By Lynda Jones, CVRT and Peer Advisor

The Significance of Rehabilitation Teaching in Every Day Lives

Female vision rehabilitation therapist teaching phone use with older woman

In the past you may have given little thought to waking and finding your way to the kitchen, preparing breakfast, and getting ready for work. Now that you are experiencing vision loss, you may struggle with all of these routines or find them impossible. And going to workout may seem of the question. Did you know there are specialists who will teach you as a visually impaired person, how to do every day activities in new ways, to problem solve and be creative; ultimately managing your own needs independently. These specialists are called vision rehabilitation therapists. If you need these services, check out the directory of services.

Lachelle Smith Teaching

During the week of June 22-28, the professionals in the field of vision rehabilitation pay tribute to the women and men, past and present, once called Home Teachers and now known as Vision Rehabilitation Therapists (VRT). This article recounts the legacy of this profession through the lives of the individuals who have participated daily for more than 140 years in restoring confidence and competence in the lives of people with vision loss.

The Beginning Years

In the early 1880’s, Dr. William Moon, originally from England, and John Rhodes of Philadelphia founded the Pennsylvania Home Teaching Society. Teachers traveled from home to home training visually impaired people to read with their fingers. For the next 85 years, these professionals were called “home teachers.”

Around this same time, Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts began graduating young women adept at teaching handicrafts that would generate income and daily living skills for survival along with reading and sign language. Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, was one of these young women. As the profession spread across the U.S., home teachers like Kimbel (1908) found that her Rhode Island students needed to learn more than just how to read and write. That same year Kelly reported that her students in Maryland were learning to read with their fingers and write with a slate and stylus, , travel using a cane, and crochet and knit. Foley, the first home teacher in California, expanded home teaching adding blindness prevention, public awareness, and locations of suitable employment. Legend claims that one Indiana home teacher carried a hatchet so she could teach students to cut up a chicken!

Hadley School Begins

When Dr. William Hadley lost his vision, a friend encouraged him to teach himself Braille, and he did. Soon Dr. Hadley felt compelled to help others, and in 1920, he established the Hadley School for the Blind. His first Braille student was a farmer’s wife in Kansas. Today, the Hadley School for the Blind offers more than ninety correspondence courses, by mail and online, in daily living skills, technology, employment, education, recreation, etc.

Services Expand and Certification Begins

By 1926, twenty-five states offered home teaching services. The increase in blindness programs, soldiers blinded during both world wars, and legislation improving employment opportunities exposed the need for certification and training unique to home teaching. Thus, the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB) and the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) developed the first certification standards for home teachers. For ten years, AFB assisted with a six-week summer training program that provided practicing home teachers the necessary credits to qualify for certification.

Veterans and Private Agencies Offer Services

By 1950 thirty states offered both home and residential training. Several private agencies like the Carroll Center in Massachusetts provided residential and day services, and the first of twelve blind rehabilitation centers for veterans located at Hines Medical Center was thriving.

Professional Training for VRTs Begin Through the Work of Ruth Kaarlela

Ruth Kaarlela Hall of Fame plaque

By 1963, three decades of changes in home teaching led Western Michigan University (WMU) to hire Ruth Kaarlela to develop the first master’s degree program in what became known as rehabilitation teaching. Throughout her tenure, she supervised the program, conducted research, and set standards for future university programs. Ruth Kaarlela has been called the “Founder of Rehabilitation Teaching” and was one of the first professionals selected for the Leaders and Legends Hall of Fame at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, KY.

Other Notable Leaders

Charlyn Allen

Three of Ruth Kaarlela’s peers deserve mention here. Charlyn Allen served as a rehabilitation teacher for thirty-five years, traveling from home to home across twenty-one counties of southwest Missouri. Her dedication to the needs of visually impaired people and tireless service to several professional organizations led the organization now known as the Association of Vision Rehabilitation Therapists (AVRT) to name its award for excellent service The Charlyn Allen Award.

Alvin Roberts

In 1954, Alvin Roberts began his fifty-seven year career as a rehabilitation teacher in Illinois. His life took a path that allowed him to share his knowledge, personal experiences, and skills to significantly influence the field of blindness for both professionals and individuals needing services. He is considered to be the founding father of the blind rehabilitation system in Illinois. His professional writing on service delivery is some of the most insightful literature ever produced in the field of vision rehabilitation therapy and will live on for years to come.

Alice Raftary

Alice Raftary, another inductee in the Leaders and Legends Hall of Fame, returned to college in her thirties, after losing her vision. She earned a Master’s Degree in Blindness and Rehabilitation and later completed course work in Ophthalmology and Counseling. Her career as a rehabilitation teacher began at the Greater Detroit Agency for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 1968 and spanned decades. Alice authored a number of publications. Her article “Assessment of Rehabilitation Students during Initial Contact with the Teacher” is the seminal article on client assessment and continues to be used as a model in university vision rehabilitation therapy programs.

“Every Success, Large or Small”

Especially notable, was Alice’s passion about teaching visually impaired adults. It took very little to get Alice to tell stories about her many clients. In her last interview, she commented, “Every success, large or small, was a proud moment in my career.” No wonder she is often affectionately called “the mother of vision rehabilitation therapy.”

Focus on Professional Development and Meeting the Challenges of Services

Over the past forty years, the VRT profession has focused primarily on professional development and meeting the challenges of services in the 21st century. Not long after the first rehabilitation teachers graduated from WMU several other university programs sprang up around the country. As many as eleven programs were once graduating students in vision rehabilitation therapy. This new breed of home teacher provides basic skills in daily living, technology, job seeking, and use of remaining vision to visually impaired individuals of all ages. Many graduate with education in both VRT and orientation and mobility (O&M)—how to get around safely indoors and out.

“Home Teacher” Becomes “Vision Rehabilitation Therapist”

In 1984, the educational arm and the rehabilitation arm of the field of visual impairment formed a new professional organization—the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AERBVI). In 2000, professional certification was transferred to a separate organization The Association for the Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP). In keeping with these changes, the name home teacher/rehabilitation teacher was changed to vision rehabilitation therapist (VRT).

Today you find almost as many sighted instructors as blind and more and more men are entering this exciting, rewarding profession. Not only are these specialized teachers still found working with clients in their homes, but many teach veterans in the twelve VA blind rehabilitation centers scattered across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Others practice in state and private residential centers, and still others train older individuals with visual impairments living in assisted living facilities.

An Example of the 21st Century VRT/O&M Professional

Catherine, a graduate of the master’s program at Florida State University, is a good example of the 21st century VRT/O&M professional. She worked many years as an itinerant VRT traveling hundreds of miles across high plains desert with her van filled with adaptive devices and low vision aids to train clients in their homes. Today she works at a blind rehabilitation center teaching O&M to veterans. Linda Fugate,Ed.D, CVRT, provides training in every day tasks like those mentioned at the beginning of this article to many of her clients in their homes. Others receive instruction at a rehabilitation center and enjoy learning from each other as well as from Linda. She is a peer advisor for VisionAware. Be sure to read her “Day in the life of a VRT” post in the Peer Perspectives Blog this week.

Tribute to VRTs

Let me close with a tribute to those blessed to serve as VRT’s, attributed to C. Warren Bledsoe, who was chief of the Blind Rehabilitation Program of the Veterans Administration and who helped develop the long cane technique for O&M. The quote dates back more than fifty years: “I hold the art of teaching blind people how to perform without sight among the highest callings which a human being may answer with his life…the true apex of work for the blind is personal service in direct contact with the blind people…Amen and amen.”