Stacy Kelly, Ed.D. '08, Eyes Greatness for the NIU Visual Disabilities Program 

By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Stacy Kelly, Ed.D. '08, receives new grant offering free tuition
for graduate students to learn to work with the visually impaired.

Stacy Kelly, Ed.D. '08, inspires and prepares students for careers working with visually disabled people.

As a professor and coordinator of the College of Education's Visual Disabilities Program at NIU, Kelly is enthusiastic about her students, what the program offers, and watching alumni go on to make a meaningful impact in the lives of individuals and families with visual impairments.

“I have the best job on earth!” said Kelly. “Our program was one the very first in the world to prepare personnel to work in the field of visual impairments. We are celebrating the program's 60th anniversary this year, and even today, there are only a handful of universities to prepare individuals to teach people with visual impairments.”

From a young age, Kelly always wanted to be a teacher. In high school, she volunteered for special education opportunities, sparking her interest in the specialty. During the first year of her undergraduate degree, Kelly learned about the specialization in visual impairments. Mesmerized by tools and devices such as braille books, long canes, video magnification devices, talking book players, and more, Kelly immediately enrolled in the program and never looked back.

Kelly became a teacher of students with visual impairments, working in Chicagoland area public schools for multiple years. She went on to earn her master’s degree in school leadership while working as a teacher. One fateful day, her supervisor at the school she was working at shared a flyer with her. 

“The flyer advertised an ‘opportunity of a lifetime,’” she said. “It was for a fully funded doctoral degree at NIU from the National Center for Leadership in Visual Impairment (NCLVI), a collaborative agreement funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The opportunity provided full tuition and a living stipend for up to four years of full-time study while earning a doctorate.” 

Kelly applied and was selected. She was placed in one of two national cohorts of qualified individuals committed to educating children who are blind or visually impaired.

“It was indeed the opportunity of a lifetime!” she said. “At NIU, I met Gaylen Kapperman (Kapp), now NIU professor emeritus. He focused on developing strategies and methods for increasing the effectiveness of mathematics instruction for students who were visually disabled, in addition to developing effective instruction methods using assistive technology. Visually disabled himself, Dr. Kapp was my dissertation chairperson and my doctoral program advisor. Today, he is one of my longest-standing and closest colleagues of all time.”

Kapperman and Kelly presented at regional, national and international conferences and have published numerous research articles, chapters and a book together. "The Health Education for Students with Visual Impairments: A Guidebook for Teachers," published by the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), earned Kapperman and Kelly the Warren Bledsoe Award—the highest award for a literature contribution in the field of blindness and visual impairment. 

After earning her doctorate in educational psychology with an emphasis in visual impairments from NIU, Kelly worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as a disability policy researcher for the American Foundation for the Blind. She then worked as an assistant professor before coming to NIU in 2013.

NIU's Visual Disabilities Program recruits students from all over the world and has continuously received federal grant funding since its inception—and Kelly is keeping the 60-year streak alive. A recent grant proposed by Kelly earned the Visual Disabilities Program $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Every five years, we compete for this federal funding against hundreds of university programs across all of special education, not just visual disabilities, and only a fraction of those who apply are awarded funding,” explains Kelly. “We are fortunate to have been awarded these highly competitive personnel preparation federal grants in continuous increments for over a half-century.”

Having been the recipient of her own “opportunity of a lifetime,” Kelly is excited to be able to offer a similar opportunity to graduate students through the latest grant.

“Generous financial assistance is available for those who pursue this career path at NIU,” said Kelly. “The grant will pay all in-state or out-of-state tuition, all fees, health insurance, and a stipend of $9,500 per calendar year for qualified individuals who wish to come to NIU to enroll in the Visual Disabilities Graduate Program. This generous financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.” 

To date, Kelly has been the project director for more than $7.5 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education. This amazing accomplishment keeps NIU a top university for those who want to work with the visually disabled. Thousands of program graduates have gone on to play a significant role in the lives of children and adults who are visually impaired, along with their families.

“There is an overwhelming need for these professionals with many job opportunities in all regions of the United States,” said Kelly. “Graduates can anticipate having no difficulty obtaining life-long employment and a fulfilling career. Many call special education for visual disabilities the greatest gem in all of education. I agree with that and am thrilled to welcome 80 new professionals to the field through this grant.”

For more information about the NIU Visual Disabilities Program or the generous financial aid available for graduate students, contact Stacy Kelly at or 815-753-4103.