Shortage of Vision Services Professionals Puts Strain on Both Clients and Providers

Brent Perzentka showing a client white cane technique.

June 10-16 is Vision Rehabilitation Week, an opportunity to spread the word about important vision rehabilitation services that can help improve the lives of people with vision loss.

Since last fall, Certified Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist Brent Perzentka of the Council has traveled to the Sauk Prairie School District once a week to give students with vision loss O&M training. Brent meets with five students from kindergarten through high school to help them gain the skills they need to move safely through their schools and community.

Brent began working the Sauk schools after CESA 5, the Cooperative Educational Service Agency that serves the district, lost their own O&M specialist. Because schools are required to offer these services to students with vision loss, and because CESA 5 was unable to find a new O&M specialist, the district reached out to the Council to see if we would be able to step in.

Unfortunately, the situation in the Sauk Prairie school district is not a unique one, as Wisconsin and the nation as a whole grapple with a shortage of vision services professionals. Brent even had other nearby school districts reach out to him to inquire about his services. He had to turn those districts down, as the need far exceeds the Council’s ability to help.

“They gave us a list of around 30 to 40 kids, and we just didn’t have the capacity to take that on,” Brent says. “Unfortunately, those kids didn’t get any O&M services the entire second semester, as far as we know.”

The issue is not just affecting schools or people who need O&M training. It has an impact on everyone living with vision loss across Wisconsin, because the shortage of Vision Rehabilitation Therapists is just as severe.

According to the VisionServe Alliance’s Big Data Report, around 4.2% of older adults in Wisconsin report severe vision impairment or blindness. While the Council can provide direct services to people in and around Dane County, the reality is that people with vision loss are spread out across the entire state. In fact, the county with the highest percentage of older adults with vision loss is Menomonee County in far north-eastern Wisconsin.

Outside of our large urban centers, most people with vision loss in Wisconsin are served by the state Office for the Blind and Visually Impaired (OBVI). But they are also feeling the shortage of vision services professionals. That means OBVI staff must cover anywhere from three to ten counties. As a result, some people have to wait weeks just to schedule a single appointment.

“We are a unique agency, and there just aren’t many other agencies like us in Wisconsin,” says Amy Wurf, Education and Vision Services Director at the Council. “We are fortunate to be able to serve the areas that we can, but we can’t get to some of those more rural areas to provide direct service.”

The biggest reason for the shortage of vision services professionals is that there are too few programs that offer certification in those services, and too few people enrolling in the programs that do exist.

The two largest programs vision services degrees in the Upper Midwest are Northern Illinois University, which offers only in-person instruction, and Western Michigan University, which offers both in-person and online classes. Only a small handful of students graduate from those programs each year. Meanwhile, the population of people with vision loss continues to grow.

“There simply are more jobs than there are people to fill those jobs,” Amy says.

Because of the acute need for more vision services professionals, we try to spread the word about the careers in this field whenever we can.

“Sometimes clients or their families will ask me, ‘How did you get into this profession?’” Amy says. “After I tell them about how I got my training, they might mention that they have a relative in college who isn’t sure what to do. I can tell them a bit more about the field, and why it’s a great profession to get into.”

Another area of study that is similar to the vision rehabilitation field is occupational therapy. Occupational therapists (OTs) help a wide variety of people with disabilities, including people with vision loss. OTs can obtain specialty certification in low vision after taking additional coursework and demonstrating advanced skills and knowledge. Once they receive that credential, they can provide some of the same direct services as those offered by the Council. Increasing the number of OTs training in vision rehab would expand the availability of vision services across Wisconsin while also growing the client base for OTs.

“The vision services field is a good field to go into,” Brent says. “There’s a need here. There’s job security, and you can find a job basically anywhere in the country.”

If you or someone you know is interested in a career in vision services, visit the Blindness and Low Vision Studies page on the Western Michigan University website or the Visual Disabilities Program page on the Northern Illinois University website.

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