- Associated Press - Thursday, November 6, 2014

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - Western Michigan University has been awarded $3.7 million for programs related to blindness and low vision.

Four personnel training grants from the U.S. Department of Education were recently given to the school in an effort to fill a shortage of specialists working with people who have vision problems. The grants will go toward the training of orientation and mobility specialists, vision rehabilitation therapists, rehabilitation counselors and teachers of visually impaired children, according to a press release.

“Each one of our graduates affects a whole lot of people,” said Dr. James Leja, chairman of the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies at WMU. “It has a nice, cascading effect. There’s a huge shortage of professionals in all of these areas.”

The grants are highly competitive awards that universities can apply for every five years, according to Leja. The funding cycles synced up with the school’s applications, which were fully funded, this year.

“They all hit at the same time,” Leja said. “So this happened to be, if you will, that perfect, positive storm. This creates a strong foundation for our five departmental programs over the next five years.”

The department is one of the oldest of its kind and produces more specialties in blindness and low vision than any other institution in the world, the press release said.

“We’ve historically seen, in all the years that we’ve been around, that many individuals with visual impairments have unmet needs in part because of the challenges of producing enough qualified graduates to get out there and provide services,” Leja says. “So the need has always been huge. Obviously, we’re very happy about the grants.”

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