A Guide for Parents: Education Services for Students with Visual Impairments
It is not unusual for students with visual impairments, including those who are totally blind, to be enrolled at neighborhood schools alongside their fully sighted classmates and friends. With appropriate intervention, most visually impaired students fully participate in regular education classes and programs. This has been acknowledged and implemented as sound educational practice for many years and in all sections of our country. It is also true that for some of students who are visually impaired, enrollment in a special class or school may be the recommended intervention for all or part of their education.
The nature and extent of interventions vary with each student and are determined by individual characteristics such as type of vision disorder, age at which vision loss occurred, prior learning experiences, developmental levels, and possible additional disabilities among other factors. One common intervention is the provision of printed or other learning materials in an adapted medium, for example, enlarged print, recording, or braille. Another is individual instruction or guided practice in such skill areas as communication, concept development, mobility, independent living techniques, or career exploration.
The information that follows is intended to assist parents and other caregivers in locating and accessing appropriate special education services. It may also assist them with establishing and maintaining a viable partnership with school district personnel who have responsibility for assuring a free and appropriate education for children whose vision is impaired. For additional information or answers to specific questions, the reader is encouraged to consult the agencies and organizations identified in the accompanying Resource list.
At What Age Is a Child Eligible for Special Education Services?
A child qualifies for an assessment to determine eligibility at whatever age the diagnosed or suspected impairment is manifest. In most cases, this extends from birth to twenty-two years of age. For youngsters who are visually impaired, the parents or guardians are encouraged to begin the process of exploring eligibility and procedures for accessing special education services as soon as possible after the diagnosis of impaired vision is made.
How Is Eligibility Determined?
This question is generally addressed through a review of the child’s eye report from an ophthalmologist or optometrist in conjunction with an assessment of his or her functional vision skills. When assessment results show educational development is adversely affected by impaired vision, the student is eligible for special education services to compensate for or remediate the identified exceptional needs. Responsibility for assessments of this nature rests with the local education agency or school district. The only prerequisite to request an eligibility assessment is a diagnosis or other reason to suspect the presence of a visual impairment. In most cases the parent or guardian should address their request to the principal or special education teacher at the local school that the child either is or will be attending. Upon receipt of this request, the district will respond with a written proposed assessment plan.
As soon as the referral for eligibility assessment is made, the procedures and time lines governing delivery of special education services are set in motion. These procedures and time lines are very specific and subject to enforcement. For example, in responding to a request for eligibility assessment, the local education agency must begin the assessment process within ten days. Once the required parental consent to assess has been obtained, the school district has up to fifty days to conduct the agreed upon assessment plan and convene a meeting at which the assessment findings and recommendations will be discussed.
Parents or guardians should prepare for the meeting referred to above by developing an understanding of its purpose and structure as well as rights guaranteed to them under various federal and state regulations. Information regarding parental rights, special education procedures, and time lines as well as local school district guidelines are generally available upon request from the local education agency. Information or assistance of an advocacy nature is available from some of the organizations in the accompanying list of resources.
Do Parents Have a Say in the Special Services or Type of School?
The answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes.” Mandates assuring informed parental consent and involvement at all stages of their child’s special education program are major components of federal and state laws. Guarantees of “due process” and informed parental consent are clearly specified in the federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These are rights with which parents and guardians should become familiar and which they should exercise. When parents and school personnel agree that special interventions are necessary, these must be specified in a written document referred to as an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). For youngsters below age three, this may be called an Individualized Family Services Plan (IFSP). By law, the IEP or IFSP must be developed in a cooperative effort involving both school personnel and parents. Working together in the best interests of the student, they are referred to collectively as the “IEP Team” or other similar designation.
For students with disabilities and their parents, the IEP becomes an ongoing “blueprint” for the delivery of all special education interventions. At a minimum, the plan must be reviewed and amended as warranted on an annual basis. As with the initial referral assessment, any significant changes in the agreed-upon IEP requires informed parental consent. In these and other ways, special education IEPs are unique in the realm of education.
What Is Meant by the Term “Free and Appropriate Public Education”?
As stipulated in both the IDEA and in most corresponding state laws, school districts must provide educational services in the “least restrictive environment.” These must be provided without cost to the family and must meet the individual student’s needs of both special and regular education. “Least restrictive” means that to the extent appropriate, students receiving special education services must be enrolled at regular education schools with their nondisabled peers of the same age.
Where and by Whom Are Special Education Services Provided?
For infants and many preschoolers, special education services may include parent education and guidance as well as direct instruction of the child, all or some of which may occur in the family’s home. For students of any age, the IEP team may determine that vision-related needs will be best met via minor adaptations in the regular education program, thereby negating the need for formal special education services. As the student’s needs change, so can the nature of special assistance. For this reason, a re-evaluation may be requested at any time by either the family or school personnel.
Most visually impaired students are taught in regular or “mainstream” educational settings. This notwithstanding, special education interventions may come via one of several service-delivery models. The most commonly implemented service delivery options include the following: itinerant teacher, teacher-consultant, resource room, special class, and special school. No single model or option works for all students with visual impairments. Each has its own merits, and while a given model may be entirely appropriate for some students, it may also be entirely inappropriate for others. Aside from eligibility for special education services, determination of the appropriate special services or program is perhaps the most crucial decision to be made by the IEP team. Like all major decisions affecting their child’s IEP, this must be a joint effort based upon input from the student’s family as well as school personnel.
All of the service-delivery models mentioned above require the services of special education teachers with expertise and training in teaching students with visual impairments. With both the itinerant teacher and teacher-consultant models the student attends his or her local school. The former generally implies some direct individual instruction in the development of disability-specific skills such as braille, orientation and mobility, or use of adapted materials or equipment, to name a few. This instruction usually is of a “pull-out” nature. By comparison, with the teacher- consultant model most of the vision specialist’s direct interaction will be with the regular education teacher(s).
The resource room and special class models are alike in that both are located on regular education campuses, which may be other than the visually impaired student’s local or neighborhood school. Under these models, students spend varying portions of the school day in a special classroom with a special teacher for visually impaired students. As appropriate, these visually impaired students participate with their peers in regular education classes and related school activities.
Some students with visual impairments will require the added structure and services afforded by a special school. Such schools usually are residential in nature and enroll only students who have visual impairments.
When the IEP team has done its job correctly, all decisions will have been based upon the identified needs of the individual student, and regardless of the service-delivery model chosen, it will be the “least restrictive educational environment” for that student. Viewed in this perspective, all of these options are appropriate for certain students and all are in compliance with federal and state mandates regarding educational placement options for students with disabilities.
What Happens If the Parents and School District Cannot Agree?
Procedures for an appeals process are mandated in both the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and in related state laws and regulations. As with all other aspects of IEP implementation, the appeals process has specific, enforceable time lines. These assure that differences or disputes are resolved in a manner that is both timely and impartial. Upon request, local education agencies are required to provide parents with information about the appeals process and their rights within it.
Organizations Offering General Information about Educational Programs and Services for Students with Visual Impairments
Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults
111 Middle Neck Road
Sands Point, NY 11050
Telephone: 800-255-0411; 516-944-8900
Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
1291 Taylor Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20542
Telephone: 800-424-8567; 202-707-5100
Membership Associations Offering Networking and/or Support Groups for Parents
Organizations Offering Information and/or Assistance of an Advocacy Nature
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