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A Fast Track to Teachers for Visually Impaired Students

Imagine as a parent of a child with low vision being told there’s no teacher available to provide those vital early intervention lessons. Imagine being told your child would have to be added to the wait list until a teacher was available.

The nation faces a severe shortage of Teachers for the Visually Impaired, and the U.S. Department of Education has identified it as a key teacher shortage area. The same is true in western New York where VIA (Visually Impaired Advancement) serves students with low vision or blindness from 40 area school districts.

We knew that the direct link to providing services to more students was fast-tracking a new Certified Teacher of the Visually Impaired. Thanks to a grant from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, VIA has made that happen.

To find the right candidate, we had to go no further than our pre-school program where Amy Lindstrom had taught since 2012.

Amy Lindstrom works with Lucas.

“That’s where my love for the role of a TVI had begun,” Amy said. “I began in 2012 as an aide, then as a special education teacher. I did have students with visual impairment in my classroom, who also were receiving services from a TVI. It was through the grant that I was able to go pick up classes and complete the courses that I needed. I’m happy to say that I did receive my certificate at Thanksgiving this year.”

Amy already held a master’s degree in special education, so she needed only complete the certification program and pass New York’s state exam to obtain her TVI certification. Now, she’s one of two full-time and three part-time TVIs at VIA serving students from birth to age 21 throughout 40 regional school districts in Western New York.

Her days involve travel to schools, homes and day care centers to provide individualized therapy to children who are visually impaired. She’s working with 13 school-age, six pre-school, and two early-intervention children. Expanding the number of individuals VIA serves not only assists those individuals but others as well because it provides additional dollars to supplement other VIA services for people who are blind or visually impaired.

For parents whose children otherwise might have been waitlisted, it means their education stays on track.

“We know that children who are blind really miss out on what we refer to as ‘incidental learning,’” Amy said. “This is all that we learn just by taking in the world around us, primarily through what we see. The children we serve need explicit instruction to develop concepts and an understanding of the world around them. They often fall behind their peers developmentally due to their vision impairment. This explicit instruction by a TVI becomes vitally important to filling in the gaps that put our students behind.

“Completing my TVI training and passing my New York State Blind and Visually Impaired State Exam has been an amazing experience for me,” she added. “Thank you to the Johnson Scholarship Foundation for making this happen.”

Renee DiFlavio is Senior Vice President at VIA.

VIA’s Statler Center Trains People for Heroic Work

You never know where you might find a hero – perhaps a person who provides the right help in hard times.

For thousands of people who called for help last year to 211 in Western New York, the heroes on other end of the line were individuals who had trained at the National Statler Center. The National Statler Center is the educational and employment arm of VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, a Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner.

The stories they heard covered every difficulty imaginable, but amplified by the pandemic – a man needing rent assistance as a landlord threatened eviction, a 22-year-old pregnant woman out of work and out of money, a senior whose water heater quit working, a deaf woman trying to leave an abusive spouse.

211WNY has been a program of VIA for about a decade. About half to three quarters of the information specialists answering the phones are blind or visually impaired. Last year during the pandemic, call volume to 211WNY almost doubled to nearly 82,000, said Renee DiFlavio, Sr. Vice President, Development of VIA. Providing the information that callers need to link them to services is a special skill executed with assistive technology and trained listening skills.

“Certainly if you’re visually impaired, there are many jobs you can do, but call center work is a great job because of the tele-technology,” DiFlavio said. “What’s also interesting is that it might be a model eventually for people to hire people who are blind or visually impaired to work those jobs.”

a woman seated at a computer

Sharell B., a Statler Center graduate, working at the 211WNY Call Center.

Many of the people on the end of the phone lines assisting callers learned their skills at the National Statler Center. The center offers programs for training in several fields, including customer service, hospitality, food prep, software applications, and communications.

“All of the work stations have adaptive technology with a dual-input headset,” said Ray Zylinski, Assistive Technology Instructor at VIA. “You’d hear the caller in one ear, and the computer audio in your other ear. It’s not something everybody can do. You’re essentially absorbing information from two different audio sources at once.”

People who work for 211WNY become adept at entering key words related to a caller’s issue to find human service agencies that could provide the caller with assistance.

More than 100 people have gone through the technology program at VIA’s Statler Center. While some work for 211WNY, others are in jobs with companies throughout the area, the result of the placement specialists at VIA, Zylinski said.

“Statistics show that a very high percent of individuals with low vision who can find employment don’t leave that job, so the attrition rate is significantly low,” Zylinski said. “That hits employers in their wallet, and then they tend to listen.”

That ability to listen is what made heroes of VIA’s assistive technology and referral specialists when so many people were in need of help.

Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist with Johnson Scholarship Foundation