Millie Smith Listen to Millie Smith’s advice on the three things parents should know about communication skills for students with visual and multiple disabilities.


I am Millie Smith, and I have been working with students with visual impairments for almost 40 years now. For most of that time, I was a teacher and an outreach teacher-trainer at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Millie, what are three things parents should know about communication skills for students with visual and multiple disabilities?

I think the most important thing for parents to understand is that there’s a big difference between communicating and using language. That the best definition of communication I think I ever heard was that communication is the sending and receiving of messages, and there are always two people involved. It’s a social interaction in which one of the partners sends a message, and the other partner receives the message. So, the foundation of communication is having two people who are communication partners and that one of those people can send a message in such a way that the other one can receive it and understand it. Now, we in schools have a tendency to put a huge amount of emphasis on speech, and of course, that’s an incredibly valuable way to send and receive messages, but what parents need to understand is there’s a whole continuum of ways to send and receive messages. At the high end of the continuum, would be reading and writing, and we think of those as being academic skills, but they are also communication skills. And when an author sends a message, they write something down on paper, and when the other communication partner reads what’s written down on a piece of paper, they are receiving the author’s message. That message can be something short, or it can be something extremely long, like a novel like Moby Dick in which the author Herman Melville sends us his messages about complicated things like fate and destiny and revenge. Or something as simple as text messaging a friend. I think we’re all getting a lot smarter these days about how to send and receive messages using writing in briefer forms.

So, that’s the upward extension of it. Before somebody can be a successful user of reading and writing, those highly symbolic ways of sending and receiving messages, they have to have speech. So, speech is a prerequisite to being a good writer or reader. And just like speaking is a way of sending and receiving messages using phonetic symbols—sounds—there are prerequisites to that as well. And those are all of the non-verbal ways of sending and receiving messages that all of us use every day like facial expressions, body language, vocalizations, and gestures, and we tend to think of those as being ways that very, very young children send and receive messages, and that’s true. Babies become very, very, very, very good communicators right after they’re born. They’re able to send messages to their mothers and fathers and family members, aunts and uncles, and grandparents about what they want and don’t want. They do it very, very well. They do it by changing the tone of their vocalizations, a cry that’s a distress cry as opposed to a coo that’s a signal that they’re enjoying something. But we shouldn’t think of non-verbal ways of communicating—sending and receiving messages—as being only something that babies and very young children do because all of us do it, and we rely on it very much every day in our lives as well. If you think about when you give somebody a gift, for instance, if you really want to know whether that person liked the gift that you gave them, you don’t depend on the words that they say to you because you know that they’re going to say they liked it. If you really want to know if they liked a gift you gave them, you look at their face, you look at their body language, and that’s how you judge your success—the success of the gift you gave—on those non-verbal ways of communicating. And the receiver of the gift has to be very careful, and they know that as well, and they’re making sure that they have the right expression on their face and are using the right gestures and body language to reassure you that the gift you gave was just exactly the one they wanted.

So think of communication as sending and receiving messages. Think of there being a communication continuum of ways that we do it that starts with non-verbal ways of communicating, including facial expressions, body language, gestures, and vocalizations, that from there we develop into using language, and after we’re proficient language users, we begin to be readers and writers.

Now, the second thing I would like for parents to think about in regard to communication is that there are certain things that we can do with children who have visual and multiple impairments to help them be better senders and receivers. So, to think about sending, first. To help your child with visual and multiple impairments be the very best sender of messages possible, the most important thing parents can do is be good listeners. Everybody does what they feel they’re successful at doing. And to the extent that parents can make their children feel like they are good senders of messages that when they make an attempt to send a message, it’s received and understood. Every time parents can reinforce that they build confidence in their child. They build a desire in that child to want to continue to try to send those messages and to try to do that in the very best way possible.

We have a tendency with children who have visual impairments, and especially those who have visual and multiple impairments, to try to get them to use more sophisticated ways of sending messages. And parents should really think about the fact that while that’s a very good thing to want—we want high expectations, we want children with visual and multiple impairments to use the forms of sending messages that will communicate to the most people the best—we have to start by making it very, very clear to them that we understood what they were trying to tell us at the level they’re at at any given point in time. So they must experience a lot of success. If they’re telling you they want something by looking at it and making a little vocalization that you understand, then reinforce that, make them feel successful doing that. “Yes, I understand that you want your toy. Let me get that for you, that was such a good job you did of asking me.” And if they’re doing that with a facial expression and a vocalization, reinforce that, don’t demand that they do it with a word. It’s better if you use the method of…it’s called adding a little bit more, and it’s a great technique. So when they’ve looked at the toy and looked at you to let you know that they want it, say, “Yes! You want your toy,” and add the words at the same time that you’re acknowledging the method they used. So you’re reinforcing their success and then you’re adding a little bit better way to try to do it next time.

So, make them good senders by being a good listener. Listen to the message, accept it the way they give it, and reinforce the success. Make that attempt successful for them however they did it.

Now, third, you also want to make them a good receiver. And being a good receiver of messages means helping them understand the message you are sending them. Using words may not be the best way to send them messages at different points in their development of communication skills. And it’s not that you need to stop using words, it’s just that you may have to use other things in addition to words to help them understand the meaning of the message you send.