Special Needs: Teaching the Teachers

Texas Tech among the few institutions to teach instructors of individuals with sensory impairments, autism.

The grant will help educate instructors about teaching children with sensory impairments and autism.

The grant will help educate instructors about teaching children with sensory impairments and autism.

Children with sensory impairments have unique learning needs, as do students with autism. Until fairly recently, very little was known about teaching children with both sensory impairments and autism. The Texas Tech University Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Sensory Disabilities is changing that by training teachers in high-need areas of the country.

In the fall of 2011, three Sowell Center professors in Texas Tech’s College of Education received notification of a $1.25 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs to fund Project SASI: Students with Autism and Sensory Impairments, Addressing the Personnel Shortages of Rural, Remote, and High-Need Areas.

Nora Griffin-Shirley, Rona Pogrund and Roseanna Davidson are co-principal investigators and directors of the project.

“The purpose of this project is to help alleviate the shortage of teachers trained in the areas of visual impairment, deafness, deafblindness, and orientation and mobility, as well as to provide trained teachers who deal with more than one diagnosis of autism and other sensory impairments,” Griffin-Shirley said. “These professional teachers are acutely needed in the rural, remote and high-need areas in Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, Texas and Wyoming.”



By the end of the five years, 40 effective teachers will be prepared by this grant to work in these needy areas, Griffin-Shirley said. The program is a hybrid model that uses distance education, face-to-face instruction and local support to prepare teachers to work with the types of students who have sensory impairments from birth and for those who are born with both sensory impairments and autism.

Teachers completing the program earn a graduate school certificate in sensory impairments and autism as well as a certification in one of four major areas: teacher of students with visual impairments, teacher of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, teacher of students with deafblindness, and orientation and mobility specialist.

Shelby Gill is employed by the Campbell County School District in Gillette, Wyo., and teaches Junior Kindergarten. She has been teaching for 10 years, with the majority of that time spent teaching high-needs special education for both Crook County School District in Sundance, Wyo. and Campbell County School District.

“The program has helped prepare me in my teaching by providing me with the knowledge and tools to use with some of my wheelchair-bound students,” Gill said. “I had a student just learning to be mobile in his wheelchair, but he had not had formal training in mobility training. I have found the program to provide lots of great information to help him increase his independence.”



Gill said the program has been very easy to access and the grant aspect has streamlined the process as well.

“I find it amazing that they can help with all the costs of the program. My travel, books and classes have all been covered by the grant, which is the only way I would have been able to complete the program. It has been a very rewarding learning experience for me and I look forward to working in the orientation and mobility field upon completion of the program.”

Building on Success

The program itself collaborates with states the Sowell Center already has partnered with previously on another completed federal grant, “Children with Sensory Impairments” on which Roseanna Davidson was the sole principal investigator, according to Griffin-Shirley.

“Project SASI is built on those efforts with individual states and state contacts they’ve had before in the area of sensory impairments. Generally these states don’t have any of our personnel preparation programs offered through their university system or private universities in their state, or they may have one unique program but not the other three, or two unique programs without the other two.”

The major objective, she said, is to develop memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the states departments of education in the six states involved, to provide the personnel needed for that state in one, if not all four areas, using Texas Tech as the personnel preparation program.



There are 19 students in the first cohort of candidates, and the states have begun recruiting for the second cohort. Every state will advertise and recruit for the program in their state and will select recommendations from the pool of applicants. The Sowell Center’s faculty will evaluate each recommended candidate and choose the next cohort that will start in January 2014.

Madonna Hammer, a teacher at Riverton High School in Riverton, Wyo., thinks the SASI program is wonderful in that it provides funding and opportunity.

“It helps to prepare for the area in which one wishes to add a certification, if that is your goal, or for a Master’s degree,” she said. “I would recommend most of the classes in this program to those who wish to gain knowledge and experience working with individuals with visual impairments as well as those who have additional disabilities.”

Each of the three principal investigators heads a program or two. Griffin-Shirley coordinates the Orientation & Mobility Specialist program, Pogrund oversees the Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments program and Davidson heads up the Deafblind program and the Deaf Education program.

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Award-Winning Students

The Sowell Center at Texas Tech’s College of Education is home to many outstanding students who received awards from the Texas Tech Graduate School, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and have had works published addressing children with disabilities.

  • Tara Mason, a doctoral student in special education, was awarded the Texas Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired Professional Preparation Scholarship. She also received the Council for Exceptional Children- Division on Visual Impairment 2013 Virginia Murray Sowell Student of the Year Award.
  • Olaya Landa-Vialard, a doctoral student in special education, received the 2013 Kayte M. Fearn CEC Ethnic Diversity Scholarship. She also received the Summer Dissertation/Thesis Research Award from the Graduate School.
  • Vicki Depountis, May 2012 graduate, received the Council for Exceptional Children- Division on Visual Impairment 2013 Outstanding Dissertation of the Year Award.
  • Wendy Watts, former certification and masters student in visual impairment, received the Council for Exceptional Children- Division on Visual Impairment 2013 Teacher of the Year Award.
  • Rebecca Sheffield, a doctoral student in special education, had two accepted publications: “The Global Struggle for Disability Rights: An Interview with Richard Rieser” in the CEC DISES: Division of International Special Education and Services Newsletter and “Inclusivity in the classroom and international achievement in mathematics and science” in the International Journal of Educational Reform.
  • Sheffield and Landa-Vialard also received the Helen DeVitt Jones Excellence in Graduate Teaching Awards for scholarly activity and excellence in graduate part-time instruction.

For more information on the Sowell Center and its programs, click here.