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Utah Teachers of the Deaf-Blind

NCDB is excited to feature teachers of the deaf-blind (TDBs) and other teachers with specialized expertise in deaf-blindness in Utah, the first state in the nation to have certified TDBs.

In these profiles, they share their experiences and raise awareness of the importance of specialized training in deaf-blindness and certified TDBs. We plan to feature two teachers every month, so check back soon.

Sixteen staff members of Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind standing outside smiling at camera.

Sundie Marx

Published November 2022

Sundie Marx began working as an intervener while attending college. After graduation, she knew without a doubt that she wanted to continue her education to learn how to better support children with deaf-blindness and their families.

Sundie went on to receive a master’s in developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, and endorsements in teacher of the deaf-blind and early childhood educator from the University of Utah. She says her best training has been from directly working with children and their families. 

For more than 15 years, Sundie has been with Deaf-Blind Services at Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (USDB), now serving as a teacher of the deaf-blind and early interventionist with their Early Intervention and Early Childhood teams throughout Utah. She also is a member of the USDB Advisory Council. In addition to her job at USDB, Sundie is working with the National Center on Deaf-Blindness to create a professional development training module on early intervention.

Sundie believes that an important part of her job is coaching caregivers to develop the skills and confidence needed to be the best parent they can be for their child. “This will transfer directly to their child,” she adds, “improving their skills and confidence.”

“I recently had a mom tell me that, because of the skills she’d learned, she finally feels like her  daughter’s mom rather than her nurse or therapist,” explains Sundie. “It’s rewarding to know she now has a connection and bond with her daughter and not just that of a full-time caregiver.”

To Sundie, becoming a teacher of the deaf-blind and receiving the deaf-blind endorsement was exceptionally meaningful: “It means that children who are deaf-blind and their families are being represented and recognized as a group of individuals who deserve well-trained educators to help them better access their education.”

A woman holding a baby.
Sundie Marx holding a baby

You will learn a lot more from caregivers of children who are deaf-blind than you will from your own agendas or lesson plans, so follow their lead!

Tricia Broadhead

Published November 2022

While on her first job as a classroom paraprofessional in 1997, Tricia Broadhead met a student with deaf-blindness. She applied for and became that student’s intervener, working with her while she completed a degree from Utah State University in special education with a severe/profound endorsement. In 2000, she became a deaf-blind teacher specialist with Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (USDB) and has worked for them ever since.

To broaden her understanding, Tricia went on co-visits with other deaf-blind specialists and took additional university courses in deaf-blindness, vision loss, and orientation and mobility. Likewise, USDB brought in many of the top leaders in deaf-blindness to share their expertise. 

Tricia initially worked with a full caseload of students for four years before switching to orientation and training for new interveners in the state. Today, she works with students and serves on the Utah state deaf-blind project’s training team, which provides full project training and orientation for every intervener hired. 

Tricia loves collaborating with her teammates and hearing their different perspectives. “I still learn something new every time I am taught by one of the knowledgeable people on our team,” she says. “We work together to figure out difficult situations and roadblocks we’re facing. And it’s truly amazing when I see a student be successful with something that I helped implement.”

A teacher and young girl who is deaf-blind read a book together.
Trisha Broadhead with a student

I love the saying, “Success doesn’t come from what you do occasionally, it comes from what you do consistently.” It’s so applicable to working with students who are deaf-blind. We have to be consistent and always celebrate the small accomplishments!

Denise Pearson

Published September 2022

Early in her career as a special education teacher, Denise Pearson was told she would have a student who was deaf-blind. Her first reaction was, “How can I teach a student who can’t see or hear?” Fortunately, the student had an intervener and many effective strategies were already in place. “I learned so much during the three years I was this student’s teacher,” she explains. “And I was able to use those skills and strategies to help my other students who had sensory loss.” 

Denise says she learned first-hand that many special educators are unfamiliar with resources available for students who have combined vision and hearing loss. “I felt that I could do more to help,” she says. Denise went on to receive an endorsement in deaf-blindness and is now a teacher of the deaf-blind for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. She also serves on their intervener training and intervener recruitment teams, and leads their CHARGE syndrome task force.

Denise credits the education she received while working on the endorsement with making her more skilled at providing her students with increased access to their environments, peers, teachers, and curricula.

Last year Denise provided consultation to the team of a student who was becoming less responsive to others. She worked with them to help increase her wakefulness and responsiveness at school. After a few months, the student started to become a bit more responsive. “During one of my visits,” Denise said, “I put my hands in hers and squeezed. She started squeezing back! Then I squeezed a simple pattern, and she squeezed the pattern back. We were so happy to see that she was responding.” 

Denise advises those new to working with a student who is deaf-blind start by understanding the student’s unique vision and hearing needs and their preferred sensory modes. “Then, be creative in making things accessible to this student based on their available sensory modes and preferences,” she says.

A teacher sits on a low stool by a teenage boy in a wheelchair. They are smiling at each other.
Denise Pearson with a student

Don’t hesitate to reach out to others who have experience working with students with deaf-blindness. Teachers of the deaf-blind are available and excited to help and answer any questions!

Leslie Buchanan

Published September 2022

Participating in a workshop with Jan van Dijk and Cathy Nelson, leading scholars in working with children who are deaf-blind, crystalized Leslie Buchanan’s professional aspirations. At the time, she’d been working part-time as an intervener, and the workshop experience convinced her to pursue a career in deaf-blindness. 

Leslie obtained a master’s in special education and took advantage of numerous professional development opportunities and conferences, many of which included national and international leaders in the field of deaf-blindness. She also received endorsements in severe disabilities, visual impairment, and administration. 

In more recent years, Leslie partnered with the University of Utah, Utah State University, and the Utah State Board of Education to develop the teacher of the deaf-blind endorsement and its required coursework. The endorsement was a major accomplishment, signaling a new acknowledgment and respect for those with expertise in deaf-blindness. Leslie herself received the endorsement. 

Leslie currently is a lead teacher for the deaf-blind, overseeing Utah’s Deaf-Blind Services provided through Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind and the Utah Deaf-Blind Project. For the past two years, she’s worked with others at Utah’s Deaf-Blind Services to develop expanded core curriculum materials specific for deaf-blindness. 

Although she helps with some administrative tasks, Leslie loves her work in the classroom. Recently, she collaborated with a classroom teacher, a teacher of the visually impaired, and a district technology specialist to develop a calendar system specific for a student’s needs. She says, “It’s been so gratifying to see the student developing an understanding of time concepts and the routines of her day while using this new system.”

A teacher and a girl look at an electronic tablet together.
Leslie Buchanan with a student

Children and youth who are deaf-blind are children and youth first. As such, it’s important to learn about their unique strengths and needs and develop reciprocal relationships with them.

Brooke Barnhill

Published July 2022

Brooke Barnhill is a teacher of the deaf-blind and a transition specialist for the Utah Deaf-Blind Project and Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. She loves the work, which allows her to use her passion for working with children who have significant support needs, their families, and educational teams. But what she looks forward to most, she says, “is when I can work directly with the students who are deaf-blind and join their world for a little while.”

Brooke earned a master’s in Special Education from Boston College and did her student teaching at Perkins School for the Blind in their Deafblind Program. Although she has endorsements in multiple disabilities, deafness/hard of hearing, and vision loss, she recently completed a Master of Philosophy in Special Education from the University of Utah, with an endorsement in deaf-blindness. Brooke says that this was a significant event in her career. “It’s been fulfilling to finally receive an endorsement in my specialty and to be called and recognized as a Teacher of the Deaf-Blind.”

This school year, she began working with a young woman who is deaf-blind and has significant support needs. Brooke collaborates with her classroom teacher, intervener, and teacher of the visually impaired to establish a trusting relationship, discover motivating activities, and reduce self-harming behaviors. “We worked to come up with a schedule that focused on motivating activities and consistent responses to her communication,” she explains. 

The team’s hard work is already seeing positive results: “The student has blossomed this year!” Brooke says. “Her self-harm behaviors have significantly reduced, she has moved up a level on the Communication Matrix, and the team has raised their expectations for her life after high school.” 

Brooke urges educators to increase their awareness of deaf-blindness and learn the best practices for working with those who are deaf-blind. She says, “These efforts lead to improved access to the learning environment and improve students’ anticipation and participation in their learning.”

Brooke reaches out her hands to a student.
Brooke Barnhill with a student

Be curious. Working with individuals who are deaf-blind, you have an amazing opportunity to learn alongside them and to experience the world in a whole new way.

Lara Leigh Whitney

Lara Leigh Whitney’s work in deaf-blindness began with a keen interest at a young age in ASL. She became an ASL interpreter and accepted a position with the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (USDB) as an intervener, working with a student who was deaf-blind and used ASL. 

Lara Leigh says that experience started her on a path to becoming a teacher of the deaf-blind. She pursued a bachelor's in special education, with an emphasis on severe disabilities, and then a master’s in special education, with a deaf-blind endorsement. She says it was a great honor to be in one of the first cohorts in the field to receive a deaf-blind endorsement.

Following her college years and a teaching position in Alaska, Lara Leigh returned home to USDB–and she’s been with them ever since as a teacher of the deaf-blind. In particular, she says she loves the challenges of communicating in students’ preferred languages as well as “working with students who have some troubling behaviors.” 

She says one of her most memorable experiences involved working with a student who participated in the DeafBlind Immersion Experience at the Helen Keller National Center. “We traveled to New York, where he explored employment opportunities, learned about independent living practices, and experienced using public transportation,” she explains. “The student learned so many great lessons about life after school.” 

Over the years, Lara Leigh has expanded her knowledge of deaf-blindness by learning Braille and by participating in multiple deaf-blind conferences and professional development programs offered by NCDB, the Western Region Early Intervention Conference, and the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Lara reads a book with her student in a wheelchair.
Lara Leigh with a student

You are always learning and growing as a teacher, with good days and harder days. It’s important to allow the good days to bring you joy and inspiration to keep going. Cherish the milestones your students achieve.