occurs to me unfortunately like wars that have occurred in the past—as awful as they are (and this is like a war) there are some good things that come out. Some innovation new practices and our field has had gaps for quite some time with both access technology, shortage of personnel etc. There may be some innovations that come from this that will help us long term. So Penny, we'll conclude at this point. This is enough for people to mull over. I hope that the information that comes out in September is something that everyone will look at and devour and really make the most out of that information. And as for the Council of Schools for the Blind representing over 50 schools and agencies that work with youth, you know, I hope that our organization in particular makes very good use of this data—each organization.

I just want to reemphasize, too: We're about best services across the board. We want all of our public school counterparts…We're all in this together and with families and with the students. We can do a poor job, a mediocre job or or we can do the best we possibly can, and I think without this survey we're at best looking at mediocre results.

So, whether we're dealing with this for eight months or 12 or 18 months from now, good luck in the next steps, and I will encourage everyone to really pay close attention to the report that will come out in September. Do you have any last things you would like to share?

Rosenblum: No! You know, I just really like this quote from a teacher. We asked at the end, the TVIs and the O&M specialists, about the challenges, you know…what the most challenging thing was, but then also what the silver lining was what—you know—what was the positive.

And it was mixed, but this one person said: "I'm a TVI. I'm on campus at a school for the blind. Access to technology has been a challenge. I'm able to be right there to help. We troubleshoot with jaws or a device that isn't working properly, however, it is turned out to be a good thing. It is forcing my student to problem solve on their own and ask family members for help and I think."

I'd really like to leave the members of COSB with the thought of…it's very easy for all of us right now to look at all the negatives. We're bombarded on the news. Many of us have somebody in our personal lives that has already experienced Covid. Unfortunately, many of us will.

We need to be good to ourselves. We need to be good to our professionals who are serving our families, and we also need to respect and remember that most of our families are truly doing the best that they can for their child. They may not return every phone call or text or they may miss a Zoom meeting, but they want their child to succeed, and we need to make sure that we're encouraging and nurturing all the people in our world both professionally and families. Thank you.

Olson: Thank you so much, Penny. We'll finish up. I just will just say thank you. Good luck everyone this fall and for the upcoming school year, and we're in this together. And as my friend Brian Darcy from Idaho always says: "We got this."

Rosenblum: Yes, we do!