Texas Tech University

Former Professor Receives High Honor for Work With Blind Children

Heidi Toth

June 29, 2015

Alan Koenig, who died of cancer a decade ago, joins Helen Keller and other outstanding educators in the Hall of Fame.

Alan Koenig

Alan Koenig, a former administrator and educator at Texas Tech University, is one of two people who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends in the Blindness Field in 2015.

Koenig, who died of cancer in 2005, was co-director of what is now the Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Sensory Disabilities, housed in the College of Education. The criteria for nomination, according to the American Printing House for the Blind, is making significant contributions to improve the lives of those who are blind or visually impaired, focusing on practice, research, leadership and direct service.

“It is impossible to adequately describe the impact Alan Koenig had on my life and the lives of countless professionals and children with visual impairments and their families,” Cay Holbrook, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, wrote in her nominating letter. “Alan was a kind, generous, intelligent man who shared his considerable expertise every day with others in an attempt to help better the lives of children, youth and adults who are blind or visually impaired.

“His influence continues today and will continue for generations to come.”

Koenig revolutionized the way educational teams approach decision-making regarding whether a student with low vision should begin reading and writing in braille, print or a combination of both. Prior to his landmark work on Learning Media Assessment (LMA), teachers and parents struggled with the decision of which language to learn first. LMA provides teachers and parents a guide for gathering information and using that information to support ongoing educational decisions.

This development improved literacy rates for children with visual impairments, said Nora Griffin-Shirley, a professor and director of the Sowell Center. Prior to this assessment, blind people were taught braille and people with vision, even impaired vision, were taught print.

Being able to read in print, however, did not mean children could read well. A child with visual impairment may be able to see size 50 font, but with such a large font only a few words could fit on each page. Even though the child can see the words, he or she cannot comprehend what's on the page, causing reduced literacy. The LMA found an objective way to measure who should read print, braille or both based on comprehension and speed.

College of Education
College of Education

“Years ago, there was a push for children who had some vision to use their vision as much as possible,” Griffin-Shirley said. “Part of the LMA is to see how functional that vision is. In order for the child to succeed academically, what needs to be done because of that?”

Creating the assessment wasn't Koenig's only contribution. In her nomination letter, Holbrook detailed the contributions he made in teaching, research and service. He encouraged teachers of students with visual impairment to change how they teach students to ensure the best results. He authored dozens of papers, articles and books related to teaching children with visual impairment. His research continually pushed forward the thinking in this field, both Holbrook and Griffin-Shirley said.

The Hall of Fame is dedicated to preserving the tradition of excellence manifested by specific individuals through the history of outstanding services provided to people who are blind or visually impaired in North America. Koenig joins Sir Francis Joseph Campbell in the class of 2015. Campbell began his career as interim superintendent of the Tennessee School for the Blind in 1850 before becoming principal of the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind in London until his retirement in 1912. There are 54 honorees in the Hall of Fame, including Helen Keller.

This award is the highest honor in their field, Griffin-Shirley said.

“Koenig had accomplished so much in a short period of time in education for children with visual impairments,” she said of her friend. “It would have been just exciting to be involved in looking at where to go from there.”