FOR YEARS, there has been a shortage of specialized well-trained teachers to work with children who are blind or visually impaired. It is getting more acute now.
It could not be a better time to be in this field as technology is transforming how students read and learn. Sight readers and speech recognition give voice to written words on the page. Electronic magnifiers enlarge type. Special lighting helps those with poor vision work independently. Yet, state-of-the-art technology does not replace the human touch. Students with vision challenges need capable, competent teachers like their sighted peers.
We are taking this very seriously in New Hampshire. We have raised salaries, we now cover 100% medical benefits, pay relocation and provide some support housing costs and offer graduate school tuition for teachers (TVIs – teachers for students of the visually impaired) who are committed to teaching Braille and other techniques to make learning visible even when sight is limited.
A recent study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that seven million people in the U.S. are living with uncorrectable vision loss, including more than one million Americans who are living with blindness. About one in four — or 1.6 million — are under the age of 40; more females than males experience permanent vision loss or blindness; and there is a higher prevalence among Latino and Black people. This new study reached a broader range of people than any previous estimates in the U.S., and it shows how critical it is to have teachers who can work with students to improve their quality of life with strong educational experiences.
In New Hampshire, we have a novel solution that we hope will go national. We are paying tuition for graduate students in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Visual Studies Program and offering graduate fellowship opportunities, stipends, and other financial incentives to encourage aspiring teachers to learn the special skills to work with students who are blind or visually impaired.
It is a unique partnership that aims to address the shortage while offering on-the-job, real-life experience for aspiring teachers who also get to contribute to long-term research in the field. We want to motivate more TVIs for to move to the state and help fill the gap.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control reports that about 7% of children younger than 18 in the U.S. have a diagnosed eye and vision condition. Nearly 3% of children younger than 18 years are blind or visually impaired and have trouble seeing even when wearing glasses or contact lenses.
Vision disability is one of the top 10 disabilities among adults 18 years and older and one of the most prevalent disabling conditions among children.
We cannot ignore this. Finding creative solutions to educating children with visual disabilities is the answer.
Ask Erika Teal. As a para-professional, she had her graduate degree completely paid for as part of this unique statewide partnership with Future In Sight and UMass Boston. Consequently, she moved up from classroom aide to full-time teacher, working with children who are visually impaired across the state as they use Braille, technology, and reading devices to learn. “I never thought that I could have a job teaching children with visual impairments. Now, I know how rewarding it really is,” she said.
Let’s forge ahead. Let’s help aspiring teachers and education graduate students advance their careers affordably while giving hope and an education to children who live with profound sight loss. Inspiration, innovation, and more resources can help the Granite State become a national leader in educating children who are blind.