Pamela Cox has studied and worked in a variety of fields, but her latest endeavor holds a special place in her heart. She is taking classes at the University of Kentucky College of Education to become certified as a teacher of the visually impaired.
There is a nation-wide need for teachers to assist students with visual impairments. Often, a teacher of the visually impaired will work across all grade levels in a district. They travel to classrooms to help teachers uniquely adapt the way assignments are given, making it possible for students with blindness and visual impairments to learn alongside their peers.
Cox has taught at the college level, but when she started substituting and volunteering at the Kentucky School for the Blind, she found a special connection.
“There is nothing like being in the same boat with someone,” said Cox, who is blind. “The kids and I are always making jokes together. There’s a kinship. They will tell me things they don’t necessarily tell other faculty. I understand the struggle they have and I see the needs.”
Among her cohort at UK, Cox is the only student with a visual impairment, but it has not held her back. In fact, it has been an asset, not only in allowing her to connect with children who are blind and visually impaired, but also in her classmates’ ability to learn.
Since Cox joined the program, instructor Gerald Abner now provides Word documents to the class, along with the material covered in traditional PowerPoints. He asked the class which they liked better and they said the Word documents because they can search them. They were surprised to learn he does the Word documents specifically for Cox, so they can be narrated by the screen reader on her computer.
“We had been taught that through universal design things done for people with disabilities end up benefitting everyone,” Cox said. “When this happened in class, it proved the point that if you do something for a person with a disability, it ends up benefitting everyone. They spend hours getting those things ready for me. They never make it seem like a chore. They will find a way to make it work and help your disability be an asset.”
Many in the program are currently in teaching careers and are coming back to college to get certification for this specialized field. Some are already in positions with a school district where they work with the visually impaired, but are in need of certification. Teachers also have an option to work toward a rank change through the program (2 or 1 depending on current status). Others enrolled in the program are new to teaching entirely, but have a bachelor’s degree in a field outside education.
Courses are offered online and face-to-face in the evenings, however all students are required to meet one weekend a semester at the Kentucky School for the Blind (KSB) in Louisville, attend a conference the first spring in the program, and participate in face-to-face summer courses.
Eight years ago, Misty Epperson got an undergraduate degree in special education from the UK College of Education. Recently, she began a new position as a teacher for the visually impaired and is in the process of becoming certified at UK.
“My grandmother lost her sight when I was six years old,” Epperson said. “She babysat all her grandkids, and we got to see her be independent after losing her sight. She passed away four years ago. I wish I had the training I have now. I could have helped her in so many ways. I could have read braille with her, and could have taught her some of the things I now know.”
Epperson said Dr. Donna Brostek Lee and instructor Gerald Abner help make the program accessible to those who work full-time, and have been helpful as she faces issues in her job.
“I’m the only teacher for the visually impaired in my district,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to call the faculty and say “what would you do for a child who has this particular visual impairment and how would you handle it?’
Nearing the end of her teaching career, Betty Reynolds considered the program as she contemplated what she would like to do when she retired. In the meantime, the teacher for the visually impaired in her district transferred to another county. Reynolds made the leap even sooner than expected, and is concurrently working on her certification.
“This is my third certification and it’s my most challenging one to date,” she said. “It takes quite a bit of time, but it makes you feel good about yourself when you learn. I had no background whatsoever in visual impairment. I had a lot to learn, braille being one of them. I love braille. I love what I’m doing. It’s just a lot of information about which I had no previous knowledge.”
Reynolds sees that she is filling a large need.
“When I started the program I started looking at job opportunities. One larger county alone had 10 to 14 positions posted. Many of the smaller rural counties each have a teacher for the visually impaired. There’s a big need for young people to get into visual impairment.”
To learn more about the program, visit education.uky.edu/edsrc/eds/degrees-programs/vision/.