Illinois State University’s Maribeth Lartz and Mindy Ely have been awarded a $1.23 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to assist students in their future work with infants and toddlers who are blind or deaf and their families.

The funds will help develop the LIMITLESS program, leading cohorts of Illinois State students in integrating special education and speech language pathology coursework into their training. The groundbreaking program not only weaves understanding across disciplines, but also meets a growing need for skilled professionals to work with young children.

headshot of Maribeth Lartz

Dr. Maribeth Lartz

“We have a perilous shortage—not only in the state of Illinois, but the nation—of early intervention practitioners for children who are blind or deaf, ages birth to three,” said Lartz, a professor of deaf education who has been training teachers for more than 30 years. “These early years are a critical time, not just for development of the child, but also for the families.” Lartz noted early intervention can empower families to see possibilities and set goals. “Many parents have never met a person who is blind or deaf, so they have no experience of what paths are available. Early intervention creates lifelong connections with their child and a lifelong desire to be active in their child’s education.”

headshot of Mindy Ely

Dr. Mindy Ely

The LIMITLESS project, which stands for Leveraging Instruction to Maximize Interdisciplinary Teaming in Learning Environments of Family Systems When Children Have Sensory Disabilities, combines coursework across two University colleges—the Department of Special Education in the College of Education and the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Arts and Sciences. The emphasis on collaboration is a needed element in the field, noted Ely, an assistant professor of low vision/blindness education. “It is common to have five or six different therapists coming into the home to help young children with aspects of development, such as feeding issues and motor skills,” she said. “That is a lot for families to manage. By having a greater knowledge of needs across the board, early interventionists can help families move beyond surviving and set goals.”

The first year of the grant will be devoted to developing the curriculum and coursework for the integrated program. The second through fifth year will yield an increase in graduate enrollment by supporting two cohorts of new students as they complete the two-year program, taking classes in both departments, and collaborating on projects and fieldwork experiences. All students in the program will be eligible to apply for early intervention credentials.

Director of Clinical Education for Speech Language Pathology Cara Boester called the grant a unique opportunity. “Our graduate students will have a better understanding of the interdisciplinary work that occurs when working with children who may have sensory disabilities, while striving to improve speech and language skills,” she said.

Lartz agreed the program is exceptional. “We’re not aware of any similar interdisciplinary programs geared toward ages 0-3 in the country,” said Lartz. “The goal is to train professionals to empower families to meet their needs and those of their children throughout their lives.”