$1.5 million in grants strengthen WMU's vision rehab and mobility programs

Contact: Joel Krauss

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Two major federal grants will bolster the exceptional programs offered by Western Michigan University's renowned Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies.

The University's vision rehabilitation therapy and orientation and mobility programs are the longest-running programs of their kind in the United States. Over the past 58 years, in close collaboration with state vocational rehabilitation agencies, WMU has been the nation’s largest preparer of vision rehabilitation therapists and orientation and mobility specialists.

Dr. Elyse Conners works with VRT students.

There is currently a critical nationwide shortage of vision rehabilitation therapists and orientation and mobility specialists. Western Michigan University has received two Rehabilitation Services Administration grants totaling nearly $1.5 million to strengthen recruiting efforts and increase the number of highly qualified vision rehabilitation therapists and orientation and mobility specialists in the workforce.

These five-year grants, awarded by the U.S. Department of Education in October, will provide funding for tuition support for eligible individuals enrolled in the VRT and O&M programs at WMU.

"The goal of this project is to increase the number of highly qualified vision rehabilitation therapists and orientation and mobility specialists in the workforce," says Dr. Dae Shik Kim, professor in the Department of Blindness & Low Vision Studies. “Most applicants inquire about scholarships at several universities. The amount of financial support they’ll receive will certainly be an important factor in selecting WMU.”

Expanding Recruitment

The tuition support will help the University recruit from a larger geographic region and also recruit individuals reflective of the diverse population of the U.S. That should, in turn, ensure a steady stream of applicants and more graduates to face the national shortage.

"More WMU students should really know about our programs," says Dr. Jim Leja, chair of the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies. "We are national leaders in this particular field, and our graduates find great jobs all over the country. These graduate programs could present amazing career opportunities for undergrads from many different programs on campus."

In fact, the programs do attract students from various undergraduate disciplines, including healthcare services and sciences, exercises science, education and psychology. "Students who are good communicators, who thrive in interacting with others, and who enjoy teaching one-on-one may find great reward as a vision rehabilitation therapist or orientation and mobility specialist," says Leja.

The vast majority of program applicants do not have significant backgrounds in blindness and low vision, but ultimately find the programs rewarding. 

"Nearly all of our graduates secure jobs within a year of program completion,” says Dr. Helen Lee, associate professor in the Department of Blindness & Low Vision Studies. “They work in veteran administration hospitals, for vocational rehabilitation agencies and for non-profit organizations across the country."

The total award for the vision rehabilitation therapist grant is $746,272, while the orientation and mobility grant totals $749,050. Together, the two programs aim to graduate 115 students in the next five years and place 95% of them in the workforce within 2 years of graduation.

Orientation and mobility training

Orientation and mobility specialists

Orientation and mobility is an exciting discipline in low vision and blind rehabilitation that teaches people to travel safely, efficiently and independently in their environment. Orientation is the process of mentally organizing the environment and determining one's location within that environment. Mobility is the act of moving through the environment in a safe and graceful manner.

Vision and rehabilitation therapists

Vision rehabilitation therapists often work in teams that include eye care, health care, rehabilitation and education professionals working with adults who are blind or visually impaired and their families. VRTs offer information and resources these individuals need to lead successful, productive and independent lives. They often do this with non-visual techniques, visual enhancement devices and strategies, universal design and problem-based learning.

More information about orientation and mobility specialists and vision rehabilitation therapists is available on the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies website.

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