WMU News

WMU gets funding to help launch new health care profession

June 23, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan University students could pioneer a new health care profession designed to help persons with disabilities learn to travel independently under a recent federal grant.

The U.S. Department of Education's Rehabilitation Services Administration has awarded WMU $52,313 for the first year of work in an effort to begin a new bachelor's degree program to train travel instructors. The agency is expected to provide funds totaling nearly $350,000 over the five-year grant period.

Although the degree program is not yet a reality, students could begin taking courses as early as this fall and would eventually number among the proposed program's first graduates. Part of the federal funding is available immediately to begin paying tuition for qualified undergraduate students.

"This is really the start of a whole new profession, and it is coming from a tremendous need that is out there," says Dr. William R. Wiener, chairperson of WMU's Department of Blind Rehabilitation and director of the grant project. "We could become the first school in the country to offer such a program. The timing is perfect."

Wiener also directs a national project funded by the Easter Seal Society of America to develop standards and training material for the profession. He says the profession is the answer to a tremendous need triggered by the 1990 passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the opportunities that developed as the result of that act. After more than seven years of compliance, such devices as curb cuts, handicap accessible entrances and lifts have made independent travel a real possibility for persons with disabilities including mental retardation, deafness, cerebral palsy and brain and spinal cord injury.

WMU and a handful of other schools around the nation have been investigating the possibility of launching a degree program to train professionals who can help persons with disabilities other than blindness take advantage of the new opportunities. But WMU, Wiener notes, is the only school that has received the funding necessary for curriculum development and for student support. The University has a long-standing international reputation in the field of blind rehabilitation, and the proposed travel instruction program will share some preliminary course work with that and other programs.

Wiener says that the new undergraduate program would incorporate courses that already are part of WMU's graduate program in blind rehabilitation, its special education offerings and other areas at the University as well as a whole new set of courses that are in the development stage. The program, which must still go through the University's curricular review process, could be formally offered as early as fall 1999.

But even before the program is approved, Wiener says, the grant provides tuition assistance for 10 to 12 students who wish to get a head start on the process by taking the WMU classes that already exist.

Transfer students or junior or senior students already at WMU would be eligible to apply for the proposed program. Once the program is approved, a junior or senior student beginning the course work typically would take three to four semesters to complete the specialized training.

Training for the program will include 60 hours of a supervised practicum completed at agencies in the Kalamazoo area. Students also would complete 600 hours as interns at one of four cooperating agencies, which are located in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Paul, Minn., and Tallmadge, Ohio.

Students who complete WMU's proposed program would receive a certificate of completion in addition to a degree. In the future, a full certification test will be developed to cover the knowledge graduates will need in the new profession.

When fully trained, Wiener says, graduates of such a program would be in high demand. He and his professional colleagues who have been developing standards for the profession know that agencies which serve those with disabilities are looking for professionals who can offer travel instruction. With word of the impending degree program out, Wiener says he's also been hearing from organizations such as municipal travel authorities, which would like to hire travel instruction professionals.

Transit authorities, since the passage of the ADA, have been committed to providing special transportation services such as handicap vans for people with disabilities, Wiener says. But equipment purchased in recent years for the general public includes features that make public transportation more handicap accessible. With the help of travel instruction specialists, transit customers with disabilities might be able to make the transition to regular transportation routes that would give them more flexibility and could be offered at a lower cost.

Wiener predicts that as the profession develops, many travel instructors will go on to complete graduate work and earn degrees in blind rehabilitation as well so that they have dual competency. Others, he says, will go into the work force with a bachelor's degree. Still another tier of professionals may develop, requiring training at only the associate's degree level. Those professionals would be called trainers and would work under the supervision of travel instructors who have earned a bachelor's degree or above.

For more information about the program or for details on future enrollment, persons may call Wiener at (616) 387-3455.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 616 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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