Education of visually impaired students in the United States has changed greatly since the first residential schools for blind children were opened in the 1830s. Early in the 20th century, local school districts established special classes for visually impaired pupils, enabling some children to live at home. Later, local districts instituted resource room programs: some of the students were enrolled in general education classes and went to the resource room for special assistance. Natural outgrowths of community-based educational programs were the itinerant programs begun in California in 1938 and in New Jersey in 1943.
General education students who receive itinerant services live at home and attend their neighborhood schools, where their educational needs are typically met by classroom teachers in cooperation with a traveling (itinerant) teacher who is certified to teach visually impaired students. For many students this placement maximizes learning and provides a peer group at similar cognitive and academic levels for interaction.
The schools in which the students are enrolled can be said to "own" the education of these students. The general education teachers to whom the students are assigned have the primary responsibility for educating them in the core curriculum.
The Role of the Itinerant Teacher
The itinerant teacher travels from school to school, providing special materials, consultation with school personnel, and individualized instruction in disability specific skills that encompass what is known as the expanded core curriculum. This includes:
- compensatory academic skills, including communication modes
- social interaction skills
- recreation and leisure skills
- use of assistive technology
- independent living skills
- career education
- visual efficiency skills
- self-determination skills
- orientation and mobility (O&M)
Visually impaired students who are enrolled in other special education classes need to receive similar support from a teacher of visually impaired students.
Placement in an itinerant program is most appropriate for general education students who can benefit from extensive participation in regular class activities, will use adapted materials and special equipment and techniques, and can function as members of a general education class when the conditions for fulfilling their special needs may be less than ideal. Because, for example, not every worksheet will be adapted for them and not every peer will be understanding and accepting of their needs, these visually impaired students need to be able to adjust to and cope with a variety of conditions and reactions.
Despite the limitations of placement in general education classes, visually impaired students who are served by itinerant teachers may benefit from the extra support and opportunities for social and other development inherent in attending schools with their siblings and longstanding neighborhood friends. Because they live at home and may not need to engage in long daily bus rides, they may participate more readily in after-school and other community programs and avoid interruptions in their relationships with their families. Their parents may find it easier to participate in school activities because the school is nearby and familiar to them. In short, these visually impaired students interact in the kind of environment in which they will later live and work.
In recent years, the education of students with multiple impairments has changed drastically, from isolated sites to special classes and full inclusion at regular schools. As these students have moved into the mainstream of their local schools, they have increasingly begun receiving services from itinerant teachers of students with visual impairments. Indeed, for some itinerant teachers, students with multiple impairments form the numerical preponderance of the teachers' caseloads. More about serving these students can be found in Chapter 6 of Itinerant Teaching.
Itinerant programs, resource rooms, special classes, and residential or special schools all have their places in the continuum of services for visually impaired students. Each has its advantages and its disadvantages. Each needs to be available to every student according to his or her needs and abilities, as determined by the individualized education program (IEP) created for the student in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The material in this section of the AFB site has been excerpted from Itinerant Teaching: Tricks of the Trade for Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments, Second Edition, by Jean E. Olmstead. For a complete list of the topics covered in this comprehensive, through-the-year guide for itinerant professionals, see the table of contents.
The Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired's (AER) Division 16 has information for itinerant teachers. To learn more, go to aerbvi.org/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=70