Illinois State University is looking to address what educators say is a severe shortage of early intervention specialists for infants and toddlers who are blind or deaf.
The U.S. Department of Education has awarded ISU a $1.23 million grant to cover tuition and other costs for three dozen aspiring educators in a master’s degree program over the next five years.
Professor Maribeth Lartz is coordinating the LIMITLESS (Leveraging Instruction to Maximize Interdisciplinary Teaming in Learning Environments of Family Systems When Children Have Sensory Disabilities), along with assistant professor Mindy Ely.
Lartz has been training teachers in deaf education for more than 30 years. She said early interventionists have made the greatest strides in the last decade or so by understanding the young child isn’t the only one who needs help; the parents also need guidance.
“Part of early intervention is just exploring the idea that you can have typical lives and have typical educations and trajectories and the parents need to learn that because at the time they are not aware that that is a possibility,” Lartz said.
The program will train specialists to work in southern and northwestern Illinois and inner-city Chicago, where the shortages are most severe.
“There’s many families who are on waiting lists because their area does not have an early intervention provider that is credentialed to serve children who are deaf or hard of hearing or low vision or blind,” Lartz said.
Lartz noted there are five early intervention specialists serving 37 southern Illinois counties, while Chicago has about 70 specialists serving a population of about 3 million people.
She said a child's earliest years are the most critical for language learning.
“We like to say in the field of death or hard of hearing that hearing loss is a neurological emergency because you do have an optimal time for language learning,” Lartz said. “As they get older and the doors are beginning to close.”
The program will accept six students in each of three disciplines: speech pathology, teachers of the deaf and teachers of children with low vision or blindness, for a two-year program that will pair them for clinical visits.
Ely said the emphasis on collaboration is necessary.
"It is common to have five or six different therapists coming into the home to help young children with aspects of development, such as feeding issues and motor skills," Ely said. "That is a lot for families to manage. By having a greater knowledge of needs across the board, early interventionists can help families move beyond surviving and set goals."
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