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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU and NMSBVI team up to combat shortages of teachers for the blind

Recognizing that shortages for teachers of the visually impaired were only going to get worse, the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired partnered with New Mexico State University's College of Education to develop preparation programs for specialists in the field.

Edgar Romero, right, looks on as Stephen Culler prepares carrots on Oct. 12 for the first International Dinner at the food production lab in the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management. Two more dinners are scheduled during the fall 2006 semester. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Four years after the inception of the programs, NMSU has had 31 students complete the teachers of the visually impaired (TVI) program and 10 students have become state certified through the orientation and mobility (O&M) program, which focuses on living skills. Originally intended to be a five-year partnership, the NMSBVI Board of Regents recently extended the life of the partnership.

"It is a fundamental right of all students who are blind and visually impaired to be educated by personnel who are specially trained to work with them," said Dianna Jennings, NMSBVI superintendent.

Recognizing the need for certified teachers, the NMSBVI Board of Regents has invested more than a million dollars in the personnel preparation programs, Jennings said.

"The students of New Mexico need these certified specialists," said Jackie Wood, coordinator of the TVI program, which is part of the special education and communication disorders department at NMSU.

NMSU's distance education programs are intended to assist teachers and O&M specialists who do not want to leave their communities to pursue the needed coursework for state certification. Although there are 40 face-to-face hours required, students are part-time and can complete a majority of each semester through the Internet. Required internships can be conducted in their own communities.

Through the partnership, NMSBVI will pay for student tuition if the student agrees to stay in New Mexico for five years after finishing the program. Any student who does not complete the commitment through the scholarship is required to pay back a portion of the expense.

"This scholarship has really made the programs successful," Wood said.

Wood and Janice Duseau, an instructor for the NMSU O&M program, said that national shortages made it important for professionals in the field to look at training people locally and keeping them in the state.

"Adding even one or two professionals to the field in New Mexico makes this program successful," Jennings said.

Previously there were some New Mexico communities with no specialists, but now many school districts have been able to hire their own TVI, which makes a huge impact on the services to students with a recognized visual impairment because trained teachers are aware of the challenges faced by visually disabled students.

Jennings said there is great value to having students stay in their local school districts, primarily because it keeps them at home with their families versus having to move to a residential school for the visually impaired.

Gail Melpolder, who teaches orientation and mobility and coordinates summer youth programs for the Commission for the Blind in Alamogordo, was one of the first to complete the O&M program at NMSU.

"I was really grateful to get my certification because it is so relevant to what I do," she said.

Melpolder, who has worked in the orientation and mobility field for 15 years, said the NMSU program and coursework added more tools to her repertoire.

"Learning to use professional journals, make tactical maps and other information delivery methods has made an impact on my ability to get more services out to the public," Melpolder said. "I am a better teacher. These programs have really contributed to elevating the profession."

Jennings said that the personnel preparation programs have been a good step forward, but that there are many challenges still ahead for blind or visually impaired students in New Mexico.

She said that she would like to see the state mandate that professionals have to be certified through these preparation programs in order to work with blind or visually impaired students. Currently a school district can hire an individual with a generic special education certification to work with students with visual disabilities when a TVI or O&M specialist is not available.

Duseau said there are many misconceptions about visual disabilities even among those in the special education field, such as that the other senses of visually impaired or blind individuals are stronger.

"Visually impaired individuals may learn to use their other senses to their advantage, but their other senses do not become better because their sight is impaired," Duseau said.

In fact, Wood pointed out that there are very few individuals who are considered "vanilla blind," meaning their only disability is visual. She said 98 percent of those identified with a visual impairment have other impairments.

Although there are about 40 TVI and 20 O&M programs throughout the country, this is the only one established through a partnership between a university and a school for the visually impaired.

"I really give NMSBVI a great deal of credit for having the vision to work with the university," Wood said.

Jennings said she appreciates the response from NMSU in establishing the programs. She credits Robert Rhodes, department head of the special education and communication disorders department, for his passion to serve all students in New Mexico.

"What can we do to meet the needs of this population was his focus," Jennings said.

Both NMSU programs have received accreditation from the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.