Texas Tech University

Sowell Center Awarded $1.25 Million Grant to Train Visual Impairment Specialists

Robert Stein

November 12, 2019

The grant will fund training for 30 professionals who will provide services in rural, remote and high-need areas across four states.

The Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Sensory Disabilities at Texas Tech University in the College of Education has received a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to address a shortage of specialists who work with children with visual impairments.

The funding will provide scholarships over the next five years for 30 scholars from Texas, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to train as teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) or orientation and mobility specialists and complete a master's degree in special education. The four states were chosen because they are considered rural, remote or high-need.

The focus of the project is on preparing scholars to work primarily with students who have learning challenges due to neurological visual impairments (NVI), which are visual impairments caused by an injury or disorder within the brain rather than the structure of the eye.

Rona Pogrund
Rona Pogrund

"The Sowell Center prides itself on delivering a high-quality distance education to scholars around the country, and we are excited to have the opportunity to focus on underserved areas and NVI, the most frequent diagnosis of children with visual impairments today," said Rona Pogrund, a professor of special education and principal investigator on the grant. "Medical advances resulting in better care for premature infants and greater survival rates from traumatic injury have contributed to an increasing number of brain-injured children with visual impairments seeking services. This grant project aligns with Texas Tech University's strategic priority of outreach and engagement, as we are partnering with stakeholders in four states to address a pressing issue."

The initiative is called Project INVITE (Interdisciplinary Neurological Visual Impairment Teaching Experts). Joining Pogrund as co-principal investigator on the project is Nora Griffin-Shirley, a professor and director of the Sowell Center.

During a 30-month program, scholars will receive specialized training to help children with NVI make improvements in learning and developmental outcomes or successfully transition to post-secondary education and the workforce. Scholars also will learn techniques to help children with NVI potentially improve their vision.

The program will be delivered in a hybrid format that utilizes distance education along with face-to-face instruction, shared coursework, interdisciplinary enrichment activities and access to local mentors and resources during training. Graduates will earn a master's degree in special education with a concentration in visual impairment and be eligible to become certified as a TVI in their respective state or be eligible for the national examination to become certified orientation and mobility specialists through the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals.

The scholars will work primarily with students who have learning challenges due to neurological visual impairment.

To facilitate the program in each state, Texas Tech is partnering with state service providers for students who are blind or visually impaired.

"Teachers of students with visual impairments and certified orientation and mobility specialists in Montana are extremely limited, and quality teachers and specialists are in high demand to support our ever-growing population of children with visual impairments," said Barbara A. Peterson, outreach vision consultant at Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind. "We are so thankful to Texas Tech University and their commitment to partner with us through Project INVITE to help train teachers who already reside in – and love – Montana. This will fill a very specialized need: supporting and teaching our children with visual impairments. Our partnership with Texas Tech is such an excellent opportunity for Montana as we do not have a university program here to train these teachers."

Educators in these states will benefit from training that would have been unavailable to them otherwise.

"Like many states across the U.S., Idaho is in need of teachers of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility specialists," said Jeanne-Marie Kopecky, director of outreach for Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf and the Blind. "Idaho currently does not have a university training program in these specialized areas, and we continue to strive to fill service needs in rural communities as our population grows. Through this grant, scholars will not only earn a master's degree, but they also will have the advantage of special-focus coursework on neurological visual impairment. Information on NVI continues to expand through research, and Idaho will be gaining educators with knowledge and skills in current, evidence-based practices."