An Introduction to Blindness Services in the United States
Blindness services in the United States, sometimes referred to as “the blindness system”, constitute over 1,400 local, state, regional and national agencies, schools, libraries and other organizations of and for people who are blind or visually impaired. The blindness system also includes the manufacturers of products for blind and visually impaired people as well as agencies serving older Americans (the latter because blindness and visual impairment are conditions increasingly affecting aging adults). Services in the blindness system are often described as either educational programs or rehabilitation programs.
Some blind children and youths are educated in neighborhood and local schools where they are said to be “mainstreamed”. Those interested in such special education programs should be in touch with their local education agency (LEA), frequently identified as the Board of Education. Other educational programs for blind children and youths take place in residential schools. Some of these schools are units of their respective state governments; others serve local or regional areas and are operated by nonprofit bodies.
There are no colleges or universities specially designated for blind or visually impaired students, but on many campuses the offices for disabled students provide services and amenities useful to those who are blind or visually impaired. Adults of working age and older will find that education and rehabilitation services within the blindness system fall into two major categories: nonprofit sector and governmental agencies.
These are usually local or metropolitan area, community-based, voluntary agencies or organizations. Central Illinois Sight Center and Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired are representative examples.
Blindness agencies in the nonprofit sector almost always work cooperatively and collaboratively with the governmental agencies identified below. In many instances the nonprofit sector will serve as agents of governmental agencies, that is as direct service providers to blind or visually impaired persons with the government providing all or most of the funding.
Federal, state and local governments have created a network of agencies specially created for blind people, or other education/rehabilitation agencies for several disability groups that include blind people.
In some states, the state agencies serving people who are blind or visually impaired should be the point of first inquiry, because there may be few or no comprehensive education/rehabilitation agencies in the nonprofit sector. This will vary from state to state. Examples of clearly identifiable state agencies include Iowa Department for the Blind, Connecticut Board of Education and Services for the Blind, and Missouri Rehabilitation Services for the Blind.
In other states, the blindness agency will be less free-standing organizationally, being part of a larger parent body in state government. Examples include Ho’opono Services for the Blind/Hawaii Department of Human Services, Visually Impaired Section/District of Columbia Rehabilitation Services Administration, and New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped/New York State Department of Social Services.
In still other states, blindness services are integrated into an overall state body serving a varied disabled population. Examples include Georgia Division of Rehabilitation Services and Office of Vocational Rehabilitation/North Dakota Department of Human Services.
State agencies serving the needs and interests of older adults may be contacted to reach the network of nonprofit voluntary and local governmental agencies concerned with aging and vision loss.
A number of different federal agencies have traditionally administered funding, research, standard-setting or advocacy programs on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired. For the most part, federal agencies are not direct service providers, although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and the Social Security Administration are in varying degrees exceptions to this generalization.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
The VA oversees services for blind veterans through a Visual Impairment Services Team in each state and through Blind Rehabilitation Centers located in six states.
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS)
Through a network of 160 libraries nationwide, NLS circulates braille, disk and audio cassette-recorded free reading materials.
Social Security Administration
This unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services administers Supplemental Security Income programs for blind people.
Other Federal Agencies
- U.S. Department of Education/Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Administration on Aging
- Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board.
Other Information About the Blindness System
The American Foundation for the Blind’s AFB Directory of Services for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons in the United States and Canada is a comprehensive source of information about the blindness system. The Directory can be consulted online as well as in many public libraries, university libraries and other resource centers.
The Directory lists rehabilitation and educational services for people who are blind or visually impaired, sources of products, and university training programs for blindness professionals.