Nevada Dual Sensory Impairment Project celebrates 30th anniversary

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This article was published on Nevada Today by Jesse Stone on June 10, 2021.

The Nevada Dual Sensory Impairment Project (NDSIP) is celebrating its thirtieth birthday after decades of reaching out to children with vision and hearing disabilities. Serving over a hundred children in locations spread across the entire state, the project consists of only two people, MaryAnn Demchak, Professor of Special Education and Disability Studies and Project Director of NDSIP, and Chevonne Sutter, Project Coordinator of NDSIP, who provide necessary expertise to teachers, families and children.

“Most of the kids who have impairments in both vision and hearing also have other disabilities,” Demchak said. “They tend to have intellectual disabilities, complex healthcare needs and physical impairments. Basically, kids with severe multiple disabilities have always been my passion. Those are the kids that I’ve always liked to work with.”

Although many federally funded projects fade out after only a few years, Demchak founded NDSIP thirty years ago. Sutter and Demchak handle all the work related to the project as a team of only two people and teach classes related to Special Education at the University simultaneously.

One family in the NDSIP’s network had a child with visual and hearing disabilities to the extent where the parents had almost zero ways to communicate with the child, through any means. They had figured out that the baby liked having her legs rubbed, so Demchak and another specialist suggested that the parents rub the child’s leg for a few seconds, and then wait a few more seconds for any sort of response or indication from the child to keep going. The child shook their leg a little, and the mother saw this as a monumental success.

“Mom was so excited, and Dad was at work,” Demchak said. “She was like, ‘Hey, can you come back? We want you to do that again. I want you to show Dad. Dad’s going to take some time off from work when you can come.’ This was the first way that she was communicating. Even though it was such a little response, it was so powerful for them as a family. “

In previous years, NDSIP lent out physical books and other learning resources to members of their network to encourage learning. Now, in the age of digital technology, NDSIP sees fewer requests made of their library and more made for some devices designed to aid children with disabilities.

These students have unique needs relative to the rest of the population, and very few children are born with dual sensory disabilities. Because of this, not every teacher or educational professional is prepared to help them with these unique needs. NDSIP not only helps work with students directly, but the project also goes out of its way to work with teachers and other professionals to train them.

“Pre-pandemic, a major professional development initiative was to do a two-day summer institute for teachers, related service personnel and professionals,” Demchak said. “During the pandemic, we’ve done a lot more virtually, and I have a feeling that’ll continue.”

The NDSIP provides support for children until they reach twenty-one years old. Because of the role that this project plays in the kids’ lives, the project connects with the families for decades at a time. Demchak has stayed in contact with families who have been involved with the project since its inception thirty years ago.

“Because it’s a low incidence disability, there are not a lot of teachers that have expertise in the area,” Sutter said.  “Not only is it a fun challenge to try to figure out how to meet the needs of those kids, but because there’s not a lot of stuff out there, it’s an area of need. I think we both end up feeling like we’re making a difference for the children, for their families, for their teachers.”