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Visual Disabilities wins federal grant to train specialists to support adults

January 27, 2020

NIU’s Department of Special and Early Education long has enjoyed U.S. Department of Education grants to train professionals to work with people who are blind or visually disabled.

For more than 40 consecutive years, those federal dollars have supported NIU’s preparation of vision rehabilitation therapists (VRT) and Orientation and Mobility (O&M) specialists who teach children from preschool through high school.

That critical mission is now expanding, thanks to a new – and additional – grant.

“Our scholars funded by this go on to fill vacancies in the areas of VRT/O&M for adults who are visually impaired,” says Stacy Kelly, an associate professor in the Visual Disabilities Program who submitted the grant proposal last fall and serves as the project director.

“We have a severe shortage throughout the United States as age-related conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy or macular degeneration are on the rise with baby boomers, and there is a desperate need to fill the vacancies to help those people,” Kelly adds. “We’re very fortunate to be awarded this grant.”

The new five-year training grant of $750,000 pays tuition, fees, health insurance and stipends for graduate students who enroll in NIU’s nationally renowned program.

NIU’s program is steeped in hands-on experiences with assistive technology.
NIU provides numerous experiences with assistive technology.

Good jobs are readily available for the taking, not only to work with those adults who are dealing with late-onset visual disabilities and blindness and military veterans who return from conflict with vision issues but also with adults who have been blind or visually disabled since birth but still require support.

And, Kelly says, because many of these clients are older adults, they also are dealing with other health challenges and conditions such as hearing loss or reduced mobility – topics covered in NIU courses.

Students complete foundational courses on anatomy of the eye, literary braille, O&M, assistive technology and more before taking advanced coursework and internships in their respective career paths.

Innovative coursework includes the fun “Cooking Without Looking,” which teaches students how to help their clients “continue with the activities of daily life, and to do everything they used to do.”

As the first university in the United States to offer a certificate of graduate study and master’s degree in the area of Assistive Technology Instructional Specialist for People with Visual Impairments, NIU also provides a rich set of hands-on lessons using modern gadgets.

During “The Drop-off Lesson,” NIU students are under blindfold for hours each week as they cross streets, complete routes and find their way back to specific locations.

During their “drop-off lessons,” NIU students are under blindfold for hours each week as they cross streets, complete routes and find their way back to specific locations without knowing exactly where they started.

“We really emphasize assistive technology across all of our areas of specialization because assistive technology truly levels the playing field for people who are blind or visually impaired,” Kelly says.

“Our students actually get real experiences and strategies in every single class with the tools they need to help people,” she adds. “It’s not just a video or a book. It’s not just reading or hearing about it. Our students are using sleep-shades. They’re using the technology themselves at home.”

Choosing the NIU Department of Special and Early Education – and the profession of visual disabilities – is an easy decision for students.

“Our reputation precedes us. Students know before they get here that they’re going to learn things from people who are interested in bettering their knowledge, and they really enjoy our classes,” Kelly says.

“And once people find out about this career in this field, and how they can make a huge impact, they don’t look back,” she adds. “It’s a wonderful career choice.”

NIU’s program is approved by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Council for Exceptional Children and the Illinois State Board of Education.

For more information, contact Kelly at (815) 753-4103 or [email protected].