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Just Released: Memo from OSEP Addresses Special Education Eligibility for Students with Visual Impairments

May 25, 2017

Dr. Rebecca Sheffield

Senior Policy Researcher

rsheffield@afb.net


This edition of the DirectConnect newsletter discusses the impact of a recent memo from OSEP, which will increase consistency among state special education eligibility policies without impacting professional standards for TVIs.


On Monday, May 22, 2017, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education issued a memo with guidance for state directors of special education entitled “Eligibility Determinations for Children Suspected of Having a Visual Impairment Including Blindness under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” Read the letter at the following link: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/letter-on-visual-impairment-5-22-17.pdf

The AFB Public Policy Center has been monitoring conversations and state-level policy discussions which preceded this letter, and while we do not see this letter as saying anything “new” about special education eligibility for students who are blind or visually impaired, we do believe that this letter provides helpful clarification which may increase consistency among states’ eligibility policies. We were also pleased to note that OSEP listed an AFB FamilyConnect webpage as the first of three recommended resources for readers looking to learn more about eligibility determinations for students with vision loss (Check out this FamilyConnect resource yourself at the following link: http://www.familyconnect.org/info/education/assessments/13)

What should you know about this letter?

Topic: This letter is focused on eligibility, meaning the criteria by which students are determined to qualify for special education services. This letter also makes general mention of the components of evaluations, primarily emphasizing evaluation steps and methods for determining eligibility, but also discussing evaluation for the purpose of determining how best to support students after they have been determined to be eligible (for example, what would be the appropriate accommodations and related services to provide to the students).

This letter was not written to provide guidance about braille instruction or accommodations for students with visual impairments, and it does not discuss the role of professionals in the field of blindness and visual impairment as evaluators, instructors, or service providers. (To read OSEP’s 2013 Dear Colleague letter on braille, visit the following link: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/brailledcl-6-19-13.pdf)

Guidance: OSEP’s key goal in this letter is to address problematic state special education eligibility policies which conflict with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA states that “visual impairment including blindness means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness” (34 CFR §300.8(c)(13)). Some states have established processes or standards for eligibility which are narrower than this federal definition, leading to the exclusion of some children with educationally significant vision loss (for example, a state might have a policy which says a student must have one or more diagnosed eye conditions in order to qualify for special education, or it may have a policy which specifically excluded students with vision difficulties caused by brain-related conditions or convergence/binocularity issues). OSEP makes very clear in its letter that states and local school districts may not have policies which result in the exclusion of students who meet the federal eligibility standard. They encourage states and school districts to implement policies and processes to ensure that student eligibility is based on appropriate, thorough, multi-faceted assessments to determine the extent to which a student’s vision (with correction) has a negative impact on his/her access to and participation in educational programming.

What this letter does not say:

This letter (and IDEA) makes no “guarantees” that a student with a diagnosis or a given eye condition must be deemed eligible by states. Just as a student cannot be categorically excluded based on a medical condition, a student is not guaranteed to qualify solely on the basis of a medical diagnosis. Eligibility depends on the findings of an evaluation as to the impact of the student’s vision on his/her access to and participation in educational programming.

This letter does not require states or school districts to provide any specific supports to students who are found eligible under the category of “visual impairment including blindness.” IDEA does include some category-specific presumptions for students found eligible under this category – for example, the presumption is that the student will receive instruction in braille unless the special education team determines that braille is not appropriate. However, in this memo, OSEP is only focused on eligibility, and eligibility does not determine what services will be provided. Therefore, this letter cannot be used as justification that a student (for example, a student with convergence insufficiency) should receive specific services (for example, vision therapy) from any specific type of professional (for example, a teacher of students with visual impairments [TVI] or a reading specialist). States may have or may develop their own specific policies about guarantees of services or the roles of professionals, but OSEP and IDEA simply require that the services provided to a student be based on the student’s needs as determined by a full, individualized evaluation. Eligibility does not determine services.

What could happen as a result of this letter?

We should anticipate that state directors of special education will review their laws (state education codes) and regulations (as issued by state departments of education) to ensure that their rules do not have the impact of limiting eligibility for special education to students who would otherwise qualify based upon the IDEA definition of “visual impairment including blindness.” Some states may need to revise their regulations; if a state has a statute that conflicts with IDEA, then lawmakers in that state may be required to propose and enact new legislation. States which have been categorically excluding students with specific eye conditions may see an increase in the number of students qualifying for special education services (and possibly, but not necessarily, an increase in the number of students being served by TVIs). States may need to develop strategies and expertise for serving students with types of educational needs which have not previously been addressed.

How should professionals in the field of blindness and visual impairment respond?

Unquestionably, this letter is in response to a topic of concern among professionals serving students who are visually impaired. Professionals in this field must not only have expertise in teaching and accommodations; we must also be well versed in federal and state laws and regulations so that we can be the experts at the table during individualized education program (IEP) team meetings for students currently being served as well as for students being evaluated for services. We must be able to speak and write articulately about our evaluation processes and about the types of supports and services which we are trained to provide. We must know all the ways in which the visual processing system (eyes, brain, and muscles) impact a child’s access to and participation in educational and early-childhood settings, and we must be well informed about the expertise of other educational professionals, so that we can engage in meaningful discussions about the best professionals to be involved in supporting and teaching students (including those students with additional disabilities). Even if we are not the best professionals to ultimately provide the special education services a child needs, if “vision is in the mix,” then we need to be prepared to be the experts in the room.

This is a tall order, and the skill sets and professional awareness required in our field are only going to grow as research continues to expand our understanding of the ways in which individual differences in visual processing can adversely impact students’ educational experiences. As a low-incidence field, we must maintain “a seat at the table” – not just at IEP meetings, but also in conversations at our state and local school boards and educational agencies and in discussions among education decisionmakers in Washington, D.C. The Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) is the professional organization for TVIs, orientation and mobility specialists, and all other professionals providing instruction and supports for students with visual impairments. In order to be recognized, organized, and empowered as a field to be at these “tables,” we must encourage and support one another to participate in AER and to discuss and uphold the standards for our professions (as articulated in standards documents from AER and the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division on Visual Impairment and Deafblindness). As much as we work to educate our students for the lives they will lead once they graduate from school, we must be working – as a profession, and through our professional organization – to educate the leaders, policymakers, and other stakeholders about the policies and standards which shape our profession. Through the dedication and organized efforts of today’s professionals (always in conjunction with self-advocates and families) the students and teachers of the future will continue to be supported by policies, professionals, and best practices that align with our highest expectations for our field.

Not an AER member? Learn more and join at www.aerbvi.org

Links to Professional Standards:

AER University Review Program: https://aerbvi.org/resources/career-center/university-review-program/

CEC DVIDB Professional Standards: http://community.cec.sped.org/dvi/professionalstandards

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