WMU awarded $3.7 million for programs in blindness and low vision

contact: Mark Schwerin
| WMU News
Photo of Dr. Dae Shik Kim

Dr. Kim

Photo of Dr. Helen Lee

Dr. Lee

Photo of Dr. Jennipher Wiebold

Dr. Wiebold

Photo of Dr. Robert Wall Emerson

Dr. Emerson

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Four recent grants totaling $3.7 million have been awarded to the Western Michigan University Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies and are aimed at filling a severe shortage of specialists trained to assist people with vision problems live fuller, happier lives.

The personnel training grants are from the U.S. Department of Education and span five years. The grants will help prepare orientation and mobility specialists, vision rehabilitation therapists, rehabilitation counselors and teachers of children who are visually impaired.

Ultimately, the grants will help thousands of people who are blind and visually impaired by educating the next generation of specialists who will work with visually impaired youths and adults in schools and organizations, as well as recruiting scholars who represent the diverse populations they will serve.

The awards respond to severe personnel shortages nationally and statewide and address employment challenges faced by those with visual impairments.

The grants

The four grants, the principal investigator, amounts and a brief description are:

• Orientation and Mobility Personnel Preparation, Dr. Dae Shik Kim, associate professor, $746,971. Orientation and mobility professionals supported by this award will teach safe and efficient travel skills to working age and older adults with blindness or low vision.

• Vision Rehabilitation Therapy Personnel Preparation, Dr. Helen Lee, associate professor, $697,140. These professionals work primarily with blind and visually impaired adults, providing instruction and guidance in adaptive independent living skills, enabling them to confidently carry out their daily activities.

• Rehabilitation Counseling with an Emphasis in Employer Relations, Dr. Jennipher Wiebold, associate professor, $999,782. Rehabilitation counseling is focused on assisting people with disabilities to achieve their personal, career and independent living goals. The project will prepare graduates from the rehabilitation counseling program with an emphasis in employment and employer relations.

• Preparation of Teachers of Children with Visual Impairments and Orientation and Mobility Instructors of Children, Dr. Robert Wall Emerson, professor, $1,248,723. The project will prepare teachers of children with visual impairments. Program graduates will work with students with visual impairments in preschool through elementary and high school.

'Perfect, positive storm'

The highly competitive awards may be applied for every five years, says Dr. James Leja, department chair. This year, their funding cycles coincided and all applications were fully funded.

"They all hit at the same time," Leja says. "So this happened to be, if you will, that perfect, positive storm. This creates a strong foundation for our five departmental programs over the next five years."

The training grants will have far-reaching effects, Leja says. Students come from across the country to earn degrees from the department, then take that training back to their home communities, where they make a difference in the lives of people with visual impairments.

"Each one of our graduates affects a whole lot of people," Leja says. "It has a nice, cascading effect. There's a huge shortage of professionals in all of these areas."

At a time when many professionals in the field are retiring, the number of people with disabilities, including vision problems, is rising, Leja says. This includes many individuals with age-related sources of visual impairment, such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Increasing need

People with disabilities represent a small but increasing percentage of the overall population and require crucial support for education, workforce training and ultimate independence. In 2006, the National Eye Institute estimated that there were up to 5 million Americans who were visually impaired and that more than 1 million of these individuals were legally blind.

According to the 2011 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, 63 percent of the individuals with visual disability aged 21-64 were unemployed. Moreover, the Michigan Bureau of Services for Blind Persons estimates that 70 percent of the state's rehabilitation staff will retire in the next five years.

The WMU department is the oldest of its kind in the world. It attracts scholars from across the United States and internationally and annually produces more graduates with specialties in blindness and low vision than any other institution.

"We've historically seen, in all the years that we've been around, that many individuals with visual impairments have unmet needs in part because of the challenges of producing enough qualified graduates to get out there and provide services," Leja says. "So the need has always been huge. Obviously, we're very happy about the grants."

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