Facing a critical shortage of low vision and blindness educators, Illinois State University’s Department of Special Education is innovating to help fill the nationwide need.
Ranked by College Factual as the No. 1 school for special education in both Illinois and the U.S., Illinois State offers one of 33 low vision and blindness (LVB) programs in the country and one of only eight for undergraduates. New to Illinois State is a five-semester, online LVB master’s program spearheaded by Assistant Professor of Special Education Dr. Mindy Ely ’91.
“Low vision and blindness is very different than any other field of teaching because you’re not in a classroom,” said Ely, a member of the LVB faculty since 2014. “You’re one-on-one with kids. And you’re not teaching the academic curriculum. Instead, you are figuring out how to give blind students access to a curriculum that is typically designed for visual learners. It’s a lot of critical thinking and problem solving.”
In 2019, Assistant Professor of Special Education Dr. Natalie Shaheen joined Ely on Illinois State’s LVB faculty. As a blind child attending a public school, Shaheen never had a teacher of blind students. She wasn’t taught Braille or how to use access technology.
“What I learned was that I was a broken sighted kid who needed to be fixed in order to be worth the school’s time,” Shaheen said. “Education told me, ‘This is not a place for blind people.’” Yet Shaheen excelled academically.
“I didn’t succeed because I’m an amazing blind person—because I’m not amazing,” Shaheen said. “The reason that I succeeded academically is because I navigated K-12 with a great deal of privilege. I’m a white, upper-middle class person who came from a highly educated family.
“I work in this field to do what I can, as one person, to impact K-12 education to make space for blind students, blind teachers, blind administrators, blind parents and guardians—particularly diverse blind folks who are forced to navigate multiple interlocking systems of oppression.”
Shaheen and Ely bring diverse, yet complementary, areas of expertise to Illinois State’s LVB program. Ely’s research focuses on helping teachers learn to partner with families and also on serving students with cerebral visual impairments. Shaheen’s research aims to reimagine technology-mediated learning environments “so that diverse disabled youth have equitable access to learning.”
Ely and Shaheen are committed to growing the profession through their nationally respected research and by introducing students to “the best job in the world,” according to Ely.
Reimagining technology-mediated learning
Before joining Illinois State’s faculty, Shaheen worked as a teacher of blind and disabled students in Ohio, Nevada, Indiana, and Maryland. She began her academic career at ISU because of its “long-standing history of having a low vision and blindness program.”
“I had worked with graduates of the program in the field around the country, and they were all very impressive to me,” Shaheen said. “I knew there were other disabled faculty in the college, and that was something that made me feel welcome and wasn’t something I expected to find in a potential academic job.”
An expert in technology accessibility, Shaheen has infused Illinois State’s curriculum with opportunities for preservice teachers to learn how to ensure the technologies they use are accessible to blind and other disabled students. In classes Shaheen teaches and guest lectures in, students learn how to construct and identify key accessibility features such as alternative text—a method of encoding textual descriptions of images into HTML and other digital markup.
“Though it could be, educational technology often isn’t accessible to disabled people,” said Shaheen. She offered an analogy. “Technologies that are accessible to disabled people have the equivalent of digital ramps, and technologies that aren’t accessible to disabled people have digital stairs. Most K-12 technologies are built for the nondisabled majority and are full of digital stairs.”
In her work to reimagine technology-mediated K-12 education, Shaheen developed Accessibility4Equity, a cross-disciplinary framework for scholars and practitioners. Shaheen has also researched how school districts are putting technology accessibility policies into practice and the impact on students. From that work, she developed a substantive theory—the Five Elements of Technology Accessibility Policy Enactment.
Shaheen said it’s also important for educators to consider how accessible technology can be paired with non-digital resources—such as paper tactile graphics—to best serve blind students. Through her research and teaching, Shaheen seeks to inform the question, “What can we be doing to support schools in enacting the policies that we already have?”
In 2021, Shaheen’s work was recognized with the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind.
Serving students with Cerebral Visual Impairments
Another emerging and rapidly developing area of study involves how to assess and best serve students with cerebral visual impairments (CVIs). CVI is a brain-based visual impairment caused by damage to the brain either at birth, or later in life, whereas ocular visual impairments involve problems with the eyes themselves. According to Ely, therapists and educators can assist children who have a CVI learn to use their vision more effectively.
“You can see progress and you can see gains in vision if you do the right things,” said Ely, noting that students with CVIs often make up half of an LVB teacher’s caseload. Ely currently chairs the Neurological Visual Impairment Division of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.
In 2020, Ely partnered with Easterseals Illinois to develop the ALEX Program for CVI which aims to increase awareness of CVI amongst professionals and provide resources for those working alongside people impacted by CVI. As the research lead, Ely developed an assessment protocol for educators.
“We will come alongside educators and do an in-depth functional vision assessment,” Ely said. “We use that assessment as a case study to train the educational team. Then, we will follow up with the teacher for the visually impaired to provide further support.”
Ely is also partnering with a college of optometry to hold clinics in which they will conduct medical diagnostics alongside the educational assessment. Together they hope to develop protocols that can be used by teachers and doctors as they meet the needs of this specialized population of learners.
Along with Ely’s CVI research, she has developed a Matrix Approach for personnel prep which shifts the educator mindset from ‘expert’ to ‘collaborator’ with families. “I’m interested in students’ quality of life,” said Ely. This can be best achieved, Ely said, when educators work in collaboration with families.
At Illinois State, Ely has been recognized with a Teaching Initiative Award.
Filling a critical need
When Ely returned to her alma mater as a faculty member, one of her goals—from day one—was to start an LVB master’s program for any practicing educators who are seeking to expand their skillset or who are considering a career change.
Following a multiyear program development process, 14 students enrolled in the first LVB master’s cohort beginning in the summer of 2021. Comprised of current general education, deaf education, and special education teachers, the cohort will graduate from the five-semester program in December 2022, each with an LVB endorsement. A handful of the students already have LVB jobs lined up for the fall—the Illinois State Board of Education is offering an emergency short-term licensure option for LVB teacher candidates.
“One of the problems that we have in our field is that we just don’t have enough teachers—it’s one of the reasons I didn’t have a teacher of blind students when I was in school,” Shaheen said. “So, the more programs we create that are producing teachers of blind students, the more likely blind kids are to have qualified teachers. That’s a really important way that our program is contributing to our field and to my community.”
Shaheen said she often shares her personal story with prospective teachers. “I’ll ask how they can help make a small change so other blind kids won’t have to be in the situation that I was in,” Shaheen said. “A lot of our young people really want to make a difference in the world.
“This is an awesome way to make a difference.”
For more information about Illinois State’s low vision and blindness program, visit Education.IllinoisState.edu/Vision. For more information about the master’s program, visit IllinoisState.edu/Academics/Low-Vision-Blindness-Masters.