Saturday, September 22, 2007

College teaches students daily life of the visually impaired!

No one said college would be easy. Now imagine doing a good part of your studying blindfolded. Without the benefit of sight, you have to learn to do such tasks as crossing a road, cooking a meal, making a phone call, using a computer -- in short, pretty much everything sighted Canadians do without thinking twice.

That's the considerable challenge facing students at Mohawk College's campus in Brantford who have enrolled for one or both of the programs that will qualify them to instruct the blind and visually impaired.

"Our students experience what they will be teaching," says Cheryl Richesin, co-ordinator of the Orientation and Mobility and Rehabilitation-Teaching post-grad programs.

O and M, as it's called, teaches the blind and visually impaired -- anyone from very young children to seniors -- how to get around using a long cane, a guide dog or high tech equipment such as GPS and other electronic devices. Rehabilitation-Teaching instructs everyone, again from the very young to the elderly, how to live independently; that could be learning to cook, using a talking computer or a low-vision device, Braille instruction, and so on.

Both programs began at Mohawk in 1991, Richesin says, and they are the only ones of their kind taught full time in English in Canada. The O and M course accepts 10 students per year and the Rehab course accepts 20. Each course lasts 10 months -- a bit longer than the usual academic year -- because there is a work experience component to complete. Tuition for each course is about $2,800.


Richesin puts the average age of her students from the mid-20s up to the 30s, although "it's not unusual to have some students who are in their 50s." Women dominate both courses, with just three men enrolled this year, Richesin says.

One of the few men who have been through the O and M program is Troy LaPlante, a psychology graduate of Dalhousie University in Halifax. Now a pre-school resource consultant for the W. Ross Macdonald School in Brantford, which teaches the blind, the deafblind and the visually impaired, LaPlante went to Mohawk as an alternative to teachers' college.

"I wanted to be able to teach people, but I didn't like the idea of being in a classroom," says LaPlante, who graduated from Mohawk in 2004.

LaPlante says some of the key attributes needed for anyone considering either of the Mohawk courses are an innovative outlook, problem- solving skills and the ability to work as part of a team.
They also shouldn't be frightened by having plenty to do. "I didn't anticipate how much work there was going to be," LaPlante says.

Deborah Despres completed the O and M program last year and is now enrolled in Rehabilitation-Teaching. A Mohawk graphic arts graduate, Despres worked at an assortment of part-time jobs -- including one as a passenger screener at Hamilton International Airport, which taught her a lot about patience -- before finding her niche.

She says it's the human side of the job that attracted her, and expresses no concern about employment after she graduates next summer: "I'm pretty confident. I've taken the course seriously."

And agencies such as the CNIB take the Mohawk grads seriously in return. Although starting pay isn't exceptional -- Richesin puts it in the higher $30,000 range -- she also points out there's a job for virtually every grad and even opportunities abroad. Some of her former students are now teaching in the U.S., Egypt, England and Hungary.



- Both programs at Mohawk are post-grad and applicants need a degree or a diploma.
- Each course lasts about 10 months.

- A good part of the student's training is done while they are blindfolded.

- Mohawk is the only college to offer these programs in English.


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