How can people who due to a combination of disabilities have difficulties communicating with others still develop and learn things? This is the research topic of professor by special appointment Saskia Damen. She particularly focuses on the potential of these people: what is possible? Her inaugural lecture will take place on November 3 in the Academy Building in Groningen.
Saskia Damen still remembers it vividly: her first encounter with a person who has deafblindness. It was in 1999, and as a recent graduate in orthopedagogy, she worked in a department with individuals who had visual and intellectual disabilities. One day, she found a deafblind woman on her knees in the doorway to the kitchen, likely hoping to make contact with others. Damen: "The kitchen was the place where caregivers came in and out the most. But they were busy, and there was no time for the woman. When I stood beside her, she sensed my presence immediately. She took my hand and stood up. As she kept holding my hand, I was truly confronted with her isolation."
The experience left a deep impression on Damen. Consequently, she decided to delve deeper into the subject of deafblindness and ended up with emeritus professor Marleen Janssen, who was the first to develop an international master's program on this subject. Now, 17 years later, Damen herself is a professor (by special appointment) and has expanded her focus. She no longer concentrates solely on individuals with deafblindness but also on individuals with multiple disabilities and complex communication needs (CCN). Damen explains, "These people have two or more disorders that, when combined, lead to severe communication barriers. For example, an intellectual disability and a hearing impairment. The interaction between these disorders results in very specific support needs in communication and language acquisition. I noticed that this group, like people who have deafblindess, had a significant need for tailored support."
In her research, Damen primarily looks at what is possible. "Due to the communication barriers faced by people with deafblindness or CCN, it can appear to the outside world that they understand very little. However, just like us, they can learn and develop throughout their lives. As an orthopedagogical scientist, I find it a great challenge to find effective ways to promote this through research and support their social environment in doing so."
Damen's research pays special attention to the role of parents of people with deafblindness and CCN. "They are the constant factor in these people's lives. However, they don't always succeed in communicating with their children at the same level as, for example, teachers and caregivers. They need specific knowledge and skills for this, and I hope to contribute to that with my research."
On November 3, Damen's inaugural lecture will take place at the Academy Building in Groningen. Her five-year chair is made possible by Kentalis, a national organization that provides support to people with hearing impairment, deafness, deafblindness, language development disorders, or communication multiple disabilities. In addition to her position at the University of Groningen, Damen works here as a senior researcher.
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