Dr. John McAllister, of Little Rock, has always known that he wanted to work in a field concerning vision, even though he wasn’t always sure what that career would look like.
“I was always enamored with the eyes and vision,” McAllister said. “I was trying to figure out my path of what I wanted to do in life, and one day I thought I wanted to be an optometrist. That opportunity got away from me, and the next opportunity was in the field of blindness and vision impairment. When I got into the field, I loved it.”
His vision for the future became clearer when, as a young graduate from Philander Smith College, McAllister saw how well a person with blindness navigated a busy intersection in downtown Little Rock.
“I was downtown, and I happened to see a young man crossing four lanes of traffic with just his white cane,” he said. “I walked over to him, and I said, how did you learn to do that? He said there’s this program at UALR, and if you are interested you need to go talk to Bill Jacobson.”
McAllister now serves as an assistant professor and program coordinator ofRehabilitation of the Blind-Orientation and Mobility graduate program at UA Little Rock. This appointment made him the first African American male in the history of the field of blindness to lead/manage a program at a major university.
“I feel very blessed to have this honor, and I feel blessed to be in this position,” McAllister said. “I go out every day and try to work as hard as I can so that the program is always seen in a positive light, that we make an impact in the field, and that we diversify the field.”
UA Little Rock’s Orientation and Mobility Program began in 1975 and just celebrated its 45th anniversary last year. The master’s degree and graduate certificate teach a reliable system for establishing and maintaining awareness of one’s position in the environment (orientation) and fostering freedom and spontaneity of movement (mobility). Students are educated on how to teach blind and low-vision persons to overcome the severe problems of mobility by teaching them to travel safely, efficiently, and confidently through the environment.
“We teach cane skills and techniques,” McAllister said. “We help blind and visually impaired individuals become independent and maintain independence.”
McAllister knows how important it is for Orientation and Mobility programs to be accredited. He serves as the commissioner of the Higher Education Accreditation Commission, where he is responsible for the evaluation, recommendation, and determination concerning the accreditation for every university and college personnel preparation program in the field of blindness and visual impairments in the world that wishes to be accredited through the Association for the Education for the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). McAllister estimates that there are only about 20 accredited programs in the U.S.
While attending UA Little Rock, McAllister earned two master’s degrees in Rehabilitation of the Blind Orientation and Mobility and College Student Affairs. An internship led him to an important career opportunity.
“I was still a graduate student, and I was teaching orientation & mobility at theArkansas School for the Blind,” McAllister said. “The superintendent saw me working with a 6-year-old student at the time. I got called to the principal’s office to speak with the superintendent. I was nervous because everyone’s nervous when they get called to the principal’s office. He asked if I would like a job.”
Once McAllister finished his graduate programs at UA Little Rock, he began a 15-year career teaching orientation and mobility classes at the Arkansas School for the Blind. He also worked as an itinerant mobility specialist with the Division of Services for the Blind for 13 years.
During this time, McAllister’s mentor, Dr. Jacobson, the former program coordinator for the UA Little Rock’s Orientation and Mobility program, encouraged McAllister to get a Ph.D. In 2014, he received an Ed.D. in higher education from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, but it turns out Dr. Jacobson had bigger plans in mind for McAllister’s future.
“I always kept in touch with Dr. Jacobson. He is one of my many mentors,” he said. “One day he called and said he was ready to go home. I asked if he needed a ride home, and he said no I’m going to retire,” McAllister said. “He encouraged me to apply for his position. As a graduate of the university, it was a no brainer. I wanted to make sure that this quality program stayed around, attracted great students. and that we put out a good quality product to the world.”
McAllister credited some of his past experiences as teaching him how to be a leader.
“African Americans weren’t allowed to move into Ferguson, Missouri, until 1972 or 1973. My family moved from Kinloch to Ferguson in 1976. I was five years old,” McAllister said. “We were the third African American family in the neighborhood. I think that experience prepared me to be a trailblazer in whatever field I moved into. I think that my past experiences growing up prepared me for this experience. They also taught me to handle things in a calm and pristine manner so that I can get work done under pressure.”
His advice for students to be successful is to take every opportunity and make it count.
“The first thing that I would tell a student is to be successful in education is take every opportunity seriously,” McAllister said. “Make a plan and follow the plan. Be willing to be flexible. The main thing I tell students all the time is that you have your own time schedule. Don’t try to keep up with people around you. You have to do what makes you successful. You have to be serious about your education. If you want to be successful in your chosen field, you have to put in the time. You don’t learn things by osmosis. It’s only through hard work and a clear understanding of what you are attempting to accomplish.”