Penn State's Summer Academy is changing lives -- and attitudes

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What better place to prepare high school students with visual impairment for college, than on a college campus? That's what Jim Herbert thought five years ago, when he proposed moving the Summer Academy for the Blind from its location at a Johnstown rehabilitation center to Penn State's University Park campus.

The Summer Academy for the Blind and Visually Impaired is a three-week program that functions with the help of a not-so-small village. The network of people and organizations that make up the moving parts of the Summer Academy stretches as far as the national level and hits as close as home.

Approximately 25 students with varying levels of vision loss and blindness are accepted into the academy each year and travel from all over Pennsylvania to attend. This year's academy takes places July 14 to Aug. 3. 

Research that Herbert, professor of education (counselor education, and rehabilitation and human services), has done with others since the move has shown that bringing the academy to Penn State was a good idea. Research also has proven that the approaches coordinators are using are working.

The program has been recognized as one of the "best practices" in the United States and works in partnership with the College of Education and the College of Health and Human Development. It also involves Penn State's Student Disability Resources office and the Pennsylvania State Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

"This partnership is not just Penn State, but also the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation," Herbert said. "Every state is required to provide services to people with disabilities to help them with employment. There's a big push now to try to work on what's called 'transition youth,' meaning to work specifically with high school youth with disabilities."

Herbert, who has more than 40 years of experience in the fields of counselor education and rehabilitation and human services, has been involved with the Summer Academy for the past three years and bases his research on the program on nontraditional measurements.

Students' hope and belief in themselves is assessed before and after completion of the academy, as well as parents' beliefs about their children's capabilities. Student — and staff — success is based on student perception of their skills and the hope they have in themselves.

The academy provides a curriculum that teaches students a variety of skills, such as how to use an ATM, how to go grocery shopping, how to cook meals by themselves, and other tasks that those with vision loss or blindness may find difficult.

Academics are taught at the academy alongside the life skills students acquire while attending.

STEM instruction (science, technology, engineering and math) was added to the program for the first time last year. It has been incorporated as a push to show students with disabilities that there are career opportunities they may not have thought about before.

"A lot of students aren't gravitating toward that field," Herbert said. "But as it applies to people with disabilities, that's particularly true."

Faculty within different colleges work with each other to teach classes and skills, but a large part of what the students learn at the academy seems to be on a social level.

For many of the students who attend the Summer Academy, they are the only, or one of the only, students at their high school who have vision loss. This leads to the student potentially feeling left out or different.

"You come here and now you find there are 24 people who are kind of like you," Herbert said. "In many ways, your life experiences are similar to their life experiences. You want to fit in, you want to have a posse, everybody needs a posse — you need a crowd."

With an increase in people who are similar to them that the students attending the program encounter, comes an increase in their likelihood to embrace their disability rather than run away from it.

"If you're excluded, you're like 'Where's my posse? Where's my crowd? Where's my support group?'" Herbert said about the experience of exclusion many students face before coming to the academy. "You're already standing out from the crowd. So, you don't use adaptive things like a cane."

There are four goals upon which the ultimate success of the program is based, according to Herbert and the report detailing his research, which was published in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability.

"Did they apply to college? Did they get accepted into college? Are they in college? And now we're at the stage of our research, are they persisting? Are they graduating?" Herbert said.

At this point in the program's life, those who attended as high school students are now graduating from college. What the research is finding is that these students are not only applying and getting into college at a higher rate than students without sight loss, but they also are persisting at a higher rate.

Student hope and belief in their functional skills is shown to increase positively; a shift in attitude surrounding social relations also is found.

In the post-academy evaluation, a significant change in parent perceptions of their children's functionality is noted. In the pretest, students reported that they "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with their ability to function on almost all of the 24 tasks listed, which was much higher than parental perceptions.

By the post-test, however, parental perception of their children's functionality increased to nearly the same level as that reported by their children.

As confirmed by research and shown in the data, the Summer Academy for the Blind and Visually Impaired not only has an effect on the participating students, but also on the parents of those students. This effect can be seen reaching even further than just students and their families, as student social relationships and relationships with learning are impacted as well.

The impact of the Summer Academy doesn't end at those who are directly involved with the program, or those who have relationships to students who attend the program.

Last year, a parallel program was started as a result of the Summer Academy for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The College of Health and Human Development has begun a program for high school students who are deaf or have hearing loss.

Since the academy's move to Penn State, it has influenced the lives of many students with and without disabilities, families affected by vision loss and blindness, and teachers. It now has gone further than that to touch the lives of those affected by hearing loss and deafness.

"We have an opportunity to change somebody's life for the better," Herbert said. "When you see a program like this, it has the potential where students start to question what they want out of life, what they see that they can contribute and what they can do. And they begin to kind of challenge that a as a result. That's the big thing."

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Last Updated July 12, 2018