KALAMAZOO, Mich.—When it comes to goals, Tracey Joubert sets the bar high.
"My biggest thing in life is to be able to have a positive impact and make a difference in society," she says. The skills Joubert is learning in Western Michigan University's master's program in orientation and mobility for children make her well-positioned to do just that.
Vision impairment is the most prevalent disability in her home country of South Africa, where she works at the College of Orientation and Mobility, yet a report by the World Health Organization finds a majority of impairment goes unaddressed. Another survey estimates 97% of South Africans who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed.
"In South Africa, we still have to grow the consciousness in terms of understanding that people with disabilities are fully capable and can be integrated in society," Joubert says, noting in a country with nearly 60 million people, there are only 23 schools for children with visual impairments. And only a handful of those schools have orientation and mobility (O&M) practitioners—specialists trained to teach safe, efficient and independent travel skills.
Dr. Dawn Anderson, assistant professor of blindness and low vision studies, first helped to identify gaps in programming at Joubert's college as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa in 2018. Because of her expertise and Western's stellar reputation in the field—home to the longest-running orientation and mobility program of its kind in the United States—the College of Orientation and Mobility chose to enroll Joubert in the University's program.
"There's a huge need for specialists. The biggest goal (in completing Western's program) is to bring the skills back to South Africa, specifically working with children with visual impairments," she says. "The goal is to specialize in (O&M) and be able to help other practitioners implement full programs with children and get out into more schools and create awareness of this need as well as the understanding of the value it has for children."
"We are thrilled to have Tracey working on her M.A. in O&M with children here at Western," adds Anderson. "The connections between our programs strengthen with her work here."
Joubert is currently in her final semester of Western's program and completing an internship with the Foundation for Blind Children in Arizona. When she graduates in December, she will be the first instructor at her college—which is one of the only institutions of its kind in southern Africa—to have a certification from the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals.
"We look forward to long and productive collaborations as (the College of Orientation and Mobility) works to educate professionals in O&M, new training for practicing O&M specialists and provide high-quality O&M to children and adults across South Africa," Anderson says. "It is our hope that other African countries seeking improved services for individuals who are blind and visually impaired will engage with the (College of Orientation and Mobility) in South Africa and Western Michigan University to expand and enhance O&M across Africa."
Joubert looks forward to beginning to lay that foundation, grateful for the support and inspiration she's found through Western's faculty and programs.
"One of the biggest things I've taken from the department is the amount of passion all the instructors have for the field and for working with people with visual impairments as well as just the mindset that everything is possible," says Joubert. "I'd like to be able to instill that mindset back home, that there are actually no limitations for people with visual impairments. And the more we as instructors can expose them to that, the more they can experience and learn for themselves; and that empowerment is a huge thing."
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