MONMOUTH -- The federal government has awarded the Teaching Research Institute (TRI) at Western Oregon University $10.5 million to develop and improve service and education programs for children and adults who suffer from dual hearing and vision impairment.
The funding was awarded this summer and supports a collaborative initiative called the National Technical Assistance and Dissemination Center for Children and Youth who are Deaf/Blind.
It is headed by TRI and includes five institutions, including the Helen Keller National Center in New York and the University of Tennessee.
"We're very excited," said Meredith Brodsky, TRI director, noting that the award is the start of a five-year fund cycle that begins in October and pays $2.1 million to the center annually.
"We have a staff who has a long history with this project," she continued. "And this allows us to continue...the up-close and personal work with children and their families."
TRI is housed on the Western campus and boasts a staff of about 70 teaching specialists. It conducts nationally-recognized research on ways to improve education and human service systems.
The institute has worked with issues related to deaf/blindness since the early 1970s, about the same time the United States was hit with a rubella epidemic.
Back then, congress allocated funding for education and work training programs for victims of the condition -- mostly newborns -- who developed deaf/blindness.
The U.S. Department of Education still funds research organizations studying the condition today. TRI serves as a national center and authority on deaf/blindness.
TRI provides training to school districts or individual families with students who have the handicap, does consulting in individual classrooms and releases up-to-date information on what teaching methods are most effective for children.
It has also developed a database and statistical information on the deaf/blind population and studies the application of new technologies, such as cochlear implants, for education.
Kathleen Stremel, director of the grant-funded project, said deaf/blindness is relatively rare disability that affects approximately 9,500 people across the country. About 100 children and adults in Oregon are dual sensory impaired.
Overcoming the barriers it presents to language development often requires a small team of support personnel -- a paraprofessional, teacher, and a parent -- utilizing unique teaching methods.
A child learns touch cues associated with certain events or activities; Being handed keys, for example, indicates a car ride. A breeze in the house lets them know they're going outdoors.
"One of the problems for kids is accessing information," she said. "They can't access it at a distance, the only information they're getting from the world is through touch and movement."
Another problem is a lack of qualified instructors and specialists.
"This is a small population," Stremel said. "It's not big enough for most colleges to have course degrees or training programs regarding deaf/blindness."
Stremel said the new grant allows TRI to continue its current work on deaf/blindness, but will also facilitate more cooperation between institutions doing work related to the condition.
"There will be more collaboration in utilizing research and making sure the information we're delivering emphasizes the best practices," she said.
"We want to make sure each state and school district is using a strategy that provides the best outcomes for families."