Since 1997, North Carolina Central University School of Education has been the training ground for anyone looking to work with the visually impaired in North Carolina. A new $1.16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs will strengthen NCCU’s footing in the world of visual impairments. The grant, “Equipped for the Future: Transforming Education of Students with Visual Impairments through Technology and Personnel Preparation,” will provide tuition and stipends for more than 50 scholars who will graduate with degrees or licensure (12 scholars will work in Georgia); infuse the use of current assistive and mainstream technology throughout the NCCU Visual Impairment Training Program (VITP), including incorporating the recently adopted Unified English Braille Code (UEB); and develop a mentoring program.
NCCU is the only university in North Carolina that prepares professionals to work with the visually impaired. Through the VITP program, NCCU trains individuals as both orientation and mobility specialists (O&M) and as teachers of the visually impaired (TVI). O&M specialists are trained to teach individuals who are visually impaired to navigate their surroundings. TVIs are teachers who have already completed their teacher’s certification and want to develop the specialized skills needed to teach students with visual impairments. The NCCU program is the pipeline for this population.
“We know that in this day and age, funding for course work is not always easy for students to obtain,” said Dr. Beth Harris, project director and faculty coordinator of VITP. “We are pleased that we have the ability to offer this opportunity to prepare individuals to become teachers of students with visual impairment and orientation and mobility specialists.”
In some states — including Georgia, where Harris once lived and worked — no programs exist to train teachers of the visually impaired. Harris’ firsthand knowledge of the needs in the state led her to connect with the Georgia Department of Education to establish a partnership between the state and NCCU to train O&M specialists.
Through the grant, students will receive full tuition and a stipend. For every year of tuition and stipend a student receives, they agree to complete two years of service working with school-age students who are visually impaired.
According to Harris, half of the counties in North Carolina do not have teachers trained to work with students who are visually impaired. Adding on this special licensure allows the graduate to work in nearly any school system across the state. The grant will also incorporate the newly adopted Unified English Braille Code (UEB) into existing braille courses.
In 1992 the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) began work to create a unified braille code. UEB is an English-language Braille code standard that is designed to simplify and unify the system of braille used for encoding English. The code was adopted by South Africa, Nigeria, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom. The United States was the last to adopt UEB which replaces the current code. NCCU professor and Brenda Brodie Endowed Chair Dr. Diane Wormsley is one of 14 member representatives of the Braille Association of North America (BANA). Wormsley will also serve as project advisor to the program.
The grant will also provide one year of mentoring to new TVIs and O&M specialists after they complete the program. NCCU will partner with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the state chapter of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (NC AER), offering monthly sessions. Dr. Kathy Zwald, adjunct assistant professor, will serve as a mentor and induction advisor along with Gail Waters. Additional faculty participants include: Dr. Tessa McCarthy, assistant professor; Dr. Doris Tyler, technology infusion support specialist and Dr. FM D’Andrea, consultant on UEB Code.
The funding from this federal grant will cover 66 percent of the total project, including tuition and stipends for students. The remaining 34 percent of the project will be funded with non-federal dollars.