WMU News

New degree to help people with disabilities travel independently

Feb. 9, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Whether it comes to driving a car or riding on a bus, the ability to travel is a key to independence and often essential to a person's capacity to live life to the fullest.

But for many people with disabilities, traveling is a problem, a struggle they face every time they leave their homes.

To help people with disabilities meet this challenge, Western Michigan University has developed a travel instruction baccalaureate program that is training students to help people with disabilities learn to travel safely and effectively.

The program is the first of its kind in the nation and complements an existing program that trains students to help blind people with orientation and mobility. That very successful program, part of the University's Department of Blind Rehabilitation, has been offered since 1961.

The new travel instruction program will train students to work with people with a wide range of disabilities, from developmental disabilities to hearing or speech impairments to those who use wheelchairs. It is being offered to meet an increasing demand for travel by people with disabilities in the wake of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"In the past, people with a disability would turn to a classroom teacher," says Dr. William R. Wiener, chairperson of WMU's Department of Blind Rehabilitation. "If they were lucky, they had a teacher that could take them out into a community. But when you have a classroom full of kids, you can't take each student out individually. Usually it would be done as a classroom field trip."

The result is that many people with disabilities grow into adulthood without fully learning the ins and outs of traveling. Counselors, meanwhile, who work with these people later in life, typically

learn how to teach travel instruction through trial and error, a process that can take years.

Through travel instruction training, instructors can learn how to help people with disabilities travel safely and effectively much more quickly.

Eight students currently are enrolled in the new program. Wiener hopes to boost that number to 10 students per year with the help of a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will pick up the in-state tuition costs for juniors and seniors plus give them a stipend for books and other expenses. To help establish the program, the Federal Transit Act also has contributed $300,000 to develop standards for the preparation of independent travel specialists and to develop a program leading to instructor certification.

When they graduate, students will be eligible for jobs at centers for independent living, adult service agencies, school systems and transit systems. They will teach people with disabilities how to establish and maintain their orientation and travel safely in indoor areas, residential neighborhoods, rural areas, businesses and urban centers.

To develop its new curriculum, WMU studied successful travel instruction programs in several cities that did a good job teaching people with disabilities how to travel. A job analysis of travel instructors was completed along with a list of competencies needed from which the University built a travel instruction curriculum. Travel instruction programs were studied in New York City, Akron,

Ohio, the greater Philadelphia area and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

WMU came up with a 122-credit hour baccalaureate program that includes a 24-credit-hour travel instruction major. In addition to the major, students will be required to complete a 20-credit hour interdisciplinary minor that will supplement the major.

Besides classroom instruction, students must complete a practicum and a 40-hour per week internship, each for one semester. In the coming months, students also will take part in several exercises that will expose them to the rigors of traveling with a disability, such as using a wheelchair and public transportation to travel to a destination across town or other exercises that will simulate speech or hearing impairments.

Students who have enrolled in the program say it offers a unique undergraduate-level educational opportunity while providing a much-needed service to people with disabilities.

"One of the advantages of travel instruction is we'll work with all disabilities, not just visual impairment," says Morgan Scafe, a senior who switched from social work to travel instruction when the program became available. "My biggest interest is in giving everyone the opportunity, especially those with disabilities, to travel independently and be independent in their recreation, employment and school."

Students also are attracted to what they believe will be a growing field.

"I think there will be a big demand for travel instructors," says junior Justin Latulippe. "A lot of agencies are demanding this type of experience."

Helping people with disabilities travel independently will become increasingly important, Wiener agrees.

Being able to travel lets people take part in educational programs, gain employment and become a contributing member of a community. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1991, people with disabilities have been granted the right to equal access to transportation, resulting in a need for instructors who can teach orientation, independent travel and the use of public transportation.

In addition, other pieces of legislation are making travel instruction increasingly important, Wiener adds. One example is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that children with disabilities be taught how to travel independently. Another example is the recently reauthorized Rehabilitation Act, which deals with adults returning to work and mandates that travel instruction be provided if necessary.

"What tends to happen in these cases is there are no travel instructors available," Wiener says. "So they find whoever they can find -- catch as catch can ­ unless they happen to be lucky enough to live in a city with a program that's already up and functioning. So we're hoping our graduates will fill that void."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu


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