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Foster announces $600K for blind veterans

DeKALB – A $600,000 grant will train 10 individuals on how to care for blind veterans.

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Batavia, announced the federal funding Monday outside the DeKalb American Legion among veterans and Northern Illinois University faculty members, who will be overseeing the new program.

Foster stressed the need for rehabilitation services for visually impaired veterans, especially as the wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

About 13 percent of wounded service members in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered a serious eye injury, according to the Blinded Veterans Association.

“We don’t have to do our veterans a favor, we simply have to repay them,” Foster said.

The 22-month program will be launched in the fall of 2011 and is being added to the visual disability education program at NIU. That program trains people as teachers and specialists for both adults and children with visual disabilities.

Under the grant, 10 students will be admitted into the program, with the intention of preparing them to work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs upon graduation, said Gaylen Kapperman, who coordinates NIU’s visual disabilities program.

The VA estimates that four out of five specialists employed by the department will be eligible to retire in the next five years, and Congress already has appropriated additional funding for the VA to expand services for veterans who are blind.

The grant was included in the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2010 and will cover tuition, fees and health insurance, and provide annual stipends to students. They will earn a master’s degree in education with dual specialization in orientation and mobility and rehabilitation training in the spring of 2013.

Kapperman, who is blind and uses a guide dog, encouraged people living in DeKalb County and the surrounding area to apply for the program to help put local people to work, he said. The program trains people to work for the VA, which he called “a potential lifelong career where they can do some good.”

NIU graduate student Leif Johanson already is training for that career. Johanson will finish the program in the spring of 2011 and plans to intern with the VA next fall.

With funding secured, NIU will begin recruiting students for the program. The application deadline is April 1, 2011, and anyone interested should contact Kapperman, he said.

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