Decades of Vision

By Kate Braser

Click to watch an interview with Professor Kapperman

The impulse driving one of NIU’s most renowned graduate programs began in the back of a classroom in rural Nebraska, with a little boy squinting futilely to see the chalkboard. That little boy grew up to be Gaylen Kapperman, now a nationally known and respected scholar and faculty member in NIU’s Visual Disabilities Program.

While Kapperman began at NIU on June 17, 1974, his journey here started as a child, when his teacher noticed he couldn’t see the chalkboard. The teacher kept moving him closer, until he was in the front row. When he still could not see, his teacher recommended a visit to the eye doctor. His parents took him for what all assumed would be a routine visit.

Kapperman can still clearly remember his parents, after private consultation with his ophthalmologist, holding each other and looking at him sadly as they returned to where he waited alone in the lobby. On the way home, his every wish was granted—ice cream, soda, a new toy. As he lay in bed that night, still unaware of why his parents seemed glum, he overheard them whispering about his eventual blindness.

“And that’s how I found out that I would be blind,” Kapperman said of his diagnosis with retinitis pigmentosa. The genetic disease, when inherited, causes gradual retinal degeneration, ultimately leading to blindness. Although the condition is hereditary, Kapperman’s parents—both fully sighted—had no idea they each carried the recessive gene. Three of their five children, including Gaylen, were eventually diagnosed.

The diagnosis propelled Kapperman through life. Although his ophthalmologist urged his parents to rush him through his education before complete blindness set in, they did not—a decision for which he remains grateful. “My ophthalmologist thought I’d go totally blind by 14, but I had vision well enough to read large print until my 40s,” he said. “Luckily, my parents did not choose to rush me through school, because I would not have had the education I did, and it would have ruined my career. I wouldn’t have been eligible for college and would probably be in Nebraska on welfare right now.”

Thanks to his parents and his own dedication, Kapperman’s life instead illustrates how much the visually impaired and blind can accomplish with the proper resources.

Proof positive

Kapperman achieved a rare combination of personal, academic, and athletic success in his early years, even playing football in high school. “I was homecoming king. I had a good time in high school, and had a pretty successful high school career,” he said.

After scoring well on the ACT, Kapperman was accepted into Doane College, where he majored in mathematics and German, and was awarded a secondary teaching certificate. While there, he met his wife, Susan, and graduated magna cum laude in 1967. He went on to finish a master’s degree in special education for children who are visually disabled at the University of Northern Colorado, and became the first visually disabled person awarded a Fulbright fellowship, which he used to study special education at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Kapperman then taught math and German to students who were blind and visually impaired at the Kansas School for the Visually Handicapped in Kansas City, Kansas, before returning to the University of Northern Colorado to complete a doctorate in special education administration and research. After receiving his degree, he applied for positions at two universities—Northern Illinois University and Ohio State University. “I was the only applicant for both,” he said. “That is not an unusual state in our field because there are not enough people for positions.”

Kapperman landed at NIU, where his experience facing challenges and prejudice have prepared him to launch the careers of others in the field. He is often the first person prospective students meet with to determine whether the program and the career are right for them. Many of his students say his personal experience with visual impairment and blindness infuses passion into their learning, and makes for the caliber of program that attracted them to NIU from across the country.

From humble beginnings

Kapperman and his guide dog, Judd

Despite having distinguished faculty, one of the most rigorous curricula in the nation, and producing highly sought-after and respected alumni, the Visual Disabilities Program is as humble as Kapperman’s beginnings in the field. From a small, nondescript office, Kapperman, his loyal guide dog, Judd, and a team of seven faculty and instructors transform graduate students into professionals who empower the blind and visually impaired to lead lives as productive and successful as Kapperman’s own.

The program began in 1964 as a special education program for blind and visually impaired children. An orientation and mobility component was added in 1972, and rehabilitation for blinded adults began in 1978. Today, the program consists of three components: training teachers for work in schools with children who have visual disabilities; training orientation and mobility specialists to work with children and adults who are visually disabled; and training rehabilitation teachers to work with adults who have visual disabilities. The program is housed under the College of Education in Graham Hall, named for the first state director of special education. The second floor, where the program is located, was formerly a school for special needs children, and the classroom beside Kapperman’s office was the resource room for the blind students.

While the program has existed for decades, the demand for the well-educated professionals it produces is growing quickly. The reasons why program graduates are highly sought after today are numerous. According to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control study, more than 3.4 million Americans are either legally blind or visually impaired. Some experts project that due to a combination of factors—survival rates of premature infants who never develop complete vision, aging baby boomers, increased instances of diabetes, returning veterans who have suffered vision impairment injuries—the blind population will increase greatly in the coming decades. The National Eye Institute projects that cases of vision impairment will more than double by 2030, to 7.1 million people. That figure is expected to nearly double again by 2050, with nearly 13.1 million cases projected.

While finding jobs might not be difficult, Kapperman urges his students to be dedicated to the field, and gives them honest advice on the challenges they should expect to encounter. “Sometimes it is difficult because society discriminates against blind people,” he said. “In my estimation, it happens all too frequently that people who don’t know anything about blindness don’t want to provide the resources that it takes to help these people learn what they need to do in order to become independent blind individuals.”

The “godfather” of the program

Bolingbrook native Jennifer Yesaitis met with Kapperman when trying to determine whether to apply for the program. She received her undergraduate degree from NIU, but realized during the course of her special education training that she was unprepared to deal with students with visual impairments and blindness. “Most students are disabled in multiple ways, and I wanted to know how to help all of my students,” she said. “I did my whole undergrad in Graham and Gabel but never knew that [the program] was here. It is such a small program that it doesn’t make a whole lot of noise, which is funny because it’s so prestigious and powerful.”

Kapperman and students practice using the BrailleNote, a personal digital assistant

Yesaitis said Kapperman’s firsthand experience adds a deeper perspective to the program that she can’t get through any teaching tools, and describes him as “the godfather of the program.” “He makes everything run,” she continues. “The world revolves around Kapp. It’s absolutely amazing. He will go to bat for you with hands down anything, and will support his students 100 percent. Kapp is pretty well known in the field. He’s a good resource, a go-getter. He is influential, and has firsthand experience about discrimination that blind people can face and hardship in schools.”

The demand for highly educated professionals means that the tight-knit vision field is one that the program’s students can expect to be enthusiastically welcomed into when they graduate. “In reality, the field is so small that in some way we will all be in contact with each other one way or another,” said Tamera Tillman, who  moved to DeKalb from New York for the program. “That’s another reason why it is so important for us to be in such close contact now. It’s important to keep that connection. I left everything at home and came here for this specific opportunity.” Explaining the depth of the demand, she said that before she left New York, she was looking up jobs in the vision field on an employment website. “There were three jobs that are still on that site today,” she said. “And the job board downstairs is full.”

Instilling compassion

While the demands of the program are rigorous, and the technology and curriculum are considered cutting edge, Kapperman and his colleagues have made it a priority to instill something less tangible but perhaps more valuable in their students—respect and compassion for those they serve. “Commonly in our culture blind people are devalued,” Kapperman said. “It is sometimes unspoken that they are not worth the cost of special education and rehabilitation because they are blind. That’s the attitude. It’s people like my students and my graduates who are out there changing the minds of these individuals and helping them see the light.”

With that, it seems Kapperman’s greatest contribution to his students’ learning is the one he demonstrates daily: By exposing students to his everyday life and sharing his personal experiences and challenges, he illustrates how blindness does not diminish a person’s potential.

“It’s very difficult for me going into the vision field because I don’t have a visual impairment and can’t fully understand what my kids experience,” Yesaitis said. “I can put a blindfold on for a few minutes, but I know at any given time I can take it off. You can never actually simulate blindness but you can try. Kapp’s perspective really drives this program to make it better for people like him.”

More information on NIU’s Visual Disabilities Program