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Career Education for Students with Visual Impairments

School-to-Work Experience

One of the most critical periods in the life of a young person is the transition from school to the world of employment and to life as an adult. Developing independence, exploring interests, and pursuing employment or additional schooling are just some of the challenges faced by youths in transition from school to adult life. For youths with a disability, the transition into adulthood is compounded by complications related to their disability.

Two federal laws support the transition from school to work for students with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997 (Public Law 105-17) require that an Individual Education Plan (IEP) address transition service needs for students with a disability beginning no later than age 14. Beginning at age 16 (or younger if determined appropriate by the IEP team), the IEP will address transition services, including (when appropriate) information about interagency responsibilities, i.e., the responsibilities of the agencies in the school-age educational and adult rehabilitation service systems. The IEP should state which transition services the student needs, including instruction, community experiences, the development of employment and other adult living objectives, and when appropriate, it should include daily living skills and functional vocation evaluation. Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also require that states enter into interagency agreements with education officials to provide transition services in the IEP.

All students go through a career development process, which provides a plan for life as an adult. The traditional areas include career awareness, exploration, preparation, and placement activities. For the student who has no sight or only limited vision, the visual nature of traditional career education development presents numerous obstacles. Since the majority of what we know about our surroundings is processed through the sense of sight, the loss of vision requires that experiences and concepts be systematically and sequentially taught to students who do not have the benefit of learning through incidental observations.

Career education activities for students with visual impairments should be future-oriented and directly interwoven throughout the school curriculum in partnership with students' families. Functional academics, youth apprenticeships, cooperative education, and technology preparation are mentioned most frequently as critical components of a school-to-work transition system (School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994). In addition, Wolffe (see Selected Readings) describes unique needs in five broad categories for students with visual impairments: realistic feedback, high expectations, opportunities to work, compensatory skills, and exposure to visual input. In order to appropriately focus on ongoing career education needs, students with visual impairments and their families must plan early. Fostering appropriate attitudes, values, habits, and social relationships; providing occupational information and a variety of work experiences; and helping students acquire independent living skills are equally important components in school-to-work transition programs. They are critical for developing independent citizens who can transfer skills among a variety of careers and other adult activities.

Employment Issues

Fewer than one-third of the working-age visually impaired population in the United States is in the labor force. Today, underemployment and unemployment have remained a serious issue for adults with visual impairments. Whether from insufficient attention given to developing appropriate work skills or other causes, these statistics are alarming and unacceptable.

Several research studies found that successful individuals with visual impairments often share the following common characteristics: positive attitudes about work and about themselves, realistic occupational goals, good orientation and mobility skills, good communication skills, expanded social networks, involvement within the community, and good independent living skills. For students who are blind or visually impaired, it is not enough to merely discuss appropriate attributes related to work and adult responsibilities. These students must also be offered work-related experiences to build their life skills.

A Major Element to Include in a Career Education Program

A priority educational goal must be to place students with visual impairments in leadership roles through which they learn to make independent decisions and to take charge of their lives. They must learn to define their own work values, explore a variety of interests, and discover their own potential. The career education literature for students with visual impairments and reports from employers strongly suggest that a major component of a positive school-to-work transition is a partnership among educators, rehabilitation personnel, family members, and community and business representatives.

Studies on employment of people with visual impairments highlight the importance of work experiences in transition programs for students who are blind or have low vision. Paid work experience and structured work-site learning are key ingredients of these programs. For younger children, transition preparation can begin with doing chores or volunteering in the community. For older students, volunteering is still valuable, but paid employment or a paid work-study program complements the other aspects of career development.

Selected School-to-Work Transition Resources

American Foundation for the Blind
Mary Ann Siller
11030 Ables Lane
Dallas, TX 75229
Telephone: 469-522-1803
Fax: 214-352-3214

American Printing House for the Blind
P.O. Box 6085
Louisville, KY 40206
Telephone: 502-895-2405
Fax: 502-899-2274

Carroll Center for the Blind
Robert Fox
770 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02158
Telephone: 617-969-6200
Fax: 617-969-6204

Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Cheryl Tapp
341 W. Washington
P.O. Box 83720
Boise, ID 83720-0012
Telephone: 208-334-3220
Fax: 208-334-2963

Oregon Commission for the Blind
Pat Macdonell
535 SE 12th
Portland, OR 97214
Telephone: 503-731-3221
Fax: 503-731-3230

Texas Commission for the Blind
George Trail
4800 N. Lamar, Suite 100
Austin, TX 78756
Telephone: 512-377-0542
Fax: 512-467-6461

Washington Department of Services for the Blind
Alan Garrels
9010 E. Marginal Way South, Suite 12C
Seattle, WA 98108-4022
Telephone: 206-721-4422
Fax: 206-721-4103

Selected Readings

Adult learning and literacy bulletin, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational/Adult Education, Washington, DC 20202-7240.

DeMario, N., Rex, E., & Morreau, L. (1990). "The acquisition of elementary-level employment skills by students with visual impairments." Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 84, 456-460.

Hatlen, P. (1996). "The core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students, including those with additional disabilities." RE:view, 28(1), 25-32.

Policy guidance on educating blind and visually impaired students. (2000). U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, OSERS.

Wehman, P. (1992). Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wolffe, K. (1996). "Career education for students with visual impairments." RE:view, 28(2), 89-93.

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