Professor Receives National Research Award for Improving Literacy of the Visually Impaired

Tessa McCarthy, a faculty member in the Vision Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, was recently awarded the prestigious 2019 Alan J. Koenig Research in Literacy Award.

Granted to one person every two years, the national honor is one of the highest forms of recognition for the educators of people with visual impairments. McCarthy received the award at the Getting in Touch with Literacy Conference in Seattle, Wash. this past November in front of an audience of 350 academics and practitioners.

“I am so incredibly honored,” said McCarthy of the award. “It means so much to have colleagues I respect and trust telling me that the work I’m doing has an impact in the lives of children with visual impairments.”

Since joining the Pitt Education faculty in 2015, McCarthy has grounded her research and her teaching in making a difference in the day-to-day lives of individuals who are visually impaired.

In particular, McCarthy has distinguished herself in the field through her strong foundation in research methodology and statistics. Researchers lacking this knowledge often run into the problem of not having enough participants for studies because blindness is a low-incidence disability.

“I’ve learned to use different research methods and statistical procedures to compensate for the small population numbers. This has given me the ability to contribute to a wide range of projects focused on literacy for students who are blind or visually impaired,” said McCarthy.

Pitt Education is one of a few dozen higher education institutions in the United States that offer degree and certification programs for educators in vision studies. The school offers six program options in the areas of Orientation and Mobility (O&M) and Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI). Students can earn either single or dual certifications.

Due to the high demand in the field, Vision Studies graduates from Pitt Education have a 100 percent job placement rate. They work in educator roles across the country.

A hallmark of the Vision Studies program at Pitt Education is the expertise of its faculty on Braille instruction. In addition to McCarthy, there are other world-renowned experts on the faculty.

Faculty member Frances Mary D’Andrea is the former director of the American Foundation for the Blind Literacy Center. She also served as chair of the Braille Authority of North America when the United States adopted a new braille code, the United English Braille code (UEB). D’Andrea has conducted trainings all over the world and is considered a global expert.

McCarthy has focused the majority of her research on the mechanical and pedagogical aspects of teaching Braille reading.

“We’re learning about how to improve the efficiency of braille readers, and we’re always thinking about how we can use this knowledge of efficiency to improve instruction for our students,” said McCarthy.

At the Getting in Touch with Literacy Conference, McCarthy was honored for the impact of her research on the profession.The conference focuses on all areas of literacy—including Braille, print, assistive technologies, and other tools.

At the ceremony, the person who presented McCarthy with the award was Diane P. Wormsley, a 1979 graduate of the Pitt Education PhD program and a past recipient of the Department of Instruction and Learning Distinguished Alumni Award.

“Our students at Pitt Education are getting the most cutting-edge information about instruction and research. They get this info simply by coming to class,” said McCarthy.

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Explore the Vision Studies program at Pitt Education