Degree-level qualifications and a clear career structure, similar to those in place for social workers, are being devised for blindness rehabilitation workers following a comprehensive review of the profession by Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Six universities, dozens of local authorities, three government departments and care councils in all four countries of the UK are party to the project.
Guide Dogs' ambition is to attract more people to train as blindness rehabilitation workers in order to address a projected shortage of more than 1,000 such workers by 2010.
Guide Dogs has been the UK's main provider of blindness rehabilitation training. In the past, 40 workers completed courses at its two training centres in Scotland and England each year. But the £3m annual cost of providing this training made it unsustainable, and in 2003, shortly before Geraldine Peacock stepped down as chief executive, the charity decided to close its schools.
However, when new chief executive Bridget Warr started in April 2004, she reopened the issue, kicking off the biggest review of the rehabilitation needs of blind people for 25 years.
This review exposed a woeful picture of rehabilitation provision. A fifth of local authorities offer no service at all, and 30 per cent of employed rehabilitation workers have had no training. About 90 vacancies currently go unfilled each year.
At the root of the problem, the charity found, was a lack of formal qualifications and career structure. So the charity contacted universities, and the first intake of students started a foundation degree course in blindness rehabilitation at Canterbury Christ Church University this month.
Five more universities are now looking at offering full degree courses, but this depends on national occupational standards being drawn up and approved by care councils.
As well as liaising with the care councils and government departments, Guide Dogs is helping to draft the occupational standards and design the degree courses.
It is also trying to get a professional body set up for rehabilitation work.
"A few things need to happen at once; it's like trying to line up the planets," said Tom Muldowney, head of vision support services at Guide Dogs.
"But the time is right and there is a massive consensus. It seems to be fitting with a host of agendas."
Next week, Guide Dogs will launch a lobbying campaign to convince the Government to invest more in rehabilitation.
Rethink Rehab is also supported by the RNIB, Action for Blind People and Vision 20:20.