My world changed forever when I met Professor Jan Van Dijk

Professor Jan Van Dijk

I was very sad to hear about the recent passing of Professor Jan Van Dijk, a pioneer in deafblindness research and practice.

I first met Jan in 1979 when we were searching for support for our four-year-old rubella son. At the time we couldn’t find much information on these wonderful, but complicated children.

I recall there was a distance support course run by the John Tracy clinic in the USA. This was established by the actor Spencer Tracy, and although primarily for deaf children, it gave useful hints and tips for children with the dual disability.

Then we found Professor Jan Van Dijk and our world changed – actually, when I think about it, forever. We found this remarkable man at Sint-Michielsgestel Institute where they had been pioneering work with children who are deafblind, since the late 1950’s. In those days we were all ‘on a journey’ and Jan’s early work was sometimes challenged.

He was a strong advocate of residential provision supported by his theories of strong routines that, without a doubt, brought rhythm and meaning to the lives of our often confused children.

Still for young families, separation and the rigour of following routines was inevitably difficult. We didn’t follow this path but what we did follow from those early teachings brought stability and communication to our son that has proven the test of time.

Jan visited Scotland often in those early days and encouraged and supported a small group of parents and key professionals to establish the first deafblind school just outside Glasgow. Carnbooth School merged with a visually impaired school, now called Hazelwood, and Jan’s influence is still strongly evident in the practice today.

As well as supporting, I’m guessing thousands of families, all with their own stories, Jan pursued a rigorous academic and research path. Jan was the first professor in deaf pedagogues in the Netherlands (1990). He undertook the first longitudinal survey of rubella children in Australia, published and lectured widely, and played a huge role in establishing the Masters of Communication at the University of Groningen.

Jan could work with a family, engage and assess a child on first introduction (always from a child’s perspective) and he could command an audience of hundreds of professionals and academics. On a human level he was sensitive and very funny, we loved him dearly.

I believe so much of what we see in special education today grew from Jan’s work, routine, imitation, detachment, miss-match theories, tactile calendars, limbic system, self-injurious behaviours, child-centred, you name it, you will find Jan has ‘said’ something about it.

We owe this remarkable man a huge debt of gratitude and we will miss him hugely. I have lost a special friend but I strongly suspect I am not alone.

Author: Gillian Morbey

Gillian became Chief Executive of Sense and Sense International in 2010. Previously, she was Chief Executive Officer of Sense Scotland – an organisation she was instrumental in setting up – from 1985-2010. Gillian has been involved in the voluntary sector in Scotland for more than thirty years. Gillian was awarded the OBE in 1995 in recognition of her work, and an Ernst & Young award, Scottish Social Entrepreneur of the Year, in 2005. She was awarded Glasgow City Council's Lord Provost's Community Award for services to the community in 2008. In 2011, Gillian was elected president of Deafblind International (DbI), an organisation bringing together more than forty organisations from around the world to increase knowledge and share best practice.

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