Assistive Technology for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
Ike Presley and Frances Mary D'Andrea
It's the Law: Q&A about Assistive Technology and Special Education
This appendix provides answers to common questions about assistive technology and special education. Wherever possible the answers are taken from the controlling authority—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) enacted into law by Congress and the regulations issued by the U. S. Department of Education that implement the statute and also have the force of law. At times reference is made to Educating Blind and Visually Impaired Students; Policy Guidance (henceforth, Policy Guidance), issued in June 2000, a statement of the Department of Education's interpretation of how IDEA applies to children and youths with visual impairments. Policy guidance documents interpret the regulations for implementing IDEA; they help state and local education agencies to meet the requirements of the law and therefore provide important information for families and educators, as well.
In general, the legal support for providing assistive technology devices and services to students in the schools is rooted in IDEA, the federal law that governs the provision of special education in the United States. The provision of assistive technology is also covered by other laws governing the civil rights of people with disabilities, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Assistive technology devices and services are a required component of the free, appropriate public education (FAPE) guaranteed by IDEA. Specifically, assistive technology is included in the section of IDEA devoted to special factors that must be considered when developing the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student (IDEA Sec. 614(d)(3)(B)(v)). Moreover, assistive technology is also included in the list of early intervention services that must be considered even for infants and toddlers with disabilities (IDEA Sec. 632(4)(E)(xiii)).
Q. What is assistive technology?
A. IDEA defines an assistive technology device as
Neither the statute nor the regulations define assistive technology in more detail. The regulations state,
This means that as new devices or other technologies are developed, they may be included as part of the IEP if they are determined by the IEP team to "increase, maintain, or improve" a child's abilities. The standard is whether the technology can or is likely to help the child access the curriculum.
Q. What are assistive technology services?
A. Assistive technology services are defined in the statute as
The term includes
Inclusion of assistive technology services within IDEA means that a child is entitled not just to the provision of various devices. It is insufficient to receive a device without training and follow up, as well. In discussing assistive technology services, the preamble to the regulations states that a service to support the use of Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic [for example] on playback devices could be considered an assistive technology service if it assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of the device. If so, and if the child's IEP Team determines it is needed for the child to receive FAPE, the service would be provided. The definition of assistive technology service does not list specific services. (34 CFR Sec. 300.6)
Q. Would personal devices such as eyeglasses be considered assistive technology?
A. In the preamble to the regulations, the U.S. Department of Education explains:
As a general rule, eyeglasses are considered personal devices, because the child uses them out of school as well as during school hours. However, there may be cases where a student needs eyeglasses without which he or she would not be able to see the chalkboard, read the computer screen, or complete mathematics exercises. In such cases, the eyeglasses could be considered assistive technology and therefore provided at no cost to the student's parents, whether or not the eyeglasses are also used outside the classroom. The IEP team is responsible for making this decision.
Q. Does IDEA cover assistive technology needed for use in settings other than the classroom?
A. Clarification of this issue is provided in the U.S. Department of Education's document, Policy Guidance (2000). This document informed local education agencies that decisions about assistive technology devices for students with vision loss should be made "on a case-by-case basis," and that
The regulations (34 CFR Sec. 300.105(b)) further provide that such decisions are made by the child's IEP team on a case-by-case basis. The IEP team can determine that a child needs access to a school-purchased device outside of the classroom in order to receive a free, appropriate public education. If it is in the IEP, it must be provided at no cost to parents.
Q. What are the duties of an IEP team when considering assistive technology devices and services for children with vision loss?
A. IDEA requires that IEP teams consider all of the "academic, developmental, and functional needs of the child" (IDEA Sec. 614(d)(3)(A)(iv)), as well as specifically "consider whether the child needs assistive technology devices and services" (IDEA Sec. 614(d)(3)(B)(v)). The reference to assistive technology is included in a part of the statute called "special factors," the same section of the law that mandates consideration of instruction in braille. This means that every IEP team must at least discuss and determine whether or not assistive technology devices and services would help the child achieve a free, appropriate public education.
The Department of Education's Policy Guidance (2000) discusses the importance of assistive technology for students with vision loss and places it in the context of the IEP team's responsibility to address the student's ability to access information:
The duties of the IEP team include providing access to information that results in a free, appropriate public education. If assistive technology devices and services contribute to that goal, then the IEP team should address them in the IEP.
Q. Are practitioners with special expertise about assistive technology devices and services part of a child's IEP team?
A. Given the legal requirements for the IEP team to consider assistive technology devices and services, a child with vision loss should receive an assistive technology evaluation as part of the development of the IEP. In many cases, the teacher of students with visual impairments will conduct this evaluation and will already be included on the IEP team. Other individuals can also be included on the IEP team, particularly if they have "knowledge or special expertise" about the child that can inform the discussion and development of the IEP (IDEA Sec. 614(d)(1)(B)(vi)).
Q. How do public agencies use assistive technology devices and services to ensure a free, appropriate public education?
A. The preamble to the regulations explains that each public agency is required to ensure that assistive technology devices (or assistive technology services, or both) are made available to a child with a disability if required as part of the child's special education, related services, or supplementary aids and services. This provision ties the definition to a child's educational needs, which public agencies must meet in order to ensure that a child with a disability receives a free appropriate public education. (34 CFR Sec. 300.105(a))
State and local education agencies ensure a free, appropriate public education by evaluating a child's need for assistive technology on a case-by-case basis, including those devices and services in the child's IEP, and providing them at no cost to parents. A free, appropriate public education is dependent on an individual child's ability to access information in the school environment.
Q. What collaborative responsibilities does the state education agency have in providing assistive technology devices and services to students with vision loss?
A. The state education agency is expected to work collaboratively with the state agency responsible for assistive technology programs (34 CFR Sec. 300.172(d)). The latter agency differs from state to state and is broadly interpreted as the agency funded by the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 to provide assistive technology services to individuals with disabilities. Provision of assistive technology is therefore not entirely the responsibility of the school district, and these other state resources should work together with the school district to make sure assistive technology is provided as needed.
Q. What is the responsibility of the school district or local education agency for assistive technology devices and services provided by public agencies other than educational agencies?
A. The school district or local education agency (LEA) is ultimately responsible for providing assistive technology devices and services. But other federal or state laws may require a device or service to be purchased by noneducation agencies. Such agencies cannot abrogate their responsibility even though the child is in school, and IDEA states that the financial responsibility of public noneducation agencies, including Medicaid and other public insurers obligated under federal or state law or assigned responsibility under state policy, always takes precedence over the financial responsibility of the LEA (IDEA Sec. 612(a)(12)(A)(i)). On the other hand, the LEA cannot simply wait for another agency to provide a service, particularly if there is a delay that jeopardizes the receipt of services listed in the child's IEP, thus preventing the provision of a free, appropriate public education. Although IDEA mandates that the chief executive officer of the state—such as the state superintendent of instruction or the commissioner of education—take responsibility for creating agreements among agencies to cover the costs of providing a free, appropriate public education, it also states that the LEA must provide the service in the interim (IDEA Sec. 612(a)(12)).
Q. When should assistive technology be considered for students with disabilities?
A. Assistive technology should be considered as early as possible, according to Policy Guidance (2000). Infancy is not too soon to consider assistive technology for students with vision loss. Assistive technology is included in the list of early intervention services that must be considered even for infants and toddlers with disabilities (IDEA Sec. 632(4)(E)(xiii)). For example, a variety of low- and high-tech tools can be used to facilitate early literacy experiences for infants and toddlers with vision loss.
Q. What funding sources can the state use to finance assistive technology devices and services?
A. States have considerable flexibility in funding. They are permitted to use funds "To support the use of technology, including technology with universal design principles and assistive technology devices, to maximize accessibility to the general education curriculum for children with disabilities" (34 CFR Sec. 300.704(b)(4)(iv)). The Depart-ment of Education's Policy Guidance also states, "In meeting the assistive technology needs of blind and visually impaired students, public agencies may use whatever State, local, Federal, and private sources of support are available in the State to finance required services" (34 CFR Sec. 300.103).
Q. What is the relationship between assistive technology and braille literacy?
A. Assistive technology devices and services are viewed as essential components of literacy for all students experiencing vision loss. As the U.S. Department of Education's Policy Guidance states:
The Policy Guidance document also acknowledges that braille readers may need assistive technology devices for writing and composition (65 Fed. Reg. 36589) and goes on to emphasize that decisions about assistive technology are individual determinations made by the IEP team according to the needs of the child. It should be remembered that the law requires the provision of instruction in braille and the use of braille unless the IEP team determines otherwise. In essence, this means that the law overwhelmingly presumes that braille is essential for literacy of students who are blind. However, the law does not contain a similar categorical requirement that assistive technology must be provided in the case of a child who is blind unless the IEP team goes out of its way to exclude it. Nevertheless, the strong presumption in favor of braille may be leveraged—that is, it can be used to obtain access to assistive technology devices and services that support instruction in and use of braille when developing and reviewing the IEP of a student who is blind student.
Q. How do IEP teams decide which assistive technologies will benefit blind and visually impaired children?
A. IEP teams consider multiple sources of information when composing an individual student's IEP, including
The team makes decisions about an individual child's IEP based on how the child will access the general education curriculum and ultimately how a free, appropriate public education will be achieved. Typically, they conduct an assistive technology assessment to evaluate how a student with vision loss accesses printed and electronic information as well as how he or she communicates through writing. Information is gathered about tasks the student has difficulty completing. Additional consideration is usually given to the effectiveness of assistive technology or other methods of modification the student may already be using to access information.
Q. What constitutes an assistive technology assessment for a student with vision loss?
A. The U.S. Department of Education's Policy Guidance refers to assessments that are unique to students with vision loss and connects them to assistive technology needs:
Q. What is the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard?
A. The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) applies to print instructional materials published after August 18, 2006, and is defined as "the standard established by the Secretary to be used in the preparation of electronic files suitable and used solely for efficient conversion into specialized formats" (IDEA Sec. 674(e)(3)(B)). NIMAS creates a standardized electronic file format that publishers will use to allow their print materials to be converted to a variety of specialized formats that are accessible to students with print disabilities. Appendix C to Part 300 of the IDEA regulations explains, "The purpose of the NIMAS is to help increase the availability and timely delivery of print instructional materials in accessible formats to blind or other persons with print disabilities in elementary and secondary schools."
Q. What are a state's responsibilities under the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard?
A. A state is required to
Q. What is the National Instructional Materials Access Center and what are its duties?
A. The National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC) was created by Sec. 674(e)(1) of IDEA 2004 at the American Printing House for the Blind. NIMAC's responsibilities are to
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