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Outrage After Mohawk Axes Blind-Related Programs : College Offered Only Courses in Canada That Trained Instructors to Aid The Blind

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The pressure brought on Mohawk College saved these programs for another year. The following article is re-printed from the Brantford Expositor, March 29, 2001.

Axing two Mohawk College programs designed to train instructors to aid the blind will have a major local impact and negative consequences across the country, say support groups for the blind.

Citing low enrolment, the college announced Tuesday the suspension of both its specialized programs, orientation and Mobility and rehabilitation, which train teachers to work with the blind and the visually impaired. Offered at the Brantford campus since 1991, they are the only fulltime, English speaking programs of their kind in Canada.

Gerrard Grace, Vice President of Marketing for the CNIB in Toronto, said staff there has been scrambling since receiving the word of the program suspensions. He said the CNIB already has nine vacancies for orientation and mobility instructors.

"This is creating a crisis," Grace said. "waiting lists for clients needing these services are already quite long. Now people could be waiting for over a year."

Shelagh Gill, vice president of academics at Mohawk, said the programs will not be offered next year and likely into the future. "We have had a significant difficulty with applications and enrolment in these programs since 1994," said Gill. She said there are currently just 15 students enrolled in both programs, which were designed for a capasity of 30. She said the programs hit an enrollment high in 1996, when 31 students participated and the numbers have been on the "downhill slope" ever since.

Gill also said applications for the September start-up for the one year, post graduate program are "pretty low." Those applicants have been notified that the programs will not be offered. While Mohawk's Web site boasts of the "extremely good" employment rates for graduates of the programs (jobs are traditionally found with school boards, the Ministry of Health and the CNIB), Gill said there is simply not enough interest from the potential students to make the program viable. "Part of the thinking is that the starting salary for graduates is quite low. There are jobs there, but they are low paying."

Gill said that she couldn't comment on whether the two program instructors at the Brantford campus would lose their jobs. Those training in the orientation and mobility program are frequently seen on the city streets wearing blindfolds and carrying white canes. This "travel training" allows students to get a sense of the challenges facing the visually impaired. The program focus is on teaching visually impaired clients how to live more independently.

Students in the rehabilitation program receive instruction on how to assist visually impaired clients through supportive counseling, communicating skills and leisure counseling. John McGregor, Chairman of the W. Ross Macdonald School Council and parent if one of its students, worries that the demise if the programs will leave the visually impaired to rely on untrained people to provide their life skills instruction.

According to the CNIB there is already a shortage of orientation and mobility instructors and rehabilitation teachers and that shortage will increase over the next five to ten years, as an aging population facing growing visual impairments. "Blindness is increasing especially among the elderly," said McGregor. "This will certainly have an impact on the people in the community. It could impede the learning of life skills as simple as pouring a cup of coffee in the morning."

While McGregor believes a college's decision to suspend a program is "generally irreversible"> steps will be taken to ensure training in the field continues to be available. "We could look at what other opportunities are possible. Maybe the onus doesn't have to be all on Mohawk." Gill said representatives from the college would be willing to discuss with other groups alternative ways to deliver the training. Robert Fenton, president of the National federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, said "without Canadian programs, students will be forced to take their training in the United States where they will face huge tuition fees.

Fenton said he is upset that Mohawk didn't consult his organization and other agencies that provide services to the blind prior to making their decision.

"If we were consulted, perhaps it would have been possible to establish partnerships to allow Mohawk College to continue to offer these important programs. It is a travesty that the board of governors of the college has denied us this fundamentally important opportunity."

An emergency meeting in Toronto may be called next month, said the CNIB's Grace, to discuss possible solutions to the problem.