Kevin Allison had spent most of his young life on the ice in pursuit of one dream.
“I was always a figure skater. I was always training. I was getting my degree at the same time – my undergraduate degree – but I had no real direction,” says Allison, 28, a Wheaton native who was studying liberal arts at the College of DuPage.
Yet fate had a direction in mind for him, whether he wanted it or not. “I had a bad skate at Nationals, and skating sort of fell out,” he says. “I took time off to rethink my career, and my mom said, ‘Hey, you need to get a job since you’re not skating anymore.’ ”
So he went to work alongside his mother, Joan, at a suburban school for the visually impaired where she is employed. There – pun intended – his eyes opened.
“First week there, I fell in love in with it,” Allison says. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
Allison transferred from COD to NIU, where he completed his bachelor’s degree. He then enrolled in the NIU College of Education’s Department of Special and Early Education, where in 2015 he earned a master’s degree in the Vision Program and certification as an Orientation and Mobility specialist.
Work is never hard to find for graduates of NIU’s program – most student have three job offers on the table as they complete their studies – and Allison promptly became an itinerant teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) and a certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist in the Chicago Public Schools.
He served in 25 different schools last year, teaching around 30 students how to use their white canes and how to navigate independently. This year, he is delivering that curriculum, as well as literacy in Braille, to four children at Mount Greenwood Elementary School.
Teaching is now his dream come true.
“I never thought I would be an educator,” Allison says. “I really do love working with kids. When I was growing up, I loved coaching them – I’ve coached figure skating for almost eight years now – and I just fell in love with it. It’s become a passion.”
But the ice retains its allure.
Allison is a coach of the Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey team, which boasts 20 players ages “4 to 30-something” with varying degrees of visual impairments.
“When I first heard about this, I thought it was one of those things where they were just trying to get kids who were visually impaired to do something,” he says. “My life has always been on ice, so I brought my skates over to check it out. I saw that it was legit. I saw they had a goal and that they had a drive to make this work.”
The players were working on drills like a sighted hockey team, chasing and shooting a larger-than-normal puck made of steel with ball bearings inside that creates a hollow, tinny noise. At the end of their practice, they scrimmaged.
He knew he had to become involved. “I talked with the guy in charge; his name was Mike Svac. I told him, ‘I’m a TVI. I’ve been on skates my whole life. How can I help?’ ”
Part of the practice time is devoted to navigating the rink.
“We’re trying to get the skaters aware of the ice surface; its dimensions; its width; its length,” Allison says. “We do drills going up and down the ice, and they sort of build a visual map – for lack of a better term – inside of the brain. They figure out where things are. We do a lot of drills based around the net. We pass to the skaters, and then they circle back and shoot. We’re making them better skaters.”
NIU’s “phenomenal” preparation has served him well, he adds.
“The thing that made me notice how well I was prepared for this field was in seeing how other people who weren’t educated in this field try to instruct the visually impaired. They say, ‘Over here. Over there.’ It doesn’t work like that,” he says.
“I had great instructors at Northern who made certain that the content development was there, that we needed to teach these kids with concrete demonstrations that they’re able to understand,” he adds. “If a coach is explaining something, and they don’t quite get it, we use hand-over-hand technique to show how to move the puck, how to pass.”
That way, Allison says, the skater or the student learns those concepts that sighted persons develop incidentally.
Gaylen Kapperman, professor emeritus in the College of Education’s Vision Program, admires what Allison and his colleague are doing with the Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey team.
“Most of us blind people, if not nearly all of us, have never been on ice skates,” Kapperman says. “Kevin and his fellow coaches have developed a pretty innovative way in adapting the sport of hockey so blind people can play it.”
Blind hockey is growing in momentum across the country and to the north, says Allison, who credits Svac as the linchpin getting the organization going and growing.
Allison saw the sport played recently at the Disabled Hockey Festival in San Jose, Calif., where he also watched hockey played by people who are deaf and by people without legs. Meanwhile, he says, a group in Canada is working to develop better pucks for those with visual disabilities.
“We’re just seeing that there’s a community beyond what’s in Chicago right now. We’re talking to people in Pittsburgh. We’re talking to people in Texas. We’re trying to make this bigger. We want to be a league,” he says. “Chicago is hosting the Disabled Hockey Festival in 2018, and we’re just trying to get the word out. That’s our big thing right now. Our goal by 2020 is to go over the globe.”
Yet he knows that the goals for the players aren’t nearly as lofty.
“These kids are blind, and they’re around other kids who are blind,” he says. “They get to hang out with others who are exactly like them, and they get to do something they love.”