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Reinforcing Music Literacy: Lighthouse-SF Blind Music Academy

Colorful music notes flowing out of a pair of headphones on a black background

This past summer, we discussed the unique value that music lessons and music therapy add to your child’s expanded core curriculum (ECC). We highlighted some of the ways that private music lessons, music therapy sessions, and access to music programs in elementary and high schools across the country can enhance social interaction skills, regulate emotions, and fine-tune communication skills. Music contributes to another very important aspect of the ECC that sometimes we end up putting off until far too late in the game: career education.

Also this summer, in its fourth annual session, the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco invited 14 young, yet ambitious, aspiring professional musicians, ages 16 to 25, to attend their week-long Blind Music Academy camp. At the end of the week, they organized and performed in three public performances. Most importantly, each young musician shared a common passion and goal to turn their musical talents into a career.

“Here at the Lighthouse, we take blind people’s careers and ambitions really seriously, and employment is such an important part about what we do for our people here," Lighthouse-SF Director of Communications, Will Butler said. “We know that with music that there is a ton of interest and still many misconceptions about how blind people learn and appreciate and benefit from music.”

Music Literacy: Competing in the Same Arena

Throughout history, before the proper digital technology was in place, blind and visually impaired musicians learned music through ear-training or basic memorization. Without the ability to see the music, they were unable to read the notes. Many sighted musicians learned by these less concrete methods too, so while there is nothing "wrong" with this learning technique, music illiteracy can impose unwanted limitations. Just like anything else, music has its own structure and language, and music theory comprehension and composition require one to at least familiarize with reading and writing the musical language. For blind and visually impaired individuals, reading required adapting visual notes to braille music notes, large print sheet music, and other music literacy tools. With Dancing Dots, one of the leading music technologies in the market, blind and visually impaired aspiring musicians are able to learn how to read and write music. The program, designed and created by blind musician and systems analyst, Bill McCann, has placed blind musicians on the same playing field as their sighted colleagues.

Recognizing the immense progress that Dancing Dots users have made in their musical literacy, the Lighthouse decided from the first year of their camp to join forces with Bill McCann. They invited him to direct and lead the Music Academy, keeping a strong focus on the value and necessity of strengthening one’s music literacy.

“This collaboration with Bill McCann is basically an attempt to give young musicians in our network who are very serious a venue to learn competitive skills for musicianship,” Will said. “He gives students access to things like braille music, large print music, musical notation on digital devices, vibrating metronomes, and other adaptations like non-visual musical tools, which allow blind musicians to not just be performers but to be really serious composers and readers and competitive in the actual job market for working musicians.”

Getting to the Groove

Before admission to the Blind Music Academy, applicants are asked to share their personal musical education history, their musical ability level, their learning patterns and preferences, musical literacy skills, experience in reading or writing music with assistive technology, and goals for attending the camp. They are also asked to provide a written referral from a music teacher, educator, teacher of students with visual impairments, or parent. This process allows the Music Academy to invite a wide range of applicants with diverse backgrounds and musical experience to the same location so that they may learn from one another, network across the group, and then come together on the last day and on the same stage to do what they do best.

“We look for students who have some background in music literacy but that being said, there’s always a range; the advanced students always end up becoming mentors for the less advanced students, and the less advanced students often end up teaching the more advanced students certain things,” Will added.

Some campers are skilled in production, while others have a solid understanding of digital audio workstation software. Some are admitted for their fluency in specific genres like classical or jazz, while others are charismatic performers. Regardless, they all find time to jam together on stage during the week, whenever there is free time. Each kid brings their unique skill set to benefit the group, and that’s where the music really comes alive.

Performing in Nature

Performing live can be intimidating, even veteran musicians will tell you that. Bill McCann, however, a professional trumpeter and composer himself, has a balanced, comfortable philosophy for performing live that he shares with the young musicians. Rather than assigning music, he encourages them to choose their own music to perform. He wants them to be creative with it and choose something that comes alive for them so that the audience can feel that spirit as well.

The location of the camp gives these kids a free space to experiment their different performance styles. Surrounded by the Redwoods near Napa, the Enchanted Hills Camp gives students a chance to play their hearts out in the middle of the wilderness, feel the vibrations of their music bounce back toward them from tree trunks, and whistle past them in the wind and through leaves. It’s the perfect spot to send your music out into the universe and then wait to see how it responds. It welcomes performance that’s spontaneous and free.

Will Butler has witnessed how performing in this environment has impacted the members of Music Academy. “You cannot emphasize enough how confidence-boosting this experience can be for a young person that has maybe never been allowed to go stand on stage without someone’s help.”

The Youth Music Academy is always evolving and even though the fourth session just came to a close, the Lighthouse is looking for new ways to innovate in 2018. For more information about the Youth Music Academy and to access the 2018 application form, please contact Taccarra Burrell, Program Coordinator at Lighthouse-SF, at

Enjoy the Youth Music Academy concert.

Arts and Leisure
Social Life and Recreation

New Diagnosis? The Most Common Questions Asked by Parents of Children with Visual Impairments

You’re here because your child has recently been diagnosed with an eye condition. You likely weren’t at all prepared for the emotional impact of the diagnosis, you certainly can’t foresee coping with vision loss, and you don’t understand what to do next. You feel consumed with questions; lost at sea.

A mother and father holding their small child during an eye examination at the doctor's office; the doctor is looking at the child and holding up three fingers for the baby to see

FamilyConnect Can Help

If this is you, I am so glad you found us. We are FamilyConnect, a place for parents of children (from birth to adults!) with visual impairments. Here, you’re far from alone. You can journey alongside both experienced and brand-new families, all of which include children who are blind or visually impaired.

Here’s a brief tour. You can join the community, browse and ask questions on the message board, and peruse info and resources by age range or on the topic of education, multiple disabilities, or assistive technology.

Common Questions from Parents of Children Recently Diagnosed

Know what else I think you’d enjoy reading? This resource: The Most Common Questions Asked by Parents of Children with Visual Impairments. Because let’s face it, what even is a Functional Visual Evaluation? What is nystagmus? What can your child see? Should your child play sports? Can your child’s vision be restored? Yes, we tackle these questions and more.

What other questions might you have?

What are your other questions? Add them to the comment section, and I will be happy to provide you with additional resources or recommendations.

You’re not alone.

Additional Resources for Children Recently Diagnosed with a Visual Impairment

What to Expect at the Eye Doctor’s Office

Low Vision Services for Children

Overview of the Service System for Children with Visual Impairments

Low Vision
News from FamilyConnect
Online Tools
Planning for the Future

How Will We Pay for My Visually Impaired Child’s Assistive Technology?

I had a recent e-mail from a family new to the country who wondered how they would afford their child’s assistive technology (AT) needed for school. Are there organizations who provide technology for free or a reduced cost? What financial assistance is available? I’m confident other families have the same concerns and thought it wise to publish the response as a blog post and ask for seasoned parents to provide additional suggestions in the comments section.

Letter to Parents About Your Child's Assistive Technology Needs

Dear concerned parent,

Will your child attend a public school? If so, the school must conduct an assistive technology assessment in order to determine the types of AT needed to complete tasks and access the curriculum. The school will provide the AT—though the brands or specific models will depend on what the school district has available. To learn about advocating for AT, you’ll want to read How to Get Assistive Technology for Your Child.

When it comes to assistive technology for home use, such as a screen reader or screen magnifier, know that if the use of AT is required at home and documented on the Individualized Education Program (IEP), the school must provide the technology for home use.

If access to the technology is not required for home use, but would certainly be beneficial for home use, and the cost is prohibitive, I recommend contacting your state’s Division of Blind Services and any additional local resource, such as a Lighthouse for the Blind or other nonprofit serving your community. As a teacher of students with visual impairments at a nonprofit agency, I provided students with assistive technology (again, based on an AT assessment) funded by the state’s Division of Blind Services, and I trained students how to use the equipment or software. When searching for a local service provider, you can utilize our database.

Lastly, if you are in need of a home computer or laptop with accessibility software, take advantage of Computers for the Blind, a company that refurbishes computers, installs accessibility software, and sells them for $50 a desktop or $70 a laptop. All you need is your child’s teacher of students with visual impairments to write a letter to Computers for the Blind stating your child does need a computer or laptop with assistive technology. You can learn more about the offer by reading Computers Installed with AT Offered as Low as $50 for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Shannon Carollo

Assistive Technology Resources for Children with Visual Impairments

An Overview of Assistive Technology

Students Using Technology

Overview of Services for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Assistive Technology
Low Vision
Online Tools
Planning for the Future

The School Year Has Begun and Your Child Has No Blindness Services

student wearing glasses leans in close to his schoolbook

The school year has begun and your child who is blind or visually impaired is not receiving blindness-specific educational services. What can you do?

Most importantly, learn about the process of educating a child who is blind or visually impaired. The first step entails your child receiving federally mandated, blindness-specific assessments, which reveal your child’s strengths and areas necessitating instruction before your child can fully access the core curriculum. The educational team, including yourself, will develop relevant instructional goals targeting these areas, for instance in assistive technology, braille, orientation and mobility, and social skills. This set of goals, including the frequency and duration of specialized instruction, is created and documented in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting.

Federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, mandates your child receive the services documented in the IEP. The law does not state your child must have a teacher of students with visual impairments, unfortunately, but does mandate your child receive services from a highly qualified individual as defined by your individual state of residence. Because there are shortages of teachers of students with visual impairments and mobility specialist, learn the options you have when your school district either does not have a TVI or O&M specialist or does not have an adequate number of vision-related service providers.

If you have concerns or notice a discrepancy between what your child should be receiving and what is being received, problem-solve with your child's school. No doubt you will have to be an advocate for your child.

If you need further advice, seek counsel by posting on the FamilyConnect message boards, commenting on this blog, or by sending a message to or the FamilyConnect Facebook page. We will respond. With your permission, we can also request counsel on your behalf from other parents and professionals of children who are blind or visually impaired on our Facebook page. (Thank you to the many parents and professionals who have lovingly provided direction, encouragement, and feedback.)

Lastly, the American Council of the Blind has an advocate program. If you call them at 1-800-424-8666, they will pair you with an individual who can advise you on your child's services.

This is a supportive community. Let's brainstorm together and take off that heavy weight of worry.

Low Vision Services

Should My Child with Low Vision Be Receiving Vision-Related Services?

Find a Local Service Provider for Your Child Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

Your Child’s Educational Team

Low Vision
Orientation and Mobility
Planning for the Future

TVI Mom: Raising a Child Who Is Visually Impaired As a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments

I had been a teacher of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility specialist for a few years when my husband and I welcomed our son, Alex into our lives. Things were turned upside down with the typical sleep deprivation and new parenthood stress. At six weeks, I noticed something as I stared into his brown eyes that were moving rapidly side to side, nystagmus. No one saw what I saw, not my husband or the ophthalmologist. All of a sudden, I was the parent experiencing what so many of my families had experienced. I felt alone because my husband was in denial, and I was fearful to share with my family and friends. Over the next few months, we learned that he had inherited a congenital eye condition that causes nystagmus and reduced acuity.

At the grocery store, cashiers said, "he looks tired," as his eyes moved, and my mother-in-law said, "he looked like a cartoon character." My stomach hurt when I knew I would have to explain to the ever-changing gym childcare worker that he was not having a seizure, but his eyes just moved involuntarily. I never admitted that I was hurting because I felt like I had to downplay my feelings because his vision was relatively good compared to so many students I worked with over my career.

He entered preschool, and I sat across the table now from colleagues. As they read the Individualized Education Program (IEP), I knew the boxes they needed to check and the services they would offer. I knew the feeling they felt as I shared my concerns about his vision and his needs. So many times, I listened to parents of students with low vision express their concerns about their child. When I became a TVI mom, I realized how much my child’s reduced visual acuity was impacting his participation in class. I did not want to have to put his vision into perspective to students who are visually impaired, but I wanted his access compared to typical students.

My son is finishing Kindergarten, and I continue to struggle to allow myself to feel the emotions that come with having a child who is visually impaired. As I read the articles here on FamilyConnect and follow Facebook support groups for students who are visually impaired, I remind myself that we all have different experiences, but there is power in sharing our stories.

Several pairs of glasses hanging from hooks on a chalkboard

If you’d like to share your story as a blog post, please e-mail it to

Stories from Parents Raising Visually Impaired Children

A Thankful Mom: Nancy's Story of Raising Her Son Who Is Visually Impaired

An Interview with Suzanne: Helping Your Child Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired Succeed in School

An Interview with Cynthia: Tips for Rearing Children with Visual Impairment

An Interview with Wendy: Importance of Gaining Confidence with Physical Mobility

An Interview with Jennifer: A Parent's Role in Raising a Child with Low Vision

An Interview with John: Advocating for Your Child During an IEP Meeting

Low Vision
Personal Reflections
Planning for the Future

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