Ruth Kaarlela was born in Michigan in 1919. She received her bachelors and masters degrees in social work (1947) from Wayne State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in gerontology (1978). She took courses at Syracuse University and Columbia University Teachers College which resulted in certification in special education to teach blind children. She is currently living in Michigan.
Ruth Kaarlela was employed as a social worker in the Family Service Agency in Lansing for five years and then at the University of Michigan hospital for 4 years. During a three year period at the Industrial Home for the Blind at the Mineola campus, she developed plans for integration of blind children into public schools. For two years she was an itinerant teacher of blind children in a Long Island school system. She was then asked to take charge of a Nassau County day school for emotionally disturbed children, supervising 21 teachers and 90 children.
In 1963 Ruth Kaarlela joined the faculty at Western Michigan University to initiate a Rehabilitation Teaching Program. This involved developing the curriculum, acquiring equipment, selecting students, locating internship settings and building a library of literature. For the next 23 years, she was involved in offering graduate courses, refining program content to include low vision, multihandicapping conditions, gerontology and technology, and in the latter years she served as chairperson of the Department of Blind Rehabilitation. Because of her pioneer work in the profession of rehabilitation teaching and the development of a university curriculum, she has been referred to as the "Founder of Rehabilitation Teaching."
Ruth Kaarlela was also known as a significant leader in the gerontology movement of the 70’s and 80’s. She taught the first gerontology course at Western Michigan University, which later led to the establishment of a complete gerontology degree program. She felt strongly about incorporating the principles and practices of aging into the training program for rehabilitation teachers of the blind. After her retirement from WMU in 1986, she worked on a special project for the American Foundation for the Blind educating native Americans with respect to visual problems.
Ruth Kaarlela authored many publications that served as the basis for educating rehabilitation teachers and made countless presentations extolling the need for and virtues of the profession. She served on the accreditation board for the National Accreditation Council (NAC). She was active in Division 11 of AER, the Michigan Association of Certified Rehabilitation Teachers (MACRT), and the gerontological society. In 1990 she received the Josephine Taylor Award from AER’s Division 17. In 1999 at the rehabilitation teachers’ gathering in Kalamazoo she was the guest of honor and received the Millennium Award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the rehabilitation teaching profession. She recently won the 2001 Migel Medal Award from the AFB, in the "Professional" category.
Photos: 1) BA degree at Wayne University (Detroit, 1952); 2) Visiting with Dr. Paul Ponchillia during Hall of Fame gathering in Louisville (October, 2002); 3) Retirement party as chair of the department, with Dr. William Wiener, successor chair, and Donald Blasch, predecessor (1986); 4) Presented the Millennium Award at the Rehabilitation Teacher’s Conference in Kalamazoo–Nancy Parkin, former student, speaks kind words (July, 1999)