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'You're talking about a crisis': Illinois educators say there's a severe lack of vision teachers for kids with visual disabilities

Peter Medlin
BrailleNote that visually-impaired students can use to do their assignments online

Jen Perkins weaves through the hallway at the Northwestern Illinois Association (NIA)’s office. It’s a special education co-op that provides services for students in 70 school districts across 10 counties in northern Illinois. They serve students with visual, hearing, physical, or multiple disabilities.

Perkins is a vision itinerant teacher, meaning she drives around northern Illinois -- from West Aurora to Sandwich -- to assist students with visual disabilities at multiple school districts.

She drops into an office to pass an ocular report off to another teacher. She had the student last year, but now, because they have to shuffle staff when they get more students, she doesn’t teach at that school anymore.

Perkins glances at a large-print calculus textbook on the desk and notices the print isn’t actually all that large.

“Yeah, like these are things that my students would have a real challenge looking at," said Perkins, "especially things like exponents and these little dots, and this light blue -- who made this? I'm writing a letter!”

She has around 30 kids on her caseload this year, from 3 years old to 22. The students have a wide range of needs depending on their vision. Some kids are completely blind, though most aren’t. But they all have visual impairments that impede their access to education.

Because of her packed schedule, she has to squish this planning and prep time at the office whenever she can. It’s where she sorts paperwork like those ocular reports and builds lessons for her students.

On top of that, she travels to other schools to do IEP evaluations and some to homes for Early Intervention services.

“The big project at the beginning of the year," she said, "is everyone gets their caseload and sits down and maps out their schools and figures out, 'alright, when do I have to be where? How often?’ and it's like a puzzle."

Jean Deptolla is the assistant coordinator of the vision department at NIA. She says, over the years, the sorts of students they serve have changed. It used to be more focused on blind students or those with severe physical issues with their eyes. Now, they’re seeing more and more kids with impairments within their visual pathway.

“The number of children that we are identifying that have vision disabilities that impact their ability to access their curriculum has just exploded," she said, "because we're better at finding them."

Deptolla says just because they’re helping more students, doesn’t mean they’ve also increased the number of vision teachers. She says there’s a severe shortage of vision teachers, not just in Illinois, but throughout the country.

“There are teachers in other states that are serving 50-60 kids and driving the entire state," she said. "We're a little bit luckier in Illinois, but we don't have enough teachers just to serve kids."

In Illinois, vision teachers like Perkins say the shortage gets worse as you get further downstate.

“They need people so bad," he said. "I know that positions go unfilled.”

And even though they’re a bit “luckier” in northern Illinois, it doesn’t mean staffing is sufficient. Deptolla says they’re identifying new students all the time. They can’t find them fast enough. They’re still identifying some kids late because of the pandemic. They have enough teachers right now, but that could change any day.

“We are cutting it really close this year," she said. "I am a little concerned."

Next year, she says she needs to hire at least two or three more teachers, but there just aren’t any.

“I have a little one who's turning three in another school district. She's totally blind," said Deptolla. "She is ready to read Braille, she is already looking for the Braille on the page, and I don't have a vision teacher for her. And I'm not entirely sure what we're going to do, because there aren't enough people.”

Perkins knows what happens when teachers like her are stretched too thin.

“We will shift around," she said, "and then nobody will get everything that they need, but everyone will get a little something."

A big part of the problem is that, in Illinois, there are only two main programs for people who want to become vision teachers. There’s one at Illinois State University and one at Northern Illinois University.

And there aren't enough people graduating from the NIU program to meet the need. Dr. Stacy Kelly is a professor in the visual disabilities program at the school.

“You're actually talking about a crisis, you really are,” she said. “There are children who are blind or visually impaired all over the United States, including within Illinois, who do not have a teacher who is qualified to teach them.”

These programs search the whole country to find students. And because not many people know someone with a visual disability, Deptolla says the shortage feels invisible.

“You would never put 45 kids in a first-grade classroom," she said. "Parents would be barreling down the doors if there was one first-grade teacher for 45 kids. Yet that is common [here].”

And, again, students have a wide range of needs. A teacher can have just two kids on their caseload if they’re blind and need Braille support. Jen Perkins can live with 30 kids on hers because she may just be ensuring a student is getting accommodations and only actively working on visual skills with some kids.

Whether it’s securing an actual large-print book or working on vision and motor skills, educators like Perkins will keep driving across multiple counties to serve as many kids as they can, even if they don’t have enough teachers. Because, as she says, if not her, then who?

But they all say that you simply can’t provide the best education possible when teachers are extremely overextended.

Still, they’ll keep going, because they believe every kid -- no matter their disability -- deserves an accessible education.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.