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Educating Students With Visual Impairments for Inclusion in Society

A Paper On The Inclusion Of Students With Visual Impairments

Executive Summary

"Inclusion," "full inclusion" and "inclusive education" are terms which recently have been narrowly defined by some (primarily educators of students with severe disabilities) to espouse the philosophy that ALL students with disabilities, regardless of the nature or the severity of their disability, receive their TOTAL education within the regular education environment. This philosophy is based on the relatively recent placement of a limited number of students with severe disabilities in regular classrooms. Research conducted by proponents of this philosophy lacks empirical evidence that this practice results in programs which are better able to prepare ALL students with visual impairments to be more fully included in society than the current practice, required by federal law, of providing a full range of program options.

Educators and parents of students with visual impairments have pioneered special education and inclusive program options, for over 164 years. It is significant that the field of education of visually impaired students was the first to develop a range of special education program options, beginning with specialized schools in 1829 and extending to inclusive (including "full inclusion") public school program options since 1900.

Experience and research clearly support the following three position statements outlining the essential elements which must be in place in order to provide an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for students with visual impairments. This document also contains papers which provide additional information supporting each of these position statements and a list of selected readings on inclusion for students with visual impairments.

I. Students with visual impairments have unique educational needs which are most effectively met using a team approach of professionals, parents and students. In order to meet their unique needs, students must have specialized services, books and materials in appropriate media (including braille), as well as specialized equipment and technology to assure equal access to the core and specialized curricula, and to enable them to most effectively compete with their peers in school and ultimately in society.

II. There must be a full range of program options and support services so that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team can select the most appropriate placement in the least restrictive environment for each individual student with a visual impairment.

III. There must be adequate personnel preparation programs to train staff to provide specialized services which address the unique academic and non-academic curriculum needs of students with visual impairments. There must also be ongoing specialized personnel development opportunities for all staff working with these students as well as specialized parent education.

Providing equal access to all individuals with disabilities is the key element of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992. Access involves much more than providing ramps. Access is also the key element of inclusion, which involves much more than placement in a particular setting. The relationship of access and inclusion may not be obvious to individuals who are not familiar with the educational and social impact of a vision loss. Placing a student with a visual impairment in a regular classroom does not, necessarily, provide access and the student is not, necessarily, included. A student with a visual impairment who does not have access to social and physical information because of the visual impairment, is not included, regardless of the physical setting. Students with visual impairments will not be included unless their unique educational needs for access are addressed by specially trained personnel in appropriate environments and unless these students are provided with equal access to core and specialized curricula through appropriate specialized books, materials and equipment.

Conclusion: Students with visual impairments need an educational system that meets the individual needs of ALL students, fosters independence, and is measured by the success of each individual in the school and community. Vision is fundamental to the learning process and is the primary basis upon which most traditional education strategies are based. Students who are visually impaired are most likely to succeed in educational systems where appropriate instruction and services provided in a full array of program options by qualified staff to address each student's unique educational needs, as required by Public Law 101-476, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


The Unique Educational Needs Of Students With Visual Impairments
Position Statement I:

Students with visual impairments have unique educational needs which are most effectively met using a team approach of professionals, parents and students. In order to meet their unique needs, students must have specialized services, books and instructional materials in appropriate media (including braille), as well as specialized equipment and technology so they can have equal access to the core and specialized curricula, and to enable them to most effectively compete with their peers in school and ultimately in society.

The majority of learning in infants and young children occurs through vision. Soon after the birth of an infant who is visually impaired, families may become aware that their child does not respond to them in the same way as an infant who is sighted. In order to ensure a healthy bonding process and emotional growth, early intervention is essential for both the child and the family.

Vision is the primary sense upon which most traditional education strategies are based. These strategies must be modified to reflect the child's visual, auditory and tactile/vision capabilities. A child with a severe visual loss can directly experience only what is within arm's reach and can be safely touched, and in most cases, what can be heard. To ensure an appropriate education, families and staff with special training must work together to bring the world of experiences to the child in a meaningful manner.

As the child grows, the absence or reduction of vision dramatically limits understanding of the world. No other sense can stimulate curiosity, combine information, or invite exploration in the same way, or as efficiently and fully as vision. Students with visual impairments can and do succeed, but at different rates and often in different sequences. There must be significant intervention, coordinated by an educational team to ensure that appropriate development does occur.

It is important to remember that education goals for students with visual impairments are essentially the same as those for all students. The goals are: effective communication, social competence, employability, and personal independence. In order to accomplish these goals, however, students with visual impairments require specific interventions and modifications of their educational programs. An appropriate assessment of these unique educational needs in all areas related to the disability and instruction adapted to meet these needs is essential to ensure appropriate educational programming.

Clearly, the lack of vision significantly affects learning. The unique educational needs created by a visual impairment may be summarized as follows:

  • Vision loss can result in delayed concept development which, without effective intervention, severely impacts the student's social, emotional, academic, and vocational development.
  • Students with visual impairments often must learn through alternate mediums, using their other senses.
  • Students with visual impairments often require individualized instruction since group instruction for learning specialized skills may not be provided in a meaningful manner.
  • Students with visual impairments often need specialized skills as well as specialized books, materials and equipment for learning through alternate modes.
  • Students with visual impairments are limited in acquiring information through incidental learning since they are often unaware of subtle activities in their environment.
  • Curriculum areas that require unique strategies or adaptations for students with visual impairments include concept development, academic functioning,communication skills, sensory/motor skills, social/emotional skills, orientation and mobility, daily living skills, career/vocational skills and utilization of low vision.

The more intensive and unique needs associated with visual impairment must also be addressed in educating students who are visually impaired and have one or more additional disabilities, including specialized health care needs. The education of students with multiple disabilities or other special needs must involve a team approach, combining the expertise of specialists to competently address the complex needs of these students. Educators of students with visual impairments possess unique competencies needed by the team. Therefore, to achieve quality education for students with multiple disabilities or other special needs, services must be provided using a team approach, including members with disability-specific expertise in educating students with visual impairments.

Conclusion: The unique educational needs of all students with visual impairments cannot be met in a single environment, even with unlimited funding. It is critical that a team approach be used in identifying and meeting these needs and that the team must include staff who have specific expertise in educating students with visual impairments. The proposal that ALL of the needs of ALL students can be met in one environment, the regular classroom, violates the spirit as well as the letter of the law - IDEA.


The Full Range Of Program Options And Support Services For Students With Visual Impairments
Position Statement II:

There must be a full range of program options and support services so that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team can select the most appropriate placement in the least restrictive environment for each individual student with a visual impairment.

In order to meet the individual and disability-specific needs of students with visual impairments, there must be a full array of program options and services. Educational needs that are specific to these students must be addressed throughout their school experience. Educators of students who are visually impaired recognized long ago that the only manner in which the unique, individual needs of students could be met was to provide choices for delivering specialized services.

Efforts throughout the history of education for students with visual impairments have been focused on the right of these persons to full participation in an inclusive society. Quality education was acknowledged as the first step toward that goal. In the early 1800s, schools for the blind were founded in the United States, in recognition of the fact that children who were blind had the capability of learning and becoming independent. In 1900, the first class for blind students in a regular day school was established in Chicago, to meet the individual needs of these students. By 1950, about 15 urban areas were serving students with visual impairments in their local schools. The decades of the 1950s and 1960s marked a period of time when parents and educators first became aware of the need for an array of service options for students with visual impairments, and efforts to provide services based on the assessed needs of individual students began.

Currently most students with visual impairments are served in their home schools by itinerant personnel. There is increasing concern, however, that students are not receiving the intensity of services needed, particularly in the primary grades, to provide them with the skills (including braille, daily living, and social skills) necessary to be successfully integrated in school. Because students are expected to learn the core curriculum and meet graduation requirements, it is very difficult to provide these additional specialized skills when the student is fully included, particularly in a time when specialized support services have been reduced because of funding cuts and teacher shortages. In addition, funds are often not available to provide the specialized books, materials and technology required by students. Students cannot be successfully included without the necessary support.

The Pinebrook Report (American Foundation for the Blind, 1953) provided the first written definition of local school service delivery systems for students with visual impairments. Clearly described in this booklet are itinerant services, resource room services, and cooperative efforts between classroom teachers and teachers of students with visual impairments. This landmark publication appeared long before IDEA, but its content clearly reflects the intent of federal legislation. In the years since The Pinebrook Report, educators of students with visual impairments and their parents have expanded the appropriate array of service options.

Selection from this array must be driven by the assessed needs of each individual student; no delivery option within the array of services has more or less value. Each option may be the best for different periods of a student's schooling. The array that should be available to students with visual impairments includes, but is not limited to, the following:

The educational needs of students with visual impairments will vary, depending on the age and development of the student. Therefore, services needed will vary. There will be periods of time for most students when time outside the regular classroom will be extensive, such as beginning braille reading, expansion of orientation and mobility skills, career education, social skills, or times when independent living skills need to be emphasized. Such opportunities for learning may require pull-out time, or a special class placement, or a residential school placement for a period of time.

IDEA requires a "continuum" of placement options. This is often interpreted as a hierarchy of options from most desirable (least restrictive) to least desirable (most restrictive). Students who are visually impaired require an "array" of service delivery systems, which means a choice of the best option to meet each student's needs. The appropriate placement for each individual student is determined by educational goals and objectives, based on assessment, that are identified in the IEP, and is thus the most desirable (and least restrictive) for the student at that time.

Conclusion: The right of every student with a visual impairment to an appropriate placement in the least restrictive environment, selected by the IEP team from a full range of program options and based upon each student's needs, is nothing more or less than is mandated by federal law.


Personnel Development For Staff And Parents Of Students With Visual Impairments
Position Statement III:

There must be adequate personnel preparation programs to train staff to provide specialized services which address the unique academic and non-academic curriculum needs of students with visual impairments. There must also be ongoing specialized personnel development opportunities for all staff working with students with visual impairments as well as specialized parent education.

Preparation Of Specially Trained Staff

Instruction, regardless of setting, must be provided by professionals thoroughly prepared and qualified to teach students with visual impairments. The skills and knowledge needed by these staff can be defined with three classifications. First, the teacher must have a foundation in regular education, including methodology in teaching reading, mathematics, and other areas of subject matter. Second, the teacher must learn the techniques for curriculum adaptation for visual learning experiences so that the concepts taught remain the same with adapted teaching methodology and materials. Third, the teacher must know how to assess skills and deliver instruction in the specialized areas of independent living skills, social skills, career education, and specific areas of academics.

The combination of knowledge and skills needed in order to provide appropriate educational services to students who are visually impaired requires intensive preparation in a teacher training program. Most often, these programs are offered at colleges and universities, either at the undergraduate or graduate level. Experience has shown that at least one school year of preparation is necessary in order to possess entry level skills as a teacher of students with visual impairments.

Programs that prepare teachers of students with visual impairments contain curricula that is not found in general teacher preparation or generic programs in special education. Competencies for special teachers of students who are visually impaired include:

  • Development patterns in students with visual impairments
  • Comprehensive assessments of the students with visual impairment in all areas related to the disability
  • Ability to design and modify core and specialized curricula for the student with visual impairment
  • Knowledge of specialized technology
  • Special instructional strategies for the student with a visual impairment
  • Specialized books, materials and equipment used by the student with a visual impairment
  • Appropriate specialized counseling and guidance services
  • Knowledge of specific local, state and national legal requirements, policies and specialized resources
  • Knowledge of and need for research in the field
  • Understanding vision loss and other related impairments
  • Collaboration with families and other professionals

Another important unique need area is orientation and mobility which must be provided by trained and qualified orientation and mobility specialists. The teacher of students with visual impairments may share in the responsibility for reinforcing learned skills in orientation and mobility, but educational programs must offer instructional services of appropriate frequency and duration from both a specially trained teacher and an orientation and mobility specialist.

Staff Development, Including Parent Education

Because of the low incidence of visual impairments, many students and adults have never been exposed to individuals who function without vision or with limited vision. Therefore, although individuals often want to be helpful to the student with a visual impairment, they often do not know what to do. Some do nothing at all. Others use a trial and error strategy, sometimes being helpful and, other times failing to accomplish much that is productive. Still others do too much, creating a debilitating dependence. In order for professionals, peers, or parents to assist a student who is visually impaired, they must have a realistic picture of what the student can do and of those situations in which help is really needed. Then they must be provided with guidance and special techniques for providing appropriate assistance.

For example, it is important to realize that the student who is visually impaired must accomplish the same work as his sighted peers using disability-specific skills which generally require greater time to master and, often, more time to use in completing the same tasks. Both the reading and writing of braille, even by a proficient braille user, requires more time.

In an integrated setting, the vision teacher often has limited time that can be spent with a student who is visually impaired. This necessitates the development of a support team which includes professionals, paraprofessionals, peers, and parents with a unified philosophy and strategies for assisting the student to learn and develop.

Therefore, it is important that all individuals who will be interacting with the student who is visually impaired receive specialized in-service training:

  • Specialist staff serving visually impaired students with a wide range of cognitive abilities and, perhaps, additional disabilities and special needs will need opportunities to sharpen skills that may not be used for significant periods of time. For example for the vision teacher, advanced braille math (Nemeth Code) skills may be called upon only when a particular student required assistance with higher level mathematics courses. Specialist staff, including the orientation and mobility specialist, will also need to develop skills to remain current with advances in the field, such as the rapid advances in technology that are critical to the student with a visual impairment.

  • Regular educators and other special educators, who may not have had any prior training or experience in teaching students with visual impairments, will need in-service regarding the impact of visual impairment on learning and development. They will also need to be assisted in applying strategies for teaching that address the unique educational needs of the student with limited or no vision.

  • Paraprofessionals, including transcribers, readers and aides, who facilitate the education of students who are visually impaired within the regular classroom will need training to assist the student to develop skills for independence rather than dependence.

  • Administrators who are responsible for providing appropriate facilities, technical assistance, and educational service delivery to students with visual impairments, need training related to the specific needs and essential interventions associated with blindness and visual impairment. They also need assistance in locating the resources needed to implement high quality programs.

  • Parents of children who are blind or visually impaired need critical information to fulfill their natural role as their child's best and only lifetime advocate. Federal law not only encourages their participation in the educational process, but identifies the key roles they must play if their children are going to reach their full potential and their maximum level of independence. Quality parent education on an ongoing basis will provide the tools for parents to understand their child's individual needs and how those needs can best be met in both the home and school environments.

Conclusion: Students with visual impairments have the right to an appropriate education that is guided by knowledgeable specialists who work collaboratively with parents, the student and other education team members. Access to training on an ongoing basis is essential for all team members, especially parents who provide the necessary continuity and support in their child's education.

The American Foundation for the Blind's Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute, Education Work Group

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