In addition to the current funding cycle (2015-2020), the National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision at Mississippi State University has received NIDILRR funding for a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) for six previous cycles: 1981-1986, 1986-1991, 1991-1996, 1996-2001, 2001-2006, and 2010-2015.
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, the major goal of all projects has been to improve employment outcomes of individuals with blindness and low vision. The DRRP on dual sensory impairments addressed improved independent living and community integration outcomes of older adults with both vision and hearing impairments. The Center has always utilized the Participatory Action Research approach, involving persons with blindness and low vision in all aspects of our research and training activities. This approach has helped us to enhance the relevance of our research for the population. Our advisory council has consisted of representatives from the major organizations of and for persons with blindness or low vision, many of whom have blindness or low vision themselves. In addition, the Center has consistently employed persons with blindness or low vision as Center personnel or consultants on projects.
I. Research Highlights
Business Enterprise Program (BEP). The Randolph-Sheppard BEP was created by Congress in 1936. The program has provided employment for more than 30,000 individuals who are blind since its inception and currently includes approximately 2,500 facility managers across the U.S. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the NRTC has conducted multiple research projects culminating in development of a model program operation manual, recommendations for upward mobility, illumination and color contrast standards, a marketing information video, and other products. We are considered the premier organization in the U.S. to conduct research and training activities focusing on the BEP and have completed more than a dozen state and national program evaluations. We continue to work closely with the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind to help state VR programs meet recently developed performance goals, objectives and measures to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of programs and thus expand and enhance employment opportunities for individuals who are blind.
Roles, Function, and Knowledge Domains for Service Delivery Professionals. We published comprehensive monographs of 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. Knowledge and skills for each domain were developed and published via four referred journal manuscripts. These publications are important in that they resulted in the first systematic comprehensive identification of the state-of-the-science in delivery of blindness services.
Individuals from Minority Backgrounds. We conducted research to assess and understand the imbalance that existed in the vocational rehabilitation (VR) system: African Americans were overrepresented as consumers 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. Findings from research resulted in development of evidence-based recommendations for recruiting practices in VR agencies, highlighted attitudinal barriers and means for amelioration, and advocated for greater career awareness and availability of degree programs and incentives for minority participation in degree programs in blindness VR. Recommendations supported the need for funding capacity building at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This research served as a basis for policy and practice recommendations to ensure equitable participation of African Americans and other minorities with blindness or low vision in VR.
Barriers. Our first research investigating barriers to employment was conducted during the 1991-1996 cycle and continued through the 1996-2001 and 2001-2006 cycles. The first cycle generated recommendations for rehabilitation counselors, employers, and consumers to facilitate job retention; characteristics of consumers who did and did not achieve job retention were identified. The following two cycles identified employment barriers and strategies to overcome them. Data were collected from state rehabilitation agencies, private agencies, rehabilitation counselors, consumers and federal agencies. Products from this research are used by state agencies and educational providers to train new and existing rehabilitation counselors regarding best practices and obstacles in job retention and employment.
Transition. We conducted research on transition of youth with visual impairments during the 1990s and are now completing a 3-year project on this topic. Earlier research investigated experiences and outcomes of individuals transitioning from high school to work, high school to college, and college to work. This resulted in multiple publications and the Transition Activity Calendar for Students with Visual Impairments (1996), one of our most popular products. We receive ongoing requests for the Transition Calendar from students and practitioners who have indicated that they use this as a guide for identifying necessary tasks critical for successful transition from school to college. The new transition project focused on a comprehensive review of the literature and research investigating current practices that have a positive impact on transition outcomes, as well as the development of a new intervention designed to help youth obtain employment after high school or college. The intervention was found to be effective at helping youth transitioning from college to work improve in areas related to obtaining employment, and will be made available on our website in the near future.
Secondary Data Analyses. Using multiple large-scale national data sources, we have identified specific factors leading to and affecting access, acceptance, services received, and employment outcomes of individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Our Center was one of the first, if not the first, to conduct sophisticated multilevel analyses to identify factors impacting employment outcomes and to develop recommendations for practice and policy to improve employment outcomes of individuals who are blind. Our 1999 publication of analyses of the NHIS-D continues to be the definitive source of prevalence and employment data and has been used by VR administrators as comparison data in helping them identify underserved populations. (The NHIS-D is the only federal survey that asked about legal blindness.)
Deaf-Blind. Our Center has a rich history of research in education, employment, and independent living of persons with vision and hearing loss. Research areas have included development of vocational evaluation instrumentation, investigation of factors impacting employment outcomes, enhancing employment of Deafblind youth in transition, validation of factors to improve employment of youth in transition, enhancing communication options for Deafblind youth, participation in the Business Enterprise Program, and persons aging with hearing and vision loss. Collaborative projects have included the development of a registry for deaf-blind adults (with the Helen Keller National Center [HKNC]), validation of a functional hearing inventory (with Texas Tech University) and serving as the national research affiliate for HKNC.
Policy Analysis. Our Center has conducted multiple projects to help 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 of consumers. National surveys have been conducted to assess the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on finding and retaining employment. This research resulted in a practical guide to using the ADA accommodation request process. A number of secondary databases have been used to inform public policy, including the RSA-911, SSA Ticket to Work, and the Longitudinal Survey of the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program (LSVRSP). For example, findings from analyses of RSA-911 data (three studies across two decades of data) have been 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 these analyses to convince legislators to maintain separate blindness VR agencies/services during hard economic times that could favor consolidation of government services.
II. Training and Technical Assistance Highlights
Training. Our Center has been a national leader in the training and professional development of VR counselors and allied personnel working with persons who are blind or visually impaired. The NRTC utilizes the train-the-trainer model and strives to provide professional development for representatives from as many different states as possible. Training highlights include assistive technology (AT) training for at least 2 VR representatives from every state, job placement training for approximately 100 VR Personnel, over 80 graduates from 30 states receiving 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 under-represented groups, and training to enhance services to persons aging with hearing and vision loss. In an effort to be responsive to needs for professional development, the NRTC provides training requested by state VR agencies and professional groups, and exhibits at major conferences to provide easy access to consumers and professionals.
Technical Assistance (TA). The NRTC Website has been a major source of information to persons about blindness and low vision since the early 1990's, particularly through the Information and Resource Referral Project. Input from users helped to develop the early structure of the website to make it responsive to consumer and professional needs. The Center maintains a toll-free number to allow access to staff by consumers, professionals, and those who may have difficulty with computer access. In addition, the NRTC routinely contracts TA with states and federal agencies to provide program evaluations, consultation, and demographic information.
III. Summary of Impact of NIDILRR Funding
NIDILRR has made a significant investment in the area of employment for persons with blindness and low vision in the past 30 years, and continues to do so today. Naturally, the associated research has resulted in new knowledge in many specific areas (as described above), which has been disseminated to professionals and consumers in the form of monographs, peer-reviewed publications, and newsletters. In addition to the generation of new knowledge, the research has resulted in the development of training materials and many products that have been used widely in the field, some of which continue to be utilized today. Another area of significant impact has been the training and technical assistance activities of the Center. We have provided training to a large number of direct service delivery personnel and administrators in every state, multiple times in the past 30 years. The Center is well known to both professionals and consumers, to whom we serve as a resource, regularly providing useful information. Our consistent presence at AERBVI (the major professional organization of the field), at annual consumer group meetings, and on the Internet facilitates this relationship with both groups.
Our current cycle of NIDILRR funding will allow us to move in a new direction of directly assessing the efficacy of existing practices and developing and testing new interventions for this population. The six research projects in the new RRTC grant were based on results of research conducted by the Center from previous NIDILRR projects and on new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) legislation requirements. The research of this current funding cycle will offer the opportunity to more directly impact employment outcomes for persons with blindness and low vision, as well as provide evidence-based practice guidelines to agencies that provide direct services to these consumers.