BRS History: University Training Programs - Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Services
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BRS History: University Training Programs

University Training Programs

In the 1950's, blinded Veterans, who had been discharged from the Hines BRC program, caught the attention of professionals in the blind services community impressing them with their confident, independent mobility skills.  This prompted the American Foundation for the Blind to enlist mobility instructors from Hines to teach their methods and concepts to teachers of the blind at summer workshops held at various colleges and universities.  In addition, many private and public agencies for the blind began sending their staff members to Hines to learn the orientation and mobility training techniques. The demand for trained mobility instructors was created and led to the development of university training programs.

In 1959, the American Foundation for the Blind hosted a meeting to discuss the need to establish university training programs for blind rehabilitation instructors.  Both C. Warren Bledsoe, who had moved to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and Russ Williams, who had replaced Bledsoe in VA Central Office, participated in the meeting.  For his part, Williams pushed for a graduate level program stating that blind rehabilitation instructors would need to be viewed as the rehabilitation equivalents to physicians and other professionals they would be working with in order to inspire the confidence considered necessary to attract referrals from these sources.

The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) would subsequently award a grant in 1960 to Father Thomas Carroll, Executive Director of the Catholic Guild for the Blind in Newton, MA, to set up an Orientation and Mobility graduate training program at Boston College. The Boston College staff decided to have their students spend one week at Hines observing the BRC staff teach orientation and mobility, but the Boston College students would not be required to participate in an outdoor travel experience while blindfolded.  Consequently, HEW criticized the Boston College program stating that it had to be more experiential.

George G. Mallinson, Dean of Western Michigan University, approached Russ Williams, as well as HEW, about starting an Orientation and Mobility training program that would be based on a practical curriculum.  Both HEW and Williams were impressed with his approach and HEW decided to fund the proposed training program at the graduate level.

In 1961, Williams assisted Mallinson in recruiting two staff members from the Hines BRC to start the Western Michigan program: Don Blasch, who would be the administrator and teach both the psychosocial aspects of blindness as well as braille; and Stanley Suterko, who would develop the Orientation and Mobility curriculum.  Lawrence Blaha, another Hines O&M instructor, joined Suterko the following year but Blaha but left two years later to begin an Orientation and Mobility program at Cal State, Los Angeles. In 1966, a fourth Hines instructor, Berdell "Pete" Wurzburger, followed and began an Orientation and Mobility program at San Francisco State.  Eventually, fourteen other college and university programs for training Orientation and Mobility specialists would evolve and Western Michigan University graduates would staff twelve of them.  The training and philosophy of Orientation and Mobility was further disseminated by Suterko to Europe where he successfully in established Great Britain's Orientation & Mobility program.  Suterko also conducted workshops and training programs in France, Germany and Poland as well as New Zealand and Australia.

Western Michigan would also become the first university to offer a graduate level degree for the professional preparation of Rehabilitation Teachers (1963).  This course of study would prepare teachers to perform a wide variety of tasks including the teaching of daily living skills and communication skills.  By the 1990's, more than 60 percent of blind rehabilitation program administrators were Western Michigan graduates.

Beginning with the creation of the Western Michigan University program in 1961, the Veterans Administration approved a clinical training affiliation with Hines.  In June 1962, Rod Kossick, William Walkowiak and Robert Lessne were accepted as the first orientation and mobility students from Western Michigan to obtain a 15-week clinical training experience at Hines.  Walkowiak became the first graduate mobility specialist to be employed at Hines and many would follow as it became the strong belief of the Hines staff that all future training of mobility specialists should be the function of university programs. Their reasoning was based on the fact that agencies did not have the resources to provide the necessary supporting courses that a university program could offer nor did agencies have the resources to provide an intensive training program, as their staffing level is geared to only provide services to their clients.  Hines did believe, however, that agencies and schools staffed by qualified mobility specialists would be excellent resources for providing clinical internships for the university students.

As the number of university programs and VA Blind Rehabilitation Centers expanded, so did the number of academic affiliations between them.  Buoyed by the continued support of VA stipends, more than 1,200 Orientation and Mobility Specialists and Rehabilitation Teachers have completed their clinical intern training at a VA Blind Rehabilitation Center.

Optometry schools also began forming affiliations with VA Blind Rehabilitation Centers in the 1960's as they started to incorporate low vision into their curriculum due to the escalating prevalence of visual impairment among the aging population. This led to the establishment of a VA-funded Optometric Residency Program and, by 1999, more than 120 optometrists had successfully completed residency training at a VA Blind Center. In addition, nearly 900 optometry students have received low vision training at a BRC as well.