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October 28, 2010
By Claudene Wharton
There hasn't been much attention given to the deafblind, or dual-sensory impaired, community, but one University of Nevada, Reno professor has taken on assisting this population as her special mission.
MaryAnn Demchak, professor of special education in the University's College of Education, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the project she began two years after arriving at the University, the Nevada Dual Sensory Impairment Project. The program assists those teaching and caring for those with both visual and hearing impairments up to age 21. Teachers, parents and pre-school intervention specialists call Demchak when they need help communicating, teaching and caring for this special population. Demchak then visits the home or school to observe the children in their environments and make recommendations.
"I've been able to have Dr. Demchak come to homes with me and model the intervention methods," explained Pam Young, development specialist at Nevada Early Intervention Services, which assists those with developmental delays and other special needs up to age 3. "She has brought toys that work, that I wouldn't have thought of. She thinks outside of the box in terms of tools and equipment. She also watches for clues as to how the kids are responding and shows ways to present things to them."
Young says that when it comes to the children she is assisting, Demchak "just knows no boundaries with them. She lets me know what these little guys are capable of."
Young has been working in early childhood education for 23 years, and earned her master's in early childhood special education from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2007. She is now working on her doctorate and says the Dual Sensory Impairment Project's lending library that Demchak has assembled is also very helpful.
"I've borrowed various 'switches,' things that attach to toys to adapt them for my kiddos, to see if they work," she explained.
The lending library also offers many books, publications and other educational materials available for checkout to teachers, parents and others. In addition, the project sponsors a conference for the parents each year, which teachers can also attend, if a parent invites them. This summer, Young was invited and attended.
"It was amazing," she said. "It was really interesting to go into the parent realm and see how they interact and support each other. The conference is one of the best things the project does."
The project is currently assisting about 100 children scattered throughout the state, and Demchak says she spends a lot of time on the road.
"I make a lot of trips to Clark County and the rural areas," she says.
According to Chris Cheney, Dean of the University's College of Education, "There's not much else out there for this specific population. This is a program that's really helping one of the most vulnerable populations in the state and their families."
The program is mostly funded on a shoestring by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Demchak applied for the grant to begin the program 20 years ago, and must continually reapply in a competitive process to maintain the funding for the program. But, she doesn't seem to mind.
"We've been flat-funded for the past seven years, and will be for the next three years, but at least we continue to get funded during these tough economic times," she says.
Demchak is grateful for some supplemental funds the Nevada Department of Education provided the last two years.
"That really helps. There is some assistance we couldn't provide without that, and with the flat funding," she said.
The teachers in the state are appreciative of the support of the program and Demchak's assistance.
"Sometimes teachers become overwhelmed, but she does a really good job breaking things down and showing us a whole lot of strategies we can use," states Liz Isaacs, a speech therapist with the Carson City School District who has been collaborating with Demchak for 18 years. "MaryAnne is able to form a team with the kids, the parents and teachers so that parents have the strategies to use at home too. She's an amazing woman."
For more information on the Nevada Dual Sensory Impairment Project, contact Demchak at the University of Nevada, Reno, (775) 682-7852.