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A Look Back

100 Years of Professionalism in Services for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

When Charles F. F. Campbell launched Outlook for the Blind in 1907, he offered it as a "forum for the free and open discussion of all topics connected with work for the blind." He hoped that "those who have the experience and the expert knowledge on these subjects will give us the results of their work and observations that all may benefit thereby." He added, "Our only desire is to be of service to the great cause of helpfulness to the blind. Come, let us reason together." In this succinct mission statement for this new journal, Campbell captured some of the central elements of a profession: the rational use of experience and expertise in service to people in need.

At that time, many regarded the field of work for people who are blind as primarily charity work for less fortunate people. Those who worked with people who were visually impaired in the mid-1900s were primarily guided by tradition, superstition, or religious faith. But Charles Campbell had been influenced by his father's commonsense and "scientific" approach to this work. Sir Francis Campbell was one of the most prominent and most practical blind teachers of students who were blind. He had risen from his original work as a music teacher at the Tennessee School for the Blind to the faculty of the Perkins School for the Blind and then went on to lead the Royal Normal College for the Blind in England. He also began one of the first university training programs for teachers of students who were blind in England. The success of his practical approach to managing the challenges of blindness was responsible for his strong reputation in this field (Wilson, 1914). In keeping with the approach of the elder Campbell, the early issues of Outlook provided an outlet for those who wished to share practical information about what was effective in helping people who were blind or visually impaired.

Encouraging the culture and growth of professional associations

Outlook, with its practical and commonsense approach to problem solving, reflected the professional culture that had emerged among the two existing associations for those who worked with people who were blind. The meetings of the American Association of Instructors for the Blind (AAIB) and the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB), which consisted of those who trained and found employment for blind adults, emphasized respectfully considering all sides of a question and taking actions based on logical "good sense" as well as formal research when it was available. By publishing the papers and proceedings, some in their entirety, of these early meetings, Outlook served to convey this attitude to workers in the field who were not able to get to these conferences. When there was controversy, the early journal printed extensive discussions of all sides of the issue. More than 20 pages of one issue of Outlook in its first year were devoted to a thorough presentation of the Uniform Type Committee that was organized to help the New York City Department of Education decide which tactile reading system it would use.

The importance of the journal to the associations of professionals who educated and worked with those who were blind was reflected in the decision by AAWB, at its 1921 conference in Vinton, Iowa, to propose the creation of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). The purpose of this national organization was to take responsibility for projects and activities that would benefit the entire field. One of the projects on the minds of AAWB members in proposing this organization was the continuation of Outlook, which had been very well received in its first 14 years. The responsibility for publishing Outlook was assumed by AFB in 1923.

Defining a profession

Among the generally accepted characteristics of a profession are that it is a vocation of service to people requiring special expertise normally gained through prolonged specialized training in a body of knowledge and requiring a commitment to a code of ethical behavior. Practitioners of a profession meet to develop and share information, establish minimum qualifications for certification, and propose standards of ethical conduct and ways to enforce these standards. As these associations, and some of their specific occupational subgroups, moved toward meeting the definitions and requirements of a profession during the past 100 years, the journal published, disseminated, and encouraged discussion about their activities. Professional conferences were advertised in the journal, and papers presented at such conferences were published. Proposed certification standards and codes of ethics for teachers, orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists, vision rehabilitation therapists, and low vision therapists were disseminated to those who would be affected by them. Debate and controversies regarding professionalism were aired and sometimes resolved in the pages of the journal.

During the past century, progress toward meeting all of the criteria for a profession has been limited by the diversity of occupational roles and groups under the general umbrella of "work for the blind." Although AAIB started with a homogenous membership of residential school personnel, it soon had to expand to accommodate those who were teaching in local schools. AAWB was created to give voice and support to those who focused on finding employment for adults who were blind. Home teachers (the precursors of rehabilitation teachers, later vision rehabilitation therapists) and social workers began to focus on the needs of older people who lost their vision. Eventually the work of O&M specialists, low vision therapists, and access technology specialists became recognized as specialties within the field.

The pages of the journal frequently reflected frustration concerning this fragmentation and the longing for greater unity. A report of the first joint conference of AAIB and AAWB in 1915 featured the first publication of a call for the unification of these associations. Joint meetings occurred again in 1938 and 1952. It was not until 1984 that AAWB and the Association for the Education of the Visually Handicapped (AEVH--formerly AAIB) consolidated to form the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). Even under this new umbrella, separate divisions, certification procedures, and codes of ethics were developed and perpetuated. Most of these activities can be tracked through the pages of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB) and its predecessors.

Knowledge and certification in the profession of teaching visually impaired children

H. Randolph Latimer (1919) was one of the first educators of students who are blind to use Outlook as a platform from which to call for standardization of training for personnel entering this field. Latimer, who was himself blind, said,

"As long as workers for the blind are recruited from the ranks of the seeing without respect to technical preparation, and drawn from among the blind without reference to practical knowledge of the workaday world, just so long . . . must work for the blind continue hampered by hallucination and hindered by stigmatism."

P. C. Potts, writing in Outlook in 1948, confirmed Latimer's contention that the majority of teachers in special schools for blind students prior to the start of formal training programs were recruited from graduates of those schools or were young women who had graduated from college and learned how to teach blind children while on the job. Potts commented,

"These circumstances fostered the ideas that special training was not necessary in order to teach the blind and that blind persons already had special training by virtue of having graduated from a school for the blind."

Latimer offered a solution for this shortcoming:

"What we lack is leadership rather than leaders; and this is largely due to the fact that our work has not been properly standardized, has not been raised to the plane of a genuine profession. . . . Until some definite standard of technical knowledge and practical efficiency shall have been established for all desiring to enter the work professionally, little may be rationally looked for in the way of genuine leadership."

In spite of these early efforts and the emergence in the 1920s of university-based training programs for teachers of visually impaired students, there appeared to be little interaction between efforts to professionalize the special field of work for people who were blind and the state-based certification programs for teachers. The field even had difficulty reaching a consensus on the certification of teachers for its special schools for blind students. As Potts (1948) explained, AAIB, at its 1932 conference, appointed a committee to propose the minimum requirements of professional training for teachers in schools for blind students. Although a certification plan was eventually approved at the 1938 conference, Potts felt that it was never strongly supported by the superintendents of the schools because of conflicts between standards and the requirements for teachers in schools throughout the United States.

As the vast majority of blind and visually impaired students came to be educated in local schools, the lack of national standards for professional certification for teachers of students who are visually impaired has resulted in a wide range of criteria and a lack of reciprocity among states (Huebner & Strumwasser, 1987). To the extent that this situation continues today, it indicates that the profession of teaching children who are blind is still working to have a significant impact on the decision of who should be practicing in this field and what training they should receive. Recently, blindness professionals used JVIB to discuss the impact of the No Child Left Behind legislation, with its emphasis on children being taught by "highly qualified" teachers (West, McMahon, Blankenship, Irwin, & Ferrell, 2005). Although the impact of this legislation remains to be seen, it highlights the sad reality that the determination of who is qualified to teach visually impaired children rests more with the state and federal governments than it does with the professional associations.

Visual status as a professional qualification

As Latimer and Potts pointed out, the development of professional qualifications and certification programs for teachers of children with visual impairments was delayed by the tendency to draw teachers from the ranks of graduates of schools for blind students without regard to formal training. While this was mostly a solution to the financial problems of schools and programs serving blind children, there was a feeling among some that having teachers of blind children be blind themselves was more important than professional training.

This issue was evident in the discussions through the years of the occupation first called home teaching, later rehabilitation teaching, and now vision rehabilitation therapy. Home teaching was described in the very first issue of Outlook (1907). The many roles of a home teacher, the lack of professional training in a comprehensive body of knowledge, and the continued reliance on visually impaired adults without professional training led Rusalem (1960) to conclude that home teaching was not a profession. While this perception began to change in 1963 with the establishment of a graduate-level training program in rehabilitation teaching at Western Michigan University--described by Kaarlela (1966)--Hanson, writing in 1980, made it clear that old disagreements about the appropriate training and background of rehabilitation teachers had not disappeared completely. By the time the guidelines for the certification of rehabilitation teachers were approved by AER in 1990, the integration of professionally trained visually impaired people had been achieved.

In 1960, decisions made regarding the emerging specialty of O&M brought the issue of professional training versus visual status of practitioners into clear focus. In March 1960, New Outlook for the Blind published a series of articles that resulted from the National Conference on Orientation and Mobility that was organized by AFB and funded by the U.S. Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Conference participants, both sighted and blind leaders of the field and those who had been involved in the formalization of O&M training following World War II, established one year of graduate study as the minimum preparation period for O&M specialists. It was determined that the curriculum for university training programs should address five areas of study: (1) techniques and practices of O&M, (2) dynamics of human behavior as it relates to blindness, (3) structures and functions of the human body, (4) study of the senses, and (5) cultural and psychological implications of blindness.

The participants of the AFB mobility conference also recommended that mobility specialists should be sighted rather than blind. Many of those who were teaching O&M at that time were considered qualified to do so because of their own visual impairment and their own mobility skills. Requiring mobility specialists to have both vision and a mastery of a comprehensive body of knowledge went contrary to the thinking of many members of the field at that time.

The debate about the role of blind people and the necessity for a body of knowledge in the mobility field continued and was reflected in the discussions between Olson and Wiener (1981, 1983), which were published two decades later in JVIB. As Donald Blasch wrote in the January 1978 edition of JVIB,

". . . We have developed the beginnings of a body of knowledge, preparation programs, performance standards in some areas, systems of certification and accreditation and our 'professional culture.' This has not come without controversy--nor is the concept of professionalism accepted completely by our field."

As the certification and training standards for O&M specialists continued to evolve, the body of knowledge grew, and the passing of an academic competency test was added to the degree requirements for O&M specialists. The fairness of the original vision standards was revisited over the years and research used to help test the original assumptions (Wiener, et al., 1992). In 1996, the JVIB News Service reported on the approval by AER of new University Orientation and Mobility Competencies and the Professional Standard for Practice, which became the bases for revisions in certification and for admitting students to university training programs. In these new documents, the determination of a person's ability to do the actual job, even with accommodations that might be required, replaced visual acuity or a functional abilities checklist as the basis for admitting students to university training programs and for certification.

The philosophical issues that underpin the disagreements on the role of visually impaired people in O&M have not been entirely resolved, however. Huebner and Wiener (2005), in a guest editorial that accompanied a special issue of JVIB on O&M, made it clear that an alternative certification procedure for mobility specialists, developed in recent years, is based upon the philosophy that not only are blind people capable of teaching independent travel, but it is preferable to have blind people teach this skill. Another tenet of this philosophy is that all people with low vision should learn to travel while under blindfold and that sighted mobility instructors should teach O&M while under blindfold themselves. Huebner and Wiener explained that this alternative certification does not require the applicant to have taken academic courses, but instead must pass an oral examination that focuses on the belief system of the instructor and includes the demonstration of skills in traveling with visual occlusion.

Consistent with the original intention of Charles Campbell when he started Outlook, Huebner and Wiener conclude their discussion of future issues facing the profession of O&M by emphasizing the need for "empirical studies that test our assumptions and challenge ourselves to identify what is most effective. We need to be curious, to think, to conduct research, read research, and discuss similarities and differences in approaches--whether it is a single strategy or an entire philosophy." Or, as Campbell said, "Come, let us reason together."

Maintaining expertise and control of the body of knowledge

Once a profession develops a complex body of knowledge, the members of that profession are obliged to continue to test and add to that information and to continue to keep up with that body of knowledge as it progresses. Helping its readers with these professional requirements was perhaps the most important role that the journal has played over the years.

Beginning in 1977, JVIB placed a new emphasis on research-based articles. In presenting this adjustment of the journal's mission, the editors offered the following explanation:

"The last 20 years has seen a burgeoning of professional training programs for practitioners, which, in turn, has brought about radical changes in practice. A parallel development is the proliferation of research into many aspects of visual impairment. . ..
It has become increasingly clear that there is a need for exchange of information between the research and practice communities, . . . that much of what is called "practice" may be seminal research, and that good research is aware of current practice, and leads to better practice."

This new emphasis required the creation of a peer review process, and led, eventually, to the point that most of the articles published support their conclusions with data acquired and interpreted in keeping with educational research standards.

Professionals' obligation to the community

From the very beginning, Outlook gave evidence of the field's commitment to address the unmet needs and circumstances of the people it served. One of the first articles encouraged educators of blind children to help address the unmet needs of blind adults by proposing the use of the Minnesota School for the Blind to provide a program for blind men during the summer vacation period (Dow, 1907). Articles in the early issues advocated for the eradication of causes of blindness that were known to be preventable. Such causes were estimated to be responsible for nearly 50% of all incidence of blindness in the early 1900s. Articles ranged from public education efforts to ensure that steps to prevent ophthalmia neonatorum were taken by doctors, hospitals, and midwives to a report on municipal legislation proposed for the city of Chicago, Illinois, to prevent ladies' hat pins from projecting too far from their hats in order to prevent eye injuries to others. Helen Keller supported activity for the prevention of blindness when she said in a 1911 issue of Outlook, "I rejoice that the greatest of all work for the blind--the saving of eyesight--has been so clearly laid out before the public."

Advocacy to prevent blindness was replaced as the years progressed with a growing concern for finding ways to help people with low vision improve their use of their remaining vision. This subject first appeared in a 1916 article by Robert Irwin entitled, "Classes for Children with Partial Vision." The pages of the journal have tracked the expansion of interest in this topic to the point that strategies for meeting the needs of people with low vision has become an expected and a required skill of every professional in this field. Reflecting this change in the profession, the term "visual impairment" was placed ahead of the term "blindness" when the journal's name was changed in 1977. This movement culminated in an article by Watson, Quillman, Flax, and Gerritsen (1999), which described the process of establishing a professional-level certification program for low vision specialists.


Within the field of work for people who are blind, there are many occupational specialties. Some of these, such as psychology and social work, are established professions existing beyond the field of visual impairment and blindness. Others, such as teaching visually impaired children, vision rehabilitation therapy, O&M, and low vision therapy, are unique to this field. Each of these unique specialties, like all other occupation groups, approach the ideal definition of a profession to a greater or lesser degree. During the past 100 years, the journal has both stimulated and served as a response to the journey being made by each of these specialties toward the goal of professional-quality services for people who live with visual impairment or blindness.


American Foundation for the Blind. (1960). Mobility and orientation--A symposium. New Outlook for the Blind, 54(3), 81.

Blasch, D. (1978). The impact of professional preparation on work for the blind: Remarks on receiving the Migel Medal. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 72(1), 30-31.

Campbell, C. C. (1907). Our purpose. Outlook for the Blind, 1(1), 1.

Dow, J. J. (1907). Summer schools for blind men. Outlook for the Blind, 1(1), 7-9.

Editors. (1977). Note to readers. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 71(1), 1.

Hanson, T. (1980). The professionalization of rehabilitation teaching. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 74(4), 161-163.

Huebner, K., & Strumwasser, K. (1987). State certification of teachers of blind and visually impaired students: Report of a national study. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 81(6), 244-250.

Huebner, K., & Wiener, W. (2005). Guest editorial. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 99(10), 579-584.

Irwin, R. (1916). Classes for children with partial vision. Outlook for the Blind 10(1).

Kaarlela, R. (1966). Home teaching: A description. New Outlook for the Blind, 60(1), 80-83.

Keller, H. (1911). Prevention of blindness and conservation of eyesight. Outlook for the Blind, 5(2), 32.

Latimer, H. R. (1919). Ambition and apathy in work for the blind. Outlook for the Blind, 13(3), 59-62.

Olson, C., & Wiener, W. (1981). Comment. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 75(8), 338-341.

Olson, C., & Wiener, W. (1983) Comment. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 77(1), 21-23, 26-27.

Potts, P. C. (1948). Professionalizing special education. Outlook for the Blind and The Teachers Forum, 42(1), 20-26.

Rusalem, H. (1960). The status of home teaching as a profession. New Outlook for the Blind, 54, 240-246.

Watson, G., Quillman, R., Flax, M., & Gerritsen, B. (1999) The development of low vision therapist certification. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 93(7), 451-456.

West, J., McMahon, E., Blankenship, K., Irwin, C., & Ferrell, K. (2005). The effect of "No Child Left Behind" on the education of children who are blind or visually impaired. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 99(11), 677-683.

Wiener, W. R., Bliven, H. S., Bush, D., Ligammari, K., & Newton, C. (1992). The need for vision in teaching orientation and mobility. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 86, 54-57.

Wilson, H. A. (1914). Tribute to Sir Francis J. Campbell. Outlook for the Blind 8(3), 101-104.

Richard L. Welsh, Ph.D., president (retired), Pittsburgh Vision Services; mailing address: 1537 Broad Hill Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15237; e-mail: <>.

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