Skip to Content

AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Choices for Children (CfC)

Choices for Children has been discontinued

For information on current issues go to the Education section.

Advocating Quality Specialized Education for Students with Visual Impairments

Introduction and Summary of Recommendations

Choices for Children (CfC) is a grass-roots network of individuals and organizations representing students with visual impairments, their parents and the professionals who teach and assist them. Its mission is to educate policymakers, legislators, and the public about the unique educational needs of children with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities.

Since its enactment more than a quarter century ago, America's special education law, now known as IDEA, has made a profound and positive impact on the quality of public education for all students with disabilities. Sadly, however, implementation of IDEA has all too frequently fallen short of the statute's laudable objectives. In addition, though important provisions (e.g., language ensuring the provision of instruction in braille and the inclusion of orientation and mobility in the list of examples of related services) have been valuable and effective additions to IDEA, we believe that further improvements are necessary to make the promise of a free and appropriate public education truly meaningful for students who are blind or visually impaired. To that end, we make the following recommendations to Congress as it prepares both to reauthorize IDEA and to review the scope of federal funding supporting IDEA.

Congress must ensure that children who are blind or visually impaired receive comprehensive special education and related services:

  • by dramatically increasing the availability of teachers and related services personnel trained to meet the unique needs of students who are blind or visually impaired;
  • by ensuring that blind or visually impaired students are provided with access to classroom instructional materials and technology equal to their non-disabled classmates,
  • through complete and accurate identification of students with visual impairments in need of special education and related services;
  • by assuring that assessments of students with visual impairments are designed with sensitivity to their unique needs, are administered by personnel with knowledge of those needs, and are provided in individually appropriate reading media;
  • through a full range of appropriate transition services ensuring successful progress from school to work;
  • through placement of students with visual impairments in educational settings based on individual students' needs.

Background and Recommendations

Personnel Preparation

Background—There is a profound national need for more teachers of children with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities. Over half the states in the U.S. have no programs to train teachers of blind or visually impaired students, and existing programs cannot always reach an entire state. There are only 6,700 full-time-equivalent Teachers of the Visually Impaired (including Teachers of the Deaf-Blind) to serve the nearly 100,000 students needing such special education services—many more students may still be unidentified. Experts agree that the current national average teacher-to-student ratio of 1 to 14 must be lowered to 1 to 8, meaning that 5,000 additional teachers are needed immediately. Similarly, approximately 10,000 orientation and mobility specialists are needed now to meet current demand. Unfortunately, fewer than 250 new teachers of the visually impaired graduate each year, and the national average of newly prepared orientation and mobility specialists is less than one per state per year.

Recommendation—Congress must make addressing this inequity a priority by redefining 'low incidence' disability in Part D of IDEA to more effectively target congressional spending toward supporting existing programs training personnel working with visually impaired children, to increase the number of such programs nationwide, and to promote recruitment and retention of such personnel. Congress must also ensure that sufficient funding is made available to meet these objectives.

Access to Instructional Materials and Technology

Background—More often than not, students who are blind or visually impaired are barred from full and fair participation in classroom instruction because required classroom instructional materials and technology are inaccessible to them. Many students arrive on the first day of class to find that, unlike their non-disabled classmates, their texts and related materials have simply not been made available to them in reading media they can use, such as braille, large print or audio recordings. Moreover, though the Internet, personal computers and other information technologies are ever-increasing and integral components of America's schools, the needs of students with visual impairments go largely ignored. Thus, these essential tools of learning in the 21 st century, tools which can be made accessible to students with disabilities, actually serve as high tech barriers to education and competitive employment. Remarkably, IDEA and its implementing regulations perpetuate this problem by failing to mandate equal access to instructional materials and information technology for blind or visually impaired students.

Recommendation—Congress must ensure that IDEA, the nation's principal special education law, unequivocally protects the right of students who are blind or visually impaired to equal access to textbooks and related instructional materials and to information technology providing the greatest degree of accessibility possible.

Identification of Students with Visual Impairments

Background—Although the U.S. Department of Education has officially estimated the number of children with visual impairments needing special education and related services to be only approximately 30,200, including deaf-blind children, the facts tell a different story. The American Printing House for the Blind (the nonprofit agency charged with national responsibility since 1879 for production of school textbooks in accessible formats such as braille) is currently providing services to 48,996 students who are legally blind. (The number of visually impaired students identified by the Education Department should certainly be at least higher than 48,996-students eligible for special education and related services are not limited to those with legal blindness.)

Additionally, recent independent research found that the number of students nationwide with visual impairments who are qualified for services under IDEA is actually approximately 93,600. The Department's erroneously low count is largely due to the fact that the Department counts a child only once for purposes of providing federal funding to states, regardless of whether the child has a variety of disabilities. A child's visual impairment may not be that child's primary disability, but each of a child's disabling impairments should be addressed by specialized services. Unfortunately, however, the result of the erroneous count is that a visually impaired student who has multiple disabilities is frequently accounted for under another disability category, and the child's visual impairment is left unaddressed. Though the child count should certainly not be duplicative, accurate identification of students with visual impairments is absolutely essential to ensure that a range of appropriate services meeting the full scope of a child's unique needs is provided. A more accurate and complete count is also critical for future research in the field of blindness and visual impairment and for better understanding the full extent of the current personnel shortage.

Recommendation—Congress should require the maintenance of dual counts of students with disabilities, one for purposes of determining states' federal funding needs and another to ensure that each of a student's multiple disabilities is identified and answered with appropriate individualized services.

Assessments

Background—Increasingly, so-called high-stakes assessment tests are used to measure student achievement and as prerequisites for academic advancement. Successful completion of such examinations is absolutely key to a student's education. However, much like required classroom instructional materials, these assessments are usually administered in a manner that limits, if not bars, success for students who are blind or visually impaired. Frequently, assessments are not provided in reading media most appropriate to visually impaired students' individual needs. Moreover, many such assessments are substantially visually oriented and graphically designed with utter disregard for the need to administer such assessments to students with visual impairments. The result is that completion of such examinations, let alone successful completion, is significantly impaired. In addition, personnel responsible for the administration of such assessments usually possess little or no knowledge of the educational needs of students who are blind or visually impaired.

Recommendation—Congress must ensure that the administration of assessments of students with visual impairments is fair and non-discriminatory by requiring both that the design of such examinations is appropriate to students' unique needs and that such assessments are administered in students' preferred reading media by appropriately trained personnel.

Transition Services

Background—Although many students who are blind or visually impaired are succeeding academically at the post-secondary level, their unemployment rate after graduation remains staggeringly high. According to Katherine M. Nagle, "Transition to Employment and Community Life for Youths with Visual Impairments: Current Status and Future Directions," Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, December 2001, a variety of factors foster this inequity. Clearly, widespread discrimination against fully qualified people with disabilities in hiring and promotion still persists. However, many students with disabilities lack the independent living, social, self-advocacy and job readiness skills necessary to obtain and retain employment. IDEA attempts to address the need for skills training and other services necessary for successful progress from school to work by providing for appropriate transition services. However, in order to facilitate the provision of such services, state educational agencies must enter into cooperative interagency agreements with local educational and state vocational rehabilitation agencies to share human and financial resources to meet this responsibility. Unfortunately, the theory does not square with the practice. Students who are blind or visually impaired can especially benefit from assistive technology, but largely because of cost and lack of cooperation among agencies, assistive technology needs are frequently left unmet. Moreover, parents of children with visual impairments also report that, if substantive plans for the provision of transition services are put in place at all (planning for transition often means nothing more than checking a box on the IEP), the scope of services provided is narrow, and students' career goals are either ignored or unidentified. Although vocational rehabilitation agency personnel should play an active role in the planning and delivery of transition services, such coordinated collaboration is infrequent and frustrated by bureaucratic breakdowns.

Recommendation—Congress should strengthen IDEA to more aggressively coordinate shared responsibility among state and local agencies for the provision of a full range of transition services. Congress should especially ensure that visually impaired students' career goals and assistive technology needs are adequately addressed in students' individualized transition plans.

Placement

Background—From its beginning, IDEA has promoted the primary objective of integrating students with disabilities into their neighborhood schools. This is a worthy goal, and schools must indeed be held accountable for the extent to which their educational and other programs and services are accessible to children and youth with disabilities. Unfortunately, the provisions of IDEA mandating placement of students in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE) are all too often read to exclude placement in settings which are frequently best suited to the unique educational needs of students with visual impairments. To be sure, Congress has, albeit not in the statute itself, recognized "the longstanding policy of a continuum of alternative placements designed to meet the unique needs of each child with a disability. Placement options available include instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction and instruction in hospitals and institutions. For disabled children placed in regular classes, supplementary aids and services and resource room services or itinerant instruction must also be offered as needed." (Senate Report 105-17, page 11; House Report 105-95, page 91) However, this legislative history has not proven sufficient to ensure that students are placed appropriately or that parents are made aware of the full array of options. The regulations implementing IDEA also permit placement in a range of settings along the continuum (34 CFR at 300.551), but such provisions are typically overshadowed by the presumed inherent value of integration in meeting the needs of all students with disabilities. Additionally, the misuse of the emphasis on LRE extends to IDEA's Part C early childhood intervention provisions as well. Because of the law's presumption that infants and toddlers are best served under IDEA in "natural environments," provision of appropriate services to such children with visual impairments is significantly hindered or even made impossible. Though the Department of Education has held that the requirement to provide services in natural environments does not preclude provision of services in settings where only disabled children are served (Letter to Woolsey, 34 IDELR 36 (OSEP 2000)), the Department has yet to formally clarify the statutory "natural environments" provisions. Indeed, the Department has withdrawn its proposed rule making on Part C in light of the upcoming IDEA reauthorization.

Recommendation—Congress should clarify the intent of the "least restrictive environment" provisions and formally endorse the continuum of placement options in the statute itself. Congress should further emphasize that infants and toddlers with visual impairments may be served in settings where only young children with disabilities are served. These additions to IDEA will go far toward ensuring the provision of specialized services meeting students' individual needs while preserving the statute's integration objective.

For further information, contact Choices for Children's coordinator:

Mary Ann Siller, Director, National Education Program
American Foundation for the Blind
E-mail: siller@afb.net

services icon Directory of Services

featured icon Featured Items

book icon Featured Book

New! Orientation and Mobility Techniques, Second EditionNew! Orientation and Mobility Techniques, Second Edition

New! Orientation and Mobility Techniques, Second Edition

Help Make Drug Labels Safer

Help make prescription drugs safe for people with low vision. Support our Rx Label Enable Campaign today.