Teacher Angie Wynn knows the best way for her to learn how to help her visually impaired students is to walk in their shoes.
She had that opportunity this summer, when she traveled the streets of Oakland and Shadyside and rode a Port Authority bus all while wearing a blindfold. The experience was part of her coursework in the University of Pittsburgh's vision studies graduate program, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
"You'd be amazed at how challenging it is," said Ms. Wynn of Lawrenceville, a teacher for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. "When you put the blindfold on, it totally enhances your ability to understand what your students are going through."
The graduate vision studies program at Pitt was one of two programs started in 1963 with federal government funding as part of an effort to create programs to help rehabilitate military veterans who were left blind or visually impaired by war injuries, said George Zimmerman, who has directed the program for the past 25 years.
He is only the second director, following Pitt professor Ralph Peabody, who obtained the original grant and started the program.
The other program was started at Florida State University and is continuing.
Mr. Zimmerman said the federal government's interest in helping blind veterans started in the wake of World War II, but money for training programs was not made available until the 1960s.
"The government just couldn't imagine that these guys could be rehabilitated and put back in the workforce and lead productive lives," Mr. Zimmerman said. "But some of the people working with them said they thought they could come up with some caning skills and human guiding skills that would give these folks some mobility."
Though the Pitt program was started with grant money, it has long since become self-sustaining, with a current enrollment of 55 students who are working on master's degrees, doctorates and/or certifications to become teachers of the visually impaired, or orientation and mobility trainers. In its five decades it has graduated about 800 students, who have gone on to work not only with military veterans but have also become teachers or mobility trainers for visually impaired students and adults or to conduct research.
The program's anniversary was commemorated last week when the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky., placed a plaque honoring the program on its Wall of Tribute. Also, on Nov. 8, Mr. Zimmerman and Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt's School of Education, will be presented a plaque by VisionServe Alliance, to recognize the program's accomplishments. VisionServe Alliance is a national organization that works to promote services for people with vision loss.
Most of the coursework in the Pitt program is now done online. However, a keystone of the program is the intense, on-site, six-week orientation and mobility technique program that is held each summer.
"It's a pretty profound experience for them," said Mr. Zimmerman, who holds a doctorate in blindness research from Vanderbilt University.
The training starts simply, in the hallways of a Pitt building, then moves to more complex situations on the streets of Oakland and Shadyside. The final exercise is the blindfolded bus ride to a Downtown location. In addition to blindfolds, the students also use "low-vision" goggles created by Mr. Zimmerman, which can simulate such conditions as macular degeneration and limited peripheral vision.
Mr. Zimmerman is collaborating with robotics researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who are creating robotics for blind children. He recently performed a one-day session for the researchers similar to the summer session for his graduate students with blindfolds and low-vision goggles.
"I ran them through this and taught them how to use a cane. It was their first opportunity to wear a blindfold or low-vision glasses, and they were really amazed," Mr. Zimmerman said.
Ms. Wynn said her hands-on training last summer was invaluable.
"One of the first exercises is to get a cup and find your way to a refrigerator and pour yourself a drink. I thought, 'That's so easy.' But you'd be amazed at how challenging that is," Ms. Wynn said.
She said there were numerous situations during her training where she discovered obstacles her students will face that she didn't realize existed.
"A crack in the street can feel like a cliff. We are able to see it and step over it. But for them, it can be something totally disorienting," she said. "This really puts you in that position to be able to teach your students because you are in there and you know what it feels like."
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com or 412-263-1590. First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM