Deaf-blindness under federal law means concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness. Note: Deaf-blindness is usually referred to as one word – deafblindness.


Deaf-blindness under federal law means concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.


In the 2003-2004 school year, 1,667 students were served under the category of multiple disabilities in the United States, representing 0.03% of all special education students.


The causes of deafblindness are many. Below is a list of many of the possible etiologies of deafblindness.

Major Causes of Deaf-blindness


  • Down
  • Trisomy 13
  • Usher

Multiple Congenital Anomalies

  • CHARGE Syndrome (coloboma, heart anomalies, choanal atresia, retardation of growth and development, and genital and ear anomalies)
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Hydrocephaly
  • Maternal drug abuse
  • Microcephaly


Congenital Prenatal Dysfunction

  • AIDS
  • Herpes
  • Rubella
  • Syphilis
  • Toxoplasmosis

Post-natal Causes

  • Asphyxia
  • Encephalitis
  • Head injury/trauma
  • Meningitis
  • Stroke

Some people are deafblind from birth. Others may be born deaf or hard-of-hearing and become blind or visually impaired later in life; or the reverse may be the case.

Still others may be adventitiously deafblind—that is, they are born with both sight and hearing but lose some or all of these senses as a result of accident or illness.

Deaf-blindness is often accompanied by additional disabilities. Causes such as maternal rubella can also affect the heart and the brain. Some genetic syndromes or brain injuries that cause deafblindness may also cause cognitive disabilities and/or physical disabilities.

Impact on Learning

Of the five senses, vision and hearing are the primary senses through which we collect information:

  • As much as 80% of what we learn is learned visually.
  • Hearing is the basis of the communication/language system that most people use.

When these two major channels for receiving information are impaired or not functioning, it has far reaching effects on a child's development in several areas, including:

  • Communication/language development
  • Movement and motor development
  • Cognitive development and the ability to learn
  • Emotional/social development
  • Body image and self-concept

Teaching Strategies

Educators who work with individuals who are deafblind have a unique challenge to ensure that the person has access to the world beyond the limitations of their reach. The most important challenge for teachers (as well as parents and caregivers) is to meaningfully communicate. Some basic guidelines for communication include:

  • Individuals who are deafblind will often need touch in order for them to be sure that their partner shares their focus of attention.
  • Exploring objects should be done in a "nondirective" way, allowing the individual who is deafblind to have control
  • The individual may have very slow response times. Therefore, the teacher should allow time for the student to respond.
  • Symbolic communication can be utilized by individuals who are deafblind. The principal communication systems include:
    • Touch cues
    • Object symbols
    • Sign language
    • Gestures
    • Picture symbols
    • Fingerspelling
    • Signed English
    • Braille
    • American Sign Language
    • Lip-reading speech
    • Pidgin Signed English
    • Tadoma method of speech reading
    • Large print

Many of the teaching strategies for individuals with visual impairments and hearing impairments can be used with individuals who are deafblind with modifications made for the communications needs of the individual.

Assistive Technology

Modern technology has provided opportunities for students who are deafblind to access the general curriculum. Assistive technology devices that were created for individuals with visual impairments (especially those with braille output) can be utilized by students who are deafblind. These include:

Computer adaptations:

  • Braille translation software: converts print into Braille and Braille into print
  • Braille printer: connects to a computer and embosses Braille on paper
  • Screen reader: converts text on a computer screen to audible speech
  • Screen enlargement software: increases the size of text and images on a computer screen
  • Refreshable Braille display: converts text on computer to Braille by an output device connect to the computer

Adaptive devices:

  • Braille notetakers: lightweight electronic note-taking device that can be connected to a printer or a Braille embosser to produce a printed copy
  • Optical character reader: converts printed text into files that can be translated into audible speech or Braille
  • Electronic braillewriter: produces Braille, translates Braille into text or synthetic speech

Telecommunication Devices

In order for individuals who are deafblind to communicate using the telephone, they may use a telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD) that includes braille output. A TDD is a small keyboard with a display and modem. To use the TDD the individual must relay information to an operator. Text messaging has recently become a very useful avenue for individuals with hearing impairments to relay messages without using the TDD.


American Association of the Deaf-Blind [AADB]

AADB is a national consumer advocacy organization that promotes better opportunities and services for deaf-blind people.

814 Thayer Ave, Ste 302
Silver Spring, MD 20910-4500

Phone: (301) 495-4403
TTY: (301) 495-4402

Center for Disability and Development

Dept. of Educational Psychology
4225 Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4225


DB-LINK, The National Information Clearinghouse On Children Who Are Deaf-Blind

DB-LINK is a federally funded information and referral service that collects, develops, and distributes information to help improve the education and lives of children and youth who are deaf-blind.

Teaching Research Institute
345 N. Monmouth Ave.
Monmouth, OR 97361

Phone: (800) 438-9376
Fax: (503) 838-8150
TTY: (800) 854-7013

Helen Keller National Center For Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults [HKNC]

HKNC is a national program that provides evaluation, short-term comprehensive vocational rehabilitation training, work experience training and assistance to deaf-blind clients for job and residential placements.

141 Middle Neck Road
Sands Point, NY 11050-1299

Phone: (800) 255-0411 ext. 326
Fax: (516) 944-7302
TTY: (516) 944-8900 ext. 326

Hilton/Perkins Program

Hilton/Perkins program provides consultation training and technical assistance to programs throughout the nation and in developing countries. Emphasis is on program development for multi-handicapped blind and deaf-blind infants, toddlers and school-aged children.

Perkins School for the Blind
175 North Beacon Street
Watertown, MA 02472

Phone: (617) 972-7220
Fax: (617) 923-8076

National Family Association For Deaf-Blind [NFADB]

NFADB is a national network of families who focus on issues surrounding deaf-blindness. NFADB advocates for all persons who are deaf-blind, supports national policy to benefit people who are deaf-blind, and encourages the founding and strengthening of family organizations in each state.

141 Middle Neck Road
Sands Point, NY 11050

Phone: (800) 255-0411 x275
Fax: (516) 883-9060
TTY: (800) 255-0411

National Technical Assistance Consortium for Children and Young Adults Who Are Deaf-Blind [NTAC]

NTAC is a consortium for the provision of technical assistance to families and agencies serving children and young adults who are deaf-blind. The primary mission of NTAC is to assist states in improving the quality of services for individuals (birth to age 22) who are deaf-blind.

Teaching Research Institute
Western Oregon University
345 N. Monmouth Ave.
Monmouth, OR 97361

Phone: (503) 838-8808 Fax: (503) 838-8150
TTY: (503) 838-9623

U.S. Department Of Education Office Of Special Education Programs Projects For Children Who Are Deaf-Blind

The Office of Special Education Programs supports projects to improve and enhance services that are provided by state and local education agencies to children and youth who are deaf-blind. This is done through a program of grant awards that address technical assistance, research, development, pre-service and in-service training, and parental involvement activities.

Charles Free man
400 Mary land Ave
Washington, DC 20202-2550

Phone: (202) 245-7347
Fax: (202) 205-8971
TTY: (202) 205-9172 -D8170


Gargiulo, R.M. (2006). Special education in contemporary society: An introduction to exceptionality. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R. & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007). Exceptional lives: Special education in today's schools. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.


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