Early intervention services are crucial to the immediate and long-term quality of life for infants and toddlers with visual impairments, blindness, or deafblindness. In Illinois, the credentialed providers of these services for birth through age three are developmental therapists-vision (DT-Vs) and developmental therapists/orientation and mobility (DT-O&Ms).

Not only do these specialists encourage brain development, growth, and the acquisition of basic skills such as crawling, but they “empower parents to be their child’s advocate, teacher, and playmate,” explained Mindy Ely ’93, a former DT-V.

“When parents are involved in a hands on way, the potential for their child is increased exponentially.”

Without early intervention, these populations begin preschool at a developmental disadvantage.

“And unfortunately, sometimes those students may have a difficult time catching up,” said Olaya Landa-Vialard, an assistant professor of low vision and blindness at Illinois State.

In Illinois, an alarming percentage of this population is underserved. Over the next three years, it is estimated that more than 1,500 children in the state will be eligible for early intervention services, and less than one-fifth will receive them, or even be identified.

The problem stems from a critical shortage of DT-Vs and DT-O&Ms across the state, particularly in Western, Central, and Southern Illinois.

In an effort to better serve these vulnerable populations, Illinois State implemented an early intervention vision program in 2015 titled Early Learning Visual Impairment Services, Training and Advancement (EL VISTA). EL VISTA represents one of precious few programs of its kind in the nation and is funded by a five-year $1.23 million grant by the U.S. Department of Education.

The project will provide 40 additional DT-Vs and DT-O&Ms to the most underserved areas of the state, and more than double the number of Illinois providers.

“This work is part of the University’s ongoing efforts to serve as a leader in birth through age three,” said Maribeth Lartz, professor of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) and the director of the grant.

EL VISTA utilizes Lartz’s tested model first developed in 2012 for the AIM TO BE AHEAD grant. That project also provides practitioners with early intervention training, but focuses on infants and toddlers who are deaf, hard of hearing, or learning to use a cochlear implant—another underserved population in Illinois.

Also like AIM TO BE AHEAD, EL VISTA is a yearlong off-campus cohort model. Intensive summer coursework bookends the program, and participants apply their research to practice during a 10-month practicum in families’ homes, but also in medical centers.

“We chose 10-person cohorts so we could remain intensive about providing high-quality training,” Lartz said. “We also select the location of each cohort strategically so we may prepare providers in geographic areas of need.”

Parents are crucial to the early and long-term development of infants and toddlers with deafblindness, low vision, or blindness.

Parents are crucial to the early and long-term development of infants and toddlers with deafblindness, low vision, or blindness.

EL VISTA’s recruits include orientation and mobility specialists and P-12 teachers of the visually impaired, who possess backgrounds working with these populations after age four. Graduates receive the University’s Early Intervention Vision Specialist Graduate Certificate, allowing them to apply for Illinois’ early intervention credential and begin working in the field.

Lartz said this next step in Illinois State’s efforts became a possibility in 2013 when Landa-Vialard joined the Department of Special Education. Her background is in both vision and early intervention, and she is the co-director of EL VISTA. Both she and Ely are course instructors for the grant.

“My background and passion is in performing assessments and identifying the needs of these children,” said Landa-Vialard. “This work allows me to make a larger impact by teaching practitioners what I love.”

She has witnessed firsthand the difference early intervention can make. “Reaching these children as early as six
months after they are born greatly increases their chances of becoming independent
from their parents and working, taxpaying members of society.”

Many of EL VISTA’s participants are former teachers. Ely, who also serves as the grant’s coordinator, works with Landa-Vialard in emphasizing the difference in the approach they need to take in their new roles.

“As providers, we don’t come in and ‘fix’ their child. Instead, we listen to parents to learn their dreams and hopes for their child. Then, we join them in finding avenues to reach those dreams, in spite of the visual impairment,” Ely said. “Parents are the true teachers for their child.”

EL VISTA’s first cohort is just underway, but the work has already gained national interest. Seven states have reached out to the University to ask about extending the reach of the program. While there are no immediate plans to alter the model in this way, discussions are ongoing.

In addition, Illinois State’s work has inspired faculty at the University of Utah—which runs a similar program—to revamp their coursework. The lessons and outcomes from this work will inform best practice. EL VISTA will also serve as a roadmap for Illinois State and other institutions to sustain successful early intervention vision programs.

“The data we collect could truly impact our field,” Ely said. “As one of the out-of state inquirers said, ‘The world is watching.’ That is a huge responsibility, but also an exciting mountain to climb!”