Meet Dr. Linda McDowell - New Director of the Center on Deaf-Blindness


Research to Practice • Practice to Research

Meet Dr. Linda McDowell - New Director of the Center on Deaf-Blindness

Posted on March 25, 2015

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By Carol Dennis

CDB Logo

On February 16, 2015, just two weeks after her arrival at TRI, I sat down with Dr. Linda McDowell to learn about the woman who now serves as the Director of TRI's Center on Deaf-Blindness (CDB). Housed within the Center on Deaf-Blindness are the Oregon Deaf-Blind Project and the National Center on Deaf-Blindness (NCDB). Included in her position as Director of TRI's CDB is the responsibility of serving as Executive Director of NCDB - which coordinates and serves deaf-blind projects in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Pacific Island nations. It was fascinating to learn how she found her passion in the field of Deaf-Blindness.

Here is the 16-minute video interview with Dr. McDowell. Below the video, you will find a full transcript of the interview, for those who prefer to read the content, and the video is Closed Captioned. Please help us welcome Dr. McDowell. Enjoy!




Carol: Dr. Linda McDowell, who is the new Director the National Center on Deaf-Blind - just started February 2nd Groundhog Day and this is only February 16th, when they're sitting at this table. Linda, thank you for being here and welcome.

Linda: Thank you.

Carol: Linda, tell me a little bit about your Background and what brought you to the field deaf-blindness.

Dr. Linda McDowell

Linda: Well, I've been a special education teacher most of my life - most of my work career - and my husband and I moved to Mississippi in 1989 and I took a position as a high school classroom teacher. Never had taught high school before - all the other grades that I'd taught were kindergarten and elementary school - mostly I'd worked with students who had learning disabilities and this high school classroom was going to be a brand new experience for me. It was students who had more significant disabilities - multiple disabilities - pretty large variety.

And when I got to the classroom I wasn't really sure what to expect - got to know each of the students individually and one student, I learned quickly, had a vision impairment and a hearing impairment and so I tried hard to figure out how she could communicate - how I could communicate with her - what she could let me know. And right away I knew I was going to need some help figuring out some things on how to be a better teacher for her and to help plan our future (it was a high school classroom and we did classroom work, but we mostly were out in the community learning life skills).

I told the special education director that I was struggling and wanted to get some more information. And so she immediately sent me to the Mississippi Deaf-Blind Project that was housed at the University right in the town where I was. And the staff came and provided me a wealth of strategies and ongoing training over the course of the four years I had with this student. It was tremendous help to me and I was able to get to know the family and just on and on - it was incredible to be connected to that wealth of information.

Carol: And from that one student you were inspired to continue in this field? What was it about that interaction or that particular set of new skills that sort of made you more passionate about deaf-blindness?

Linda: Difficult question. [laughter]

Carol: Good! [laughter]

Linda: Actually, the set of - probably the set of strategies that were offered to me because of Chrissy, I found worked with many of the other students. There was another student in the room for instance who didn't really have an effective way of communicating - and he didn't use words to speak. So he was sometimes misunderstood even though he was incredibly able with his body to communicate certain things. But some of the very same strategies that I was being encouraged to use with Chrissy worked for him as well. And - really, on and on. There were just a set of strategies that were being - that were taught to me - that made sense for the rest to the students in my classroom. So I just kept digging for more and I found a whole field and a whole wealth of information that could just help me be a better teacher.

Young man who has deaf-blindness at pier with mother

Another thing that was a big part of those early years of training on that was the importance played on making sure that the family was a part of the planning on what to focus on, what to prioritize, and come to an agreement where they would all be using that same set our priorities, the same set of strategies at home and in the community.

Carol: And the children - or students - that that have death blindness - am I saying that right? Students with deaf-blindness?

Linda: There's a couple of ways to say it – and often we end up -- not often, all the time - we end up asking individuals themselves who are deaf-blind or with deaf-blindness, how they want the rest of us to refer to that particular disability, I so you can say it as you choose –

Carol: So in this context I'll say that – so students - have you found that students with deaf-blindness or who have deaf-blindness, that there's deafness or that there's hearing impairment or visual impairment in the family or is this oftentimes a brand new concept for the family?

Boy who has deaf-blindness

Linda: Oh, it generally comes as a surprise to a family. And a lot of times there will be other disabilities as well, along with the vision and hearing impairment, there will also be a physical disability, health issues - there's such a variety - every student is so very individual, every student is just so very unique. You know it's just fun to finally find a way to understand what's important and what motivates and what the interests are of each individual student.

Carol: When those of us not in the field - when we think deaf-blindness, we think of Helen Keller.

Linda: Right.

Carol: And um, it doesn't appear as if she had other disabilities - learning disabilities and those sorts of things. So, obviously, the range of what would be considered deaf-blindness is really wide.

Linda: It is, it is. And I still can't say it often enough that it's about getting to know the person first, because there are such degrees of loss, and degrees of abilities. It's just, every person is so very different.

Carol: So, from this one child in this class you got some skills and strategies, you created an interest or passion in you. How did you find yourself to the National Center on Deaf-Blindness?

Mississippi DB Project Logo

Linda: Well, this particular state project, the Mississippi Deaf-Blind Project, was very nearby - was housed at the University nearby the high school where I was working. The University faculty that was there in the Special Education Department started having me come and do more and more guest lectures in their classrooms, and I -

Carol: Specifically on this topic?

Linda: Well not on the deaf-blindness, but, just transition to adult life when it comes to students who will need lifelong support to be a part of the community and work. And so they persuaded me to come on back to school so that's when I worked on my doctoral degree and I stayed involved with the deaf-blind project - was on their advisory board - I think I was just so passionate about just believing in all that they had to offer a state as far as the technical assistance to families and teachers that I want to do everything I could to spread the word.

And I just continue to learn too. They would hold workshops and things, and the more I learned the more I wanted to learn. And I stayed connected. When I graduated I went to work at the Institute for Disability Studies and I was contacted by some of the faculty that still was there in that academic department - would I please consider coming and being the Director for the Deaf-Blind Project.

I so believed in the help that our state project could give to teachers around our state and to the families. So I really wanted to be a part of that and that opportunity - when they invited me to come and consider directing, the first step was to then get really connected to the National Center and get some training - more training on what projects needed to be doing. And at that point it was the first time to meet all the the different people in the network, that I've stayed in touch with ever since.

Carol: So, when you got involved with the Deaf-Blind Project, and then associated with the National Center on Deaf-Blindness in that network, was there anything that surprised you? Did they –

Linda: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Carol: So, I don't need to finish that question.

Linda: You know, I'd been - in my career in special education, I'd been with groups of people that you share a common interest - and so get excited about being together. But I think somehow in the world of deaf-blindness -- I don't know what it is - why it was so, but what surprised me was that it felt like you walked into a family of people - I think once people entered the world of just trying to figure out what works and how to connect.

Work session at the DB SummitAnyway when you walk into this group of people they take you in - it's like, "Wow! So you really do get it - you really are inspired by this and you want to stay with this and you want to learn more." The next time you show up for a group meeting - nationally - it's like a homecoming and people are just so - and all that warmth and that connection just surprised me, that it could be so rich and so deep, and it stayed...

Carol: And so welcoming.

Linda: Yeah, yeah.

Carol: Now deaf-blindness, if I'm correct, is probably the lowest incident disability.

Linda: Well, one of the reasons it's considered - it's still a low incidence - is it's still very difficult – in each state in the nation, for the count to be accurate. Some people that may have only have just a small amount to vision impairment and small amount of hearing impairment, although they're impacted by both, may not even raise their hand and identify, you know, so they're not counted and that's true of all ages. So the count is a little bit tricky. Those students that I mentioned I have typically worked with who have other disabilities are often label as someone with - a child with multiple disabilities - a student with multiple disabilities. So, once again they're not necessarily counted either. [Here's a link to the National Child Count of Children and Youth who are Deaf-Blind Annual Reports]

Teacher and student in classroom

And the shame of that is then some of those wonderful strategies that were first given to me when I had a student who had the label, so I knew I could ask for those strategies as a teacher, if you don't know that you can ask and there's a set of strategies out there, you won't be able to use them. And there's not the learning and there's not the communication and all the things that can happen when you use the appropriate strategies that we know work.

Carol: How did you find your way to being the Director of the National Center on Deaf-Blindness and move from Mississippi to Monmouth, Oregon? Welcome to the great Northwest.

Linda: Who wouldn't want to move to Oregon. Oregon is beautiful. It's the passion I have - that - I feel like one of the things that I've enjoyed the most over the years, besides being a part of this family as a State Project Director, was the fact that when we do get together as individual states, we are always searching for ways of how we can be better at what we do by being a strong network.

Our deaf-blind field is bigger than the technical assistance. We're also in partnership with personnel preparation programs, university programs, that are in the business of training teachers. The training of these para-educators is critical as well. So I think because I've always loved figuring out how we can all really work together to strengthen our national network, that it was just a matter of time before I'd come here and get up in this mix of the National Center - where our goal is to really do all we can to make this an effective network. There are state projects doing marvelous things - there's the one that first help me and we need to be able to share with one another our ideas and our experiences as our knowledge just continues to grow - how to help each and every one of the kids out there.

Carol: One final question, and thank you so much for doing this with us and letting us get to know you and letting us welcome you to the campus at Western Oregon University and to TRI.

Linda: I feel very welcome here.

Carol: If you could make one change or one advancement in the field of deaf-blindness - I might be putting on the spot here - but if you could like wave a magic wand and say I wish that "this" happened, is there something that you would say "this" is it?

Student and Intervener

Linda: I think it would make a huge difference if we, in our nation, recognized deaf-blindness as an educational category area that then required each and every school district to hire a teacher who is trained in those deaf-blind strategies, and an intervener who could be the one-on-one with that young child and help them know what's going on, accessing things, knowing what's happening. If we could get that recognized then it would show up on their Individual Educational Plans that these things needed to be in place. And I think we could see a whole - a huge amount of increased learning for those students. The families want it, all of us who are supporting the families and the teachers that are out there now want that, and so I hope we can get there.



I want to thank Dr. Linda McDowell for taking the time to talk with me and letting us get to know her a little bit better. We, at TRI, feel very fortunate that Linda decided to join us, and we look forward to a long and successful relationship.


The photos in this article courtesy of the National Center on Deaf-Blindness.





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