Braille Monitor                                             November 2015

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Transforming the Training of Professionals in Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind

by Edward Bell

From the Editor: Eddie Bell is the head of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness, a solid academic, and a man who is well-steeped in the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.  Here’s what he has to say about a program pioneering new and innovative work for the blind:

Louisiana Tech remains the foremost leader in preparing professionals who hold a positive and empowering philosophy of blindness consistent with the National Federation of the Blind. We at the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness strive to provide our students with the most cutting-edge, thorough, professional training programs to ensure that our students succeed in the field and have high expectations for future blind students. We continue to adjust and add to our curriculum without compromising the characteristics that set our programs apart. There have been several updates which prospective students and employers should know about related to our Teaching Blind Students (TBS) program, changes in the Orientation and Mobility program, and the recent addition of our Rehabilitation Teaching for the Blind program.

Teacher of Blind Students Program

Participants in the program cross railroad tracks under sleepshades using a long white cane.

President Mark Riccobono addressed us at the fourteenth annual rehabilitation conference in Orlando about the need to change our nation’s education system in the same way that the nature of rehabilitation has changed, and I couldn’t agree with him more! As he mentioned, blind people often say how they wish that they had found the Federation’s positive philosophy sooner, and how they wish they had received quality blindness skills training earlier. The only way that will happen is if we get our philosophy into the education system through Federationists teaching blind students.

Teachers of Blind Students teach children in school settings or adults in rehabilitation centers the skills of Braille, assistive technology, and problem-solving, which we know to be crucial for their success.

We, of course, think some of the best teachers for blind kids are blind adults. We’ve made it a point from the ground up that our programs are inclusive and built to be appropriate for blind or sighted teachers. Keep that in mind as you think about your clients, people you work with, or you yourself. We’re taking applications, and we’d love to have you.

There are three ways to enroll in our TBS Program. If you do not have an education background and you are not a certified teacher, you would enroll in our Master of Arts in Teaching program, which is an alternative certification program. We also have two programs for those who already hold a teaching degree: we have a Master of Education program and, if you want to only take the classes needed to add on certification to teach blind students, we have the graduate certificate program. All three of the programs have the same seven core courses specific to blindness. If, for example, you’re just doing the graduate certification to add to your education degree, you take the seven core classes, complete a student teaching internship for one quarter, and you’re ready to take the professional exams that your state requires.

I am often asked, “Can I take the classes without being admitted into Louisiana Tech University?” For example, a student at another university may want to take one or two classes without getting the certification. You can take individual courses without seeking a degree or certification, but you still must be admitted to Louisiana Tech. One option is to be admitted as a lifelong learner, meaning you don’t have to take the Graduate Records Examination as you do with our degree tracks. At the institute we are happy to help you find the best education plan for you.

Another frequent question is about our online coursework. Our Master of Arts in Teaching and the graduate certificate program are almost entirely online. This is something that we really thought hard about, and there are a few reasons we decided to push forward with the online platform. Primarily, we must train more teachers. There are so many people already working or with families who can’t pick up and move to Ruston for a couple years. We need to serve those people as well. The unique elements of our program, however, used to be in-person opportunities working with blind people at the Louisiana Center or in the community. We have a number of classes—like our Braille 1, Braille 2, and assistive technology classes—conducted weekly using a video conferencing platform so that instructors can give students real-time feedback. We also schedule times for hands-on, long-weekend training sessions in Ruston for assistive technology and advanced Braille training. In the summer quarter there’s a week in Ruston focused on teaching orientation and mobility to teachers of blind students, in which students receive cane travel instruction under sleepshades from successful blind role models.

Orientation and Mobility Program

Trainee under sleepshades reads Braille in an elevator.Our Orientation and Mobility cognate is now housed within the Master of Arts in Counseling and Guidance degree track at Louisiana Tech University. We feel that this degree track better prepares our students for working in the field. Instructors, after all, don’t teach only travel skills, they build confidence and help people accept their blindness. This new program touches on some of the strategies and techniques that allow us to guide students toward this way of thinking.

Scholarships are available for incoming students in the orientation and mobility track thanks to a long-term training grant from the US Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration. This allows us to provide financial assistance to our students on a first-come, first-served basis. We hope that this will help encourage you to consider joining us. One thing that definitely hasn’t changed is the need in our field for more quality orientation and mobility instructors. We need blind and sighted mobility instructors who really believe in blind people and possess nonvisual skills.

Louisiana Tech University is still the only orientation and mobility university program that has the Federation philosophy and specifically teaches the Structured-Discovery Cane Travel (SDCT)™ method. All of our orientation and mobility students go through blindness immersion at the Louisiana Center for the Blind for a full quarter. In immersion, students take all of their classes—cane travel, Braille, computers, wood shop, and home management—under sleepshades.

After their immersion experience, students take six additional months of cane travel classes under sleepshades to improve their mobility skills. They also participate in several trips with the Louisiana Center for the Blind and on their own to further hone their skills in environments from subways to nature trails, Capitol Hill to the mountains of Arkansas, and Mardi Gras to New Jersey. We conduct the majority of these trips with Louisiana Center students so our students can watch others progress in their skills and adjustment to blindness.

The ten-week summer internship is a great opportunity for our students to teach others and gain feedback from the highly-qualified travel instructors at the Louisiana Center. As you all know, the Louisiana Center for the Blind has a great reputation as one of the best rehab agencies in the country. Our students get to spend the entire summer working with Roland Allen, Marco Carranza, and Darick Williamson. They also get to work with kids in our summer programs, including the Louisiana NFB BELL, Buddy, and STEP programs.

People often ask if they have to have excellent travel skills before coming to our programs, and my response is always the same: it doesn’t hurt, but we’ve accepted many students whose skills aren’t up to par yet. They come in, do immersion at the center to get the skills they need, then they continue to work on nonvisual travel for two hours a day, five days a week for about six months. That will get your skills where they need to be. Your background or bachelor’s degree is irrelevant; we’ve had people with majors from art to education. You don’t need to be a blindness expert when you come into the program, either. We need more good orientation and mobility instructors out there in our schools, state-run agencies, and veterans’ programs. If you or anyone you know is interested in becoming an orientation and mobility instructor, I urge you to give us a call at the Institute on Blindness.

Rehabilitation Teaching Program

In addition to these two core programs, we now offer a Master of Arts in Counseling Guidance with a concentration in Rehabilitation Teaching for the Blind. There are a lot of different jobs out there for which this degree applies, but, in a nutshell, rehabilitation teachers are cross-trained individuals who are skilled in all aspects of blindness techniques. The folks going through the rehabilitation teaching degree program will go through immersion training at the Louisiana Center and the first orientation and mobility class, which will give them a solid introduction to teaching independent travel. They also take the first Braille class to demonstrate competency in Braille and assistive technology.

The rehabilitation teaching degree program came into existence thanks to a grant from the Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration, a grant which also allowed us to strengthen our orientation and mobility program. The scholarships that we are able to issue cover tuition, fees, and a living stipend. To qualify for funding, you need an undergraduate degree and must be admitted to our program.

Every day, job opportunities cross my desk for instructors in Braille, cane travel, and home management, many of which come from training centers who are looking for people to hire in all these fields. We train professionals who will be ready and equipped to go to those centers and be able to fill almost any of those positions. The person who gets certified as a rehabilitation teacher can choose to stay at Louisiana Tech for an extra semester to earn the designation of NOMC (National Orientation and Mobility Certification). With a little bit of extra effort, a student who goes through the rehabilitation teaching degree program can be certified in all three areas: rehabilitation teaching, orientation and mobility, and Braille. After all, we want to see more cross-trained individuals in the field.

Immersion is a requirement for either of these degree tracks. Blindness immersion can occur at any of the NBPCB (National Blindness Professional Certification Board)-approved centers that use the structured discovery method. While the vast majority of students’ internships will take place at the Louisiana Center, I would love to see our students working as interns in Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Hawaii. I need staff at all structured-discovery centers to send us people to train, including your graduates; then, I want to turn around and send them back to you, so you can finish polishing them and hire them yourselves.

Through these programs, we can do what Mark Riccobono charged us to do: do with the education system what we’ve already done in the rehabilitation field. I’m excited to work toward this goal. With your help, dedication, and recruitment efforts, we can collectively build the next generation of highly trained and qualified teachers for our blind children and adults. Come and visit us at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, Louisiana, or online at <www.pdrib.com>. We look forward to developing a better world together.

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