A Brief History of Our Research: 1981-2020

In addition to the current funding cycle (2020-2025), the NRTC has received federal funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) for a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) for seven previous cycles: 1981-1986, 1986-1991, 1991-1996, 1996-2001, 2001-2006, 2010-2015, and 2015-2020.

We have also received NIDILRR funding for two Disability Rehabilitation Research Projects (DRRP): a 5-year DRRP on older adults with dual-sensory impairments (2003-2008) and a 3-year DRRP on employment outcomes of transition-age youth with visual impairments (2007-2010). With the exception of the DRRP on dual-sensory impairments, which focused on independent living, the major goal of all projects has been to improve employment outcomes of individuals with blindness and low vision (B/LV).

We use the participatory action research approach by involving persons with B/LV in all aspects of our research and training activities. This helps us ensure our research is relevant and useful. Our advisory council includes representatives from the major organizations of and for persons with B/LV, many of whom have B/LV themselves. We have also consistently employed persons with B/LV as staff and project consultants.

I. Research Highlights

Barriers to Employment. Many of our research projects have focused on barriers to employment for B/LV individuals. We conducted research in the 1990s that identified the major barriers to employment for this population and strategies to overcome them. Data were collected from state rehabilitation agencies, private agencies, rehabilitation counselors, consumers, and federal agencies. This research continues to help both B/LV individuals be more effective job seekers and VR counselors be more effective employment advocates for their clients. Our resources are used by state VR agencies and educational providers to train rehabilitation counselors on best practices and obstacles in job retention and employment for B/LV individuals. We have created a wealth of research-based resources to improve employment outcomes for persons with B/LV.

Two of the major barriers to employment identified in our research have received additional research attention: employer attitudes and transportation. Our researchers have conducted multiple, multiyear studies to explore employers’ attitudes toward hiring B/LV workers and ways to improve or overcome negative employer attitudes. This has resulted in several resources for VR professionals, employers, and B/LV individuals, including:

  • A practice guide for VR agency administrators and counselors with recommendations to help them work more effectively with potential employers
  • A practice guide with recommendations for VR counselors to help them navigate a first meeting with a potential employer
  • A brief article and quiz about how B/LV workers complete common workplace tasks

Transportation is a frequently cited barrier to employment, and we surveyed hundreds of B/LV individuals to learn about their transportation challenges, successes, and strategies. The findings were used to create practical resources for B/LV individuals to help overcome this common obstacle.

Transition. We researched transition for youth with B/LV to investigate their experiences and outcomes as they move from high school to work, high school to college, and college to work. This research has resulted in many publications and the Transition Activity Calendar, which identifies critical tasks for successful transition from school to college for B/LV youth. Other projects have focused on a comprehensive review of the literature and research investigating practices that have a positive impact on transition outcomes and development of a new curriculum, Putting Your Best Foot Forward, to help B/LV youth obtain employment after high school or college. We also spearheaded the creation of an app, 4to24, which guides B/LV youth and the parents of children with B/LV or deaf-blindness through activities and resources to build independence and lay the foundation for their child’s future employment.

Secondary Data Analyses. Using multiple large-scale, national data sources, we identified factors that impact access, acceptance, services received, and employment outcomes of individuals with B/LV. The NRTC was one of the first organizations to conduct sophisticated multilevel analyses to identify factors impacting employment and to develop recommendations for practice and policy to improve employment outcomes of individuals with B/LV. Our 1999 publication of analyses of the NHIS-D is a source of prevalence and employment data and has been used by VR administrators as comparison data to identify underserved populations. (The NHIS-D is the only federal survey that asked about legal blindness.) More recently, we conducted research with RSA-911 data to evaluate employment outcomes and job quality of two subpopulations (those with deaf-blindness and those with combined traumatic brain injury and visual impairment), evaluating the impact of agency-level service factors.

Deaf-Blindness. The NRTC has a rich history of research in education, employment, and independent living for persons with vision and hearing loss. We offer many resources related to deaf-blindness, and our work in this area has included developing vocational evaluation instrumentation, investigating factors that impact employment outcomes, enhancing employment of deaf-blind youth in transition, enhancing communication options for deaf-blind youth, encouraging participation in the Business Enterprise Program (BEP), and creating resources for persons aging with hearing and vision loss. We worked with partners, including the Helen Keller National Center and Texas Tech University, to develop a registry for deaf-blind adults and validate a functional hearing inventory.

Policy Analysis. Many of our research projects have helped VR administrators determine service needs, identify unserved and underserved populations, set realistic goals and objectives, and implement evidenced-based policies to improve employment and independent living outcomes for B/LV individuals. Our analyses of secondary databases have been used to inform public policy. For example, our findings from analyses of RSA-911 data (three studies across two decades of data) were used by Center staff to provide testimony to state and national legislators on the efficacy of specialized agencies (compared with combined VR agencies) in achieving quality employment outcomes. State VR agencies have used findings from our analyses to convince legislators to maintain separate blindness VR agencies/services during hard economic times that could favor consolidation of government services.

Business Enterprise Program (BEP). The Randolph-Sheppard BEP was created by Congress in 1936 to provide employment to persons who are legally blind through the operation of vending facilities on federal and other properties. We have completed more than a dozen state and national program evaluations. Our many BEP-related resources include:

  • Best practices for recruiting B/LV youth into the BEP
  • Minimum requirements and preferred qualifications for blind entrepreneurs
  • Tips for working with blind entrepreneurs who have hearing loss
  • A marketing brochure

Individuals from Minority Backgrounds. We conducted research to assess and understand an imbalance in the VR system: African Americans were overrepresented among individuals receiving services but underrepresented in professional service delivery roles. We also conducted research to understand the role of race and ethnicity in access and acceptance to VR. We used our research findings to develop evidence-based recommendations for recruiting practices in VR agencies, highlight attitudinal barriers and ways to improve them, and advocate for greater career awareness and availability of degree programs and incentives in blindness VR for individuals from minority backgrounds. We recommended increased funding for capacity building at historically black colleges and universities. Our research was a basis for policy and practice recommendations to ensure equitable participation of African Americans and other minorities with B/LV in VR.

Roles, Function, and Knowledge Domains for Service Delivery Professionals. We published comprehensive monographs about the roles and functions of rehabilitation teachers and orientation and mobility instructors. Further, we identified nine major knowledge domains in blindness rehabilitation: access technology, BEP, deaf-blindness, low vision, orientation and mobility, private agency administration, rehabilitation counseling, and rehabilitation teaching. We developed and published recommended knowledge and skills for each domain. Although these publications are now outdated, they were important as the first systematic, comprehensive identification of the state-of-the-science in delivery of blindness services.

II. Training and Technical Assistance Highlights

Training. We are a national leader in training and professional development for VR counselors and allied personnel working with persons with B/LV. We provide professional development for representatives from as many different states as possible. Training highlights include:

  • Creation of free, online continuing education courses for professionals who work with B/LV individuals
  • Job placement training for approximately 100 VR personnel
  • Assistive technology (AT) training for at least two VR representatives from every state
  • Business development training for more than 100 VR personnel
  • Over 150 graduates from more than 30 states and territories who have received the Vision Specialist Certificate
  • Intensive training for teachers of the visually impaired and rehabilitation personnel in use of AT
  • Collaborative training with consumer groups on use of AT
  • Training in working more effectively with minorities and underrepresented groups
  • Training to enhance services to persons aging with hearing and vision loss

In order to reach as wide an audience as possible, we provide training requested by state VR agencies and professional groups, exhibit at major conferences, conduct online webinars, and maintain an active social media presence.

Technical Assistance. Our websites have been a major source of information about B/LV for decades. We developed our main website with input from users to ensure it was responsive to individual and professional needs. Our National Technical Assistance Center on Blindness and Low Vision website is a hub for research-based, employment-related resources. We answer technical assistance questions by email on a daily basis, and also maintain a toll-free number for use by individuals with B/LV, professionals, and those who have difficulty with computer access. We have frequently contracted with states and federal agencies to provide program evaluations, consultations, and demographic information.

III. Summary of Impact of NIDILRR Funding

For decades, NIDILRR has invested significantly in the area of employment for persons with B/LV. Our NIDILRR-funded research has resulted in new knowledge in many areas (as described above), which has been shared with professionals, employers, and individuals with B/LV. In addition to generating new knowledge, we incorporate the results of our research into training materials and resources that are used widely in the B/LV field.

Our training and technical assistance activities have also had a significant impact. Our training has reached direct service personnel and administrators in every state, multiple times in the past 40 years. The NRTC is well known to both professionals and individuals with B/LV, to whom we serve as a resource, regularly providing technical assistance. Our consistent presence at AERBVI (the major professional organization of the B/LV field), at NCSAB (the meeting of VR agency administrators), at annual consumer group meetings, and on the Internet allows us to reach a wide audience.

Our current cycle of NIDILRR funding will allow us to pursue new research questions regarding employment for B/LV individuals, generating new information in areas such as access technology in the workplace and the effectiveness of remote training programs. As ever, our goal is to produce high-quality research that positively impacts the lives of B/LV individuals, their families, and the professionals who work with them.