In the United States, there is a devastating shortage of teachers for children who are deaf or blind.
The U.S. Department of Education has gifted Illinois State University a $1.23 million grant to combat this issue.
The future educators specializing in teaching students who are blind or deaf will be at the forefront of this grant money. This money will go toward training professionals to work with children who display the most need in Illinois: deaf and blind children under age 3.
“Part of the problem is that people don’t see deaf or blind people that often,” said Maribeth Lartz, a professor of deaf education at Illinois State University who has been training future teachers for over 30 years.
“Most people don’t even know that there is a teacher of the deaf or visually impaired. It’s not on their radar.”
In Illinois, the policy to take care of these children is already in place. The problem is not the lack of structure, but the lack of teachers in the field.
“Any child in the system has a right to be served. The system is there. It is set up. But there are not enough professionals working in the system to serve those who need us.” Lartz said.
Additionally, parents are usually not at all familiar with the needs of an infant who has been diagnosed as blind or deaf.
“Parents don’t see very many blind or deaf babies, so they do not know that their visually impaired or deaf child desperately needs a professional starting at birth to the age of 3,” Lartz said.
“Think of a family with a newborn. Think about being diagnosed at six weeks of age as deaf. This family has no knowledge of deaf children and must learn about hearing aids, ears and what is needed for a child with these disabilities.”
This can be a very confusing and stressful time for young families. Parents need someone to coach them through incorporating their child into family cultures and dynamics in ways the parents had not originally anticipated. This makes the work of Lartz and her colleagues more than that of just educating the children.
“We need to empower families to work with their children. We are teaching them to know a lot and to think about their routines, traditions, and cultures in order to ensure the baby is a part of all of that,” Lartz said.
“The thing about early intervention is that it is really a family-centered service. Early intervention is working with parents on goals that they have so that they become a lifelong partner in their child’s education and development.”
The money from this grant will specifically go toward the LIMITLESS project. The LIMITLESS project stands for Leveraging Instruction to Maximize Interdisciplinary Teaming in Learning Environments of Family Systems When Children Have Sensory Disabilities.
This program works to teach tolerance in the teaching of deaf and blind students, along with blending multiple aspects of other disciplines of teaching into their pedagogy.
“It is going to pay for the current professional teachers of the deaf and blind to come back to campus to get their master’s degree in early intervention for free,” Lartz said.
“They will also get a stipend and their textbooks will be paid for. We will have immense financial support for these students and this program.”
The program plans to churn out two cohorts of teachers for the deaf and the blind. There will be two groups of six students who will earn their master’s degree as Specialists of Low Vision and Blindness.
“We are also working with speech pathology students who are going to take this extra training,” Lartz said.
“A total of 18 speech pathologists are going into early intervention. With the first 12 from the two cohorts, that’s 36 professionals in total working in early intervention at the end of this program.”
The need for these specialists is so entirely vital, especially for the members of any Southern Illinois community.
“In Champaign, there are a number of professionals to help hearing impaired or deaf children. But if you live in the 37 counties of Southern Illinois, there are only five professionals serving children from birth to 3. So, parents are left without any options,” Lartz said.
Parents with children who are deaf and blind need assistance more than the average family by a landslide. And, children aged birth to 3-years-old are the most affected in the crisis where trained professionals are seemingly nowhere to be found.
“If we can’t help them earlier enough, then we are going to have kids with life-long challenges,” Lartz said.
“Whereas, if we can get to work early and often with these children, we can eliminate many of their onset issues and allow them to have a typical developmental trajectory.”