5.7 Understanding Usher Syndrome

The number of deaf-blind students attending Gallaudet University has gradually increased over the past few years. The term "deaf-blind" encompasses a range of combinations of hearing and vision loss. Some students may have residual vision that they rely on in class; others may have central vision but not peripheral vision, and so forth. You may encounter students on the Gallaudet University campus who indicate that they have Usher Syndrome.

"Usher syndrome" is the most common condition that affects both vision and hearing. The major symptoms of Usher syndrome are hearing loss and an eye disorder called "retinitis pigmentosa", which causes reduced light sensitivity and a loss of peripheral vision through the progressive degeneration of the retina. As retinitis pigmentosa progresses, the field of vision narrows until only central vision remains. Many people with Usher syndrome also have significant balance problems.

Strategies for accommodating students with Usher Syndrome in the classroom may include:

● Sign at a steady pace; keep in mind that interpreters must describe any visual information that you present.
● Reduce unnecessary movement while teaching.
● Practice clear turn-taking in the classroom. Remind other students to raise their hands and identify themselves before speaking. Point or gesture to direct attention to the speaker.
● Allow time for interpreters to finish before moving on to another speaker.
● Avoid unnecessary media or handouts.
● Avoid wearing clothing with busy patterns or excessive jewelry.
● Avoid unnecessary changes of light. It is common to flip light switches to gain students' attention, but deaf-blind students may be sensitive to sudden light changes. An alternative, such as foot stomping or student-contact "tree" might be more effective.
● For all classroom tasks, students may need additional time to complete the same work as their peers.
● Provide group instruction from a non-cluttered background area, and avoid unneeded movement; windows should be behind students.
● Students may need individual copies of wall-hung graphs or charts, or they may need time to examine these charts close-up.
● Others may have to adapt their sign language to adjust to the student's limited vision. Keep signs as small and concise as possible, and increase the duration of each sign. Eventually, tactile sign language may be an option.