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Schools for blind, deaf still evolving after 130 years

New technology brings innovative services to students, helps them successfully navigate the world

By , Columbian Education Reporter
7 Photos
Stephanie Alves deLima, seated, with the assistance of intern Kylee Craven, standing, teaches second-, third- and fourth-grade students about ligaments, tendons and bones at the Washington School for the Deaf on Feb. 8.
Stephanie Alves deLima, seated, with the assistance of intern Kylee Craven, standing, teaches second-, third- and fourth-grade students about ligaments, tendons and bones at the Washington School for the Deaf on Feb. 8. (Greg Wahl-Stephens for the Columbian) Photo Gallery

It was 130 years ago this month when the territorial Legislature approved a bill to create the Washington School for Defective Youth to educate “the deaf, blind and feeble-minded children of the Territory of Washington.”

Thankfully, public attitudes toward people with disabilities have changed drastically since 1886.

That’s not all that’s changed. New technology helps bring services to blind and deaf people in ways never before possible and opens doors for them to navigate successfully in the world.

Sonja Steinbach was the only visually impaired student at her small school in rural Snohomish County. Although she did fine academically, she was isolated. In ninth grade, she enrolled at Washington State School for the Blind.

“I came here for extracurricular activities: band, choir, goal ball, power lifting and theater — and to have community with others with visual impairment,” said Steinbach, who graduated from the school in 2006.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in math, a master’s degree in special education for the visually impaired and another master’s degree in math for teachers, she was hired to teach math at her alma mater in 2014. She was enthusiastic to return to her old school.

“I get to use my experience to show them that they can do things,” Steinbach, 27, said. “It’s important for students to have role models. That’s one of the main reasons I came back.”

In the decade since Steinbach graduated, technological advances have transformed the educational experience. Students still use Braille textbooks, but they also use Braille screen readers, Braille integrated keyboards and headphones for audio. Steinbach has two students in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, who participate in her classes via videoconferencing. The school mails the distance learning students their Braille textbooks, material and equipment.

“Their face is on my screen. Then off we go!” Steinbach said.

The distance learning program makes it possible for students who live in isolated areas to receive specialized teaching and to participate in the classroom community with peers. Otherwise, like Steinbach, the student likely is the only visually impaired student at school.

“Being here as a kid, I saw the school as my family. It’s a small community. We’re all in this together. Now, as a teacher, I also see all the paperwork,” she laughed.

In a blended second-, third- and fourth-grade classroom not far away at Washington School for the Deaf, Stephanie Alves deLima teaches her students a hands-on lesson about ligaments, tendons and bones. It truly was a hands-on lesson. The fingers of the five students, teacher and student teacher flew as they talked in American Sign Language.

“I can’t see you,” signed a boy to his teacher.

“Then move to where you can see me,” she signed back.

Then she began showing the students how they would build a model of a human thumb.

At Washington School for the Deaf, the emphasis is on students becoming bilingual — proficient in both American Sign Language and English, said Jane Mulholland, superintendent. Even students and staff who can speak always sign and sometimes whisper as they sign. That combination of learning ASL and English equips deaf students for navigating in the real world beyond the school.

The Dark Ages

However, that wasn’t always the case. In the school’s hallway, a student-created timeline of deaf education refers to the Dark Ages, which extends up to the 1960s. During that time, deaf students were forced to speak. This focus on oralism was hard on deaf students and teachers, said Shauna Bilyea, principal at the school for the deaf. American Sign Language was discouraged. In fact, sometimes when deaf students used sign language, the teacher rapped their hands with a ruler. But when students educated solely in oralism got into the outside world, it was hard for them to communicate. By the 1960s, there was a greater focus on American Sign Language.

In the past, many barriers and prejudices made it challenging for deaf and blind people to participate fully in the world. Dayton Renwick, 81, who graduated from Washington School for the Deaf in 1954, remembers being denied a driver’s license in Shelton after he’d passed the test. The instructor told him he’d need a doctor’s note. Renwick went to Bremerton, a bigger town, and received his license.

It also was tough for deaf people to buy life insurance. In those days, Renwick said, insurance companies incorrectly believed that deaf people had shorter lifespans than their hearing counterparts. That has proved to be false, he said.

George Belser, 83, a 1950 graduate of the school for the deaf, remembers having to go to a deaf friend’s house to see if they were home. Many times, they weren’t home, and he had wasted a trip. There was no way to contact deaf friends unless you mailed them a letter.

Now, technology — including video phones and texting — allows deaf people to communicate with one another and with anyone else.

Over time, public schools have become more inclusive and many parents opt to keep their children closer to home. But Sean McCormick, principal at Washington State School for the Blind, says he still sees great benefit for keeping blind and visually impaired students together.

“This is really a special place. Our students gain great benefit from meeting other students with similar challenges,” he said. “When you put students together and remove barriers that affect them on a daily basis, they can just get to focus on learning and being kids.”

Compared with the past when blind or visually impaired students attended the school from kindergarten through high school graduation, today the average student at the school for the blind stays on campus for only two to three years. Students receive traditional learning experiences, but they also learn how to walk with a cane, navigate public transportation and live independently. Some of the students also attend Discovery Middle School, Hudson’s Bay High School, Clark College and the Clark County Skills Center.

In comparison, many students attend the school for the deaf for their first 12 years of school.

“Imagine if you were the only deaf student in a school and the only person you could talk with was your interpreter?” Bilyea asked.

In addition to residential programs, both schools also have outreach services that extend to hundreds of students around the state.

Residential cottages

In the 1940s and 1950s, Renwick lived in a dormitory at Washington School for the Deaf from the time he was 6 years old through high school. Students went home only at Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer vacation. The rest of the year, they lived full time at the school. It was the same at the school for the blind.

Over time, both campuses have moved  from multistory dormitories with long hallways to one-story family-style cottages with open family room/dining/kitchen areas that evoke the feel of a home, not an institution. There’s space for students to hang out on couches. Students learn to do chores and do their own laundry. At the school for the blind, students take turns making dinner.

On a recent night in Chapman Cottage at the school for the blind, students Erick Perez, 18, and Casey Catalan, 17, were making dinner for everyone under the watchful eyes of Catherine Orr and Jessica Dickerson, residential life counselors.

Casey sliced red potatoes to accompany the salmon dish Erick was making. An electronic tablet on the counter displayed the recipe. The text was enlarged so the students could read it.

Erick said he was the only visually impaired student at his home school. He said it was stressful on his teachers.

“Going to school here gives you somebody to relate to,” he said. “Here I’m encouraged to do computers and technology. I’m very good at it,” he said as he slathered mayonnaise onto salmon.

“We teach them to problem-solve and manage their time. They do homework and chores,” said Orr.

Students at both schools go home to their families on Friday afternoons and return to school by Sunday evening. Many of the students live up the I-5 corridor. The schools share two charter buses. Some students who live farther away fly home.

Casey attends the school for the blind part time, but also is enrolled in the aviation technology program at Clark County Skills Center. In the daytime, he has 20/40 vision, but it’s harder for him to see at night. He’s planning to pursue a pilot’s license and become an aerospace engineer.

“I finally got tired of people telling me I couldn’t pursue my dreams. I’ve had family, friends and teachers supporting me all along,” Casey said. “I do a lot of stuff people wouldn’t consider for someone who’s visually impaired. I’m going snowboarding next week. At night, ironically.” Then he added, “Erick, I’m opening up the oven, so be careful.”

A moment later, several students gathered in the kitchen discussing their favorite foods to make for dinner. Orange chicken with fried rice and pot stickers, chicken Alfredo. And bacon. Lots of bacon.

“Hey! We’re teenage boys. We love to eat!” chuckled Casey.

The programs became two separate schools in 1913. Washington School for the Deaf remained at the top of the hill on Grand Boulevard overlooking the Columbia River. Washington State School for the Blind moved to a new campus a little more than half a mile to the northwest and near present-day Clark College.

Washington School for the Deaf

 611 Grand Blvd., Vancouver


• Public school for students preschool to age 21 who are deaf or hard of hearing.

 Washington Career Academy for the Deaf for deaf young adults 18 through 22 provides training in employment readiness, work experience, independent living skills and college support through Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver.

 The Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss outreach team offers statewide services to students, educators, educational interpreters and families. To request services, call 855-342-1670 or visit

• Student enrollment: 34 preschool through elementary; 61 middle and high school; 7 Washington Career Academy for Deaf; more than 400 students served statewide through outreach program.

• Legislative appropriation: $9.9 million.

• Teachers on campus: 18.

• Learn more at or voice: 360-696-6525; video phone: 360-334-5448.

Washington State School for the Blind

 2214 E. 13th St., Vancouver


 Public school for ages 11 through 21 who are blind or visually impaired and have not yet graduated from high school. Middle and high school programs offered.

 Learning Independence for Today and Tomorrow is a program for young adults 18 to 21 who have completed high school graduation requirements, but need additional training to transition to post-high school life.

 Services for the blind or visually impaired community include Lions Low Vision Clinic (360-947-3302); Ogden Resource Center, Instructional Resource Center, Assistive Technology Services, Outreach Services to local school districts, Braille/large print transcription services for accessible media, birth to age 3 services for blind or visually impaired children, student summer camps, Youth Employment Solutions summer work program partnership with Department of Services for the Blind.

 Sensory Safari Tactile Museum of Natural History is a display of taxidermy that allows the public to learn through touching the animals, Braille, large print and audio. Open by appointment only.

• Student enrollment: 49 middle and high school students on campus; 9 students attending remotely through digital technology, plus hundreds of students assisted statewide through the outreach department.

• Number of teachers on campus: 15.

2016 fiscal year budget allocation: $6.4 million.

• Learn more at

key dates in school history

1886: Washington Territorial Legislature creates the “Washington School for Defective Youth” for students who were blind and/or deaf, or who were “feeble-minded.”

1888: The land and buildings were traded for 17 acres at the original site of Fort Vancouver, where Washington School for the Deaf still stands.

1913: The two state schools were separated onto their own campuses, creating the Washington State School for the Blind and Washington School for the Deaf.

1970s: Federal laws emphasizing mainstream education sharply reduced enrollment numbers.

2016: Schools use teams, technology to reach students around the region.

—Compiled by Susan Parrish

Until recently, the school for the blind’s student enrollment was higher and included an elementary school residential program. Now the school’s residential programs are for middle and high school students. However, the school still offers an array of programs for blind and visually impaired youth of all ages who live throughout the state.

Doug Trimble, 50, an orientation and mobility instructor at the school for the blind, attended the school in junior high, but graduated from Mountain View High School.

“I got to see other students who were like me and had the confidence to travel off the campus. That’s one of the reasons I became a mobility instructor,” he said. “Now students come here, but don’t stay their whole academic career. They focus on academics, mobility and employment and then transition into the community.”

Columbian Education Reporter

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