Importance of the Goal Statements
The profession of education of students with visual impairments has experienced some chronic problems that require concerted, immediate attention. These problems are the driving force behind the need for a National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities. The following section, by offering evidence and examples of the extent of the problems that need to be addressed, explains why each of the Agenda's goals are so critical.
Goal 1: Referral
Students and their families will be referred to an appropriate education program within 30 days of identification of a suspected visual impairment. Teachers of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility (O&M) instructors will provide appropriate quality services.
Developmental and educational services for children with visual impairments and their families are most effective when they can be made available shortly after diagnosis of a suspected visual impairment. Even though better informed parents and medical professionals and efforts from the teachers of visually impaired students have dramatically decreased the amount of time between diagnosis and educational referral for many children, there are still far too many exceptions to timely referral. Some members of the medical profession believe that, until the government requires them to report disability in infants and preschoolers to a central agency, there will continue to be a delay in referral. However, many professionals in the medical and educational communities as well as many parents believe that mandatory reporting is an invasion of privacy.
Although there seem to be no clear answers to the issue of timely referral, the needs of children—particularly infants and preschoolers—and their families, demand that the educational and medical communities develop a system that ensures children and their families access to information about educational services in a timely manner. Because the medical diagnosis of a visual impairment will have an impact on learning, early referrals for special education services are imperative for the overall development of young children.
Goal 2: Parent Participation
Policies and procedures will be implemented to ensure the right of all parents to full participation and equal partnership in the education process.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its predecessor, Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, guarantee parents the right to full and equal participation in the education of their children. Many professionals involved in the education of students with visual impairments had recognized the necessity of forming partnerships with parents long before the passage of Public Law 94-142. The fact that no one knows a child better than that child's family has guided the educational plans for students with visual impairments for many years. The law now requires full participation and equal partnership in educational services for parents.
The issue of parent participation and partnership is not only a matter of action; it is perhaps even more a matter of attitude. Old concepts of parental involvement in educational endeavors are difficult to put aside. There are educators who still may believe they lose some status by acknowledging the expertise and investment of parents regarding the education of their children.
It is time for parents and educators to join in a common purpose, namely, the jointly shared responsibility for achieving educational excellence in our schools. When educators appreciate and acknowledge the vital role and input of parents, and when parents are assured equal participation with teachers in educational planning, then, and only then, will students receive the greatest benefits that learning has to offer.
Goal 3: Personnel Preparation
Universities with a minimum of one full-time faculty member in the area of visual impairment will prepare a sufficient number of teachers and orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists for students with visual impairments to meet personnel needs throughout the country.
There has never been a time in the recent history of the education of visually impaired students when there were enough specialized teachers to meet students' needs. Universities have, since the 1950s, been urged to prepare more teachers and seek new and innovative ways of recruiting students and delivering courses. From the early 1960s until the early l980s, federal funds provided opportunities to begin many new university personnel preparation programs and to offer financial assistance to students. As federal funds became more competitive and less available, however, some universities dismantled personnel preparation programs in the area of visual impairment. In some instances, faculty were employed with federal grant money, but when the funds were no longer available, the university eliminated the faculty position. In other cases, recruitment became increasingly difficult when financial support for students was no longer available, and university programs closed because of low student enrollment.
Several important lessons have been learned about university programs in recent years. First, at least one full-time faculty member with experience and expertise in the education of children with visual impairments, or orientation and mobility, or both, is needed if a university is to offer a comprehensive program of teacher preparation. Second, this faculty member must be in a tenure-track position. Third, the program must be given the flexibility to provide learning opportunities in creative ways. Fourth, the university must support low prevalence programs and recognize that size of enrollment cannot be the determining factor as to whether or not a class is offered.
Because of the many requirements just described, bold and creative efforts must be forthcoming with regard to the manner in which teachers are prepared. The challenge is to prepare a sufficient number of educators so that all children who are visually impaired, including those with multiple disabilities, will have the educational services they need. Meeting this challenge will require that skilled and knowledgeable teachers must be available to work in rural areas as well as in the inner cities, and that these teachers must have the skills to provide instruction for an ethnically and culturally diverse group of children. It also means that teachers must learn to successfully cooperate with other team members so that the visually impaired children who confront the most educational challenges receive appropriate instruction. And, it means that existing personnel preparation programs in universities must at least double the number of teachers trained within the next five years.
Goal 4: Provision of Educational Services
Caseloads will be determined based on the assessed needs of students.
In recent years, there has been a movement toward merging programs for educating children with a wide variety of disabilities. In such programs, visually impaired students are not provided with teachers who have the disability-specific expertise to teach the adaptive and compensatory skills that visually impaired children need to succeed in school. Reference to specific disabilities has begun to be taken out of state legislation, leaving no means by which distinctions could be made regarding the necessary frequency and duration of specialized services.
As a result of reallocations of special education funding, in some situations, this provided local school districts with the opportunity to increase substantially the caseloads of teachers of students with visual impairments. Many visually impaired students are integrated into regular classrooms, and a large number of these students receive their disability-specific instruction from itinerant teachers who visit children in their home schools. These teachers are often responsible for providing individual instruction to visually impaired children across an extremely large geographic area. In some sections of the country, itinerant teachers have caseloads of 50 or more, which means that many students receive insufficient instruction.
For students to graduate with the skills they need, caseloads must be determined by needs of students, not by economic constraints or a lack of understanding on the part of administrators regarding the time needed for specific instruction. Most educators would agree that a caseload of more than 15 is not appropriate, because at least some of those students will have intensive needs. Of course, the geographic spread of the students will also affect the size of an appropriate caseload.
National Agenda Goal Statement #8 addresses the need for an expanded core curriculum for visually impaired students including those with multiple disabilities which does not ignore academic content areas but focuses on compensatory skills related to visual impairment. As the profession of the education of visually impaired children becomes more committed to providing instruction in all areas of the expanded core curriculum, teachers will discover they need to spend more time with their students to meet all their needs. In addition, as the profession becomes more knowledgeable of the educational needs of students with low vision, it becomes clear that it is not accurate to make decisions regarding caseloads solely on the basis of the severity of visual impairment. Many children with low vision have intensive instructional needs which are the responsibility of the teacher for students with visual impairments. Informed school administrators will respond to the needs of children who are visually impaired by providing specialized instruction on the basis of the individual needs of children.
The knowledge base regarding educational programming for students with visual impairments continually grows and expands. Unless professional development is encouraged, or even required, the teacher who was university prepared five years ago is in need of additional knowledge and skills today. Skills in areas such as functional low vision assessment, learning media assessment, utilization of low vision devices, instruction in reading and writing braille, use of technology, and instruction in using graphic designs have all gone through recent innovations. Local districts, specialized schools, and state departments of education have a professional responsibility to require and support teachers in remaining up to date in their skills and knowledge and to facilitate in-service training opportunities.
Goal 5: Array of Services
Local education programs will ensure that all students have access to a full array of service delivery options.
Educators of visually impaired children serve an extremely heterogeneous population of students. Wide variations exist regarding such factors as the type and degree of visual impairment, the presence of additional disabilities, the time at which the visual impairment occurred, the urban or rural environment in which the child lives, and the resources of the child's school district.
School districts cannot meet the educational needs of this heterogeneous population with only one or two placement options. Educators of students with visual impairments pioneered inclusive education, placing children with visual impairments in regular classrooms a century before our colleagues in special education began the current "full inclusion" movement, which calls for children with disabilities to be educated in regular classrooms; some educators who advocate for full inclusion want to eliminate all other placement options. Pioneering efforts in the education of visually impaired students resulted in some important lessons, among them the realization that a full array of placement options is necessary to meet the individual educational needs of all students with visual impairments. This array includes, but is not limited to, such options as specialized schools, resource room programs, and regular education placement with itinerant services.
Federal law requires an array of placement options for students with disabilities. But even more important than this requirement are the conclusions, based on experience and educational expertise, that the changing and diverse needs of students with visual impairments require an array of placement options.
Goal 6: Assessment
All assessments and evaluations of students will be conducted by or in partnership with personnel having expertise in the education of students with visual impairments and their parents.
Careful and comprehensive assessments of students with visual impairments are essential if instructional programs are to meet individual needs. Historically, school psychologists or educational diagnosticians were assigned the task of assessing all students with disabilities. This approach has often resulted in incomplete or inaccurate assessments.
Of particular importance is that assessments be comprehensive. Because students with visual impairments have unique extra-academic needs to learn adaptive skills to compensate for their visual impairment, assessments that measure only academic skills are not appropriate for these students. The assessment that consists of only academics and functional low vision is likewise not acceptable, because other factors, such as emotional readiness, independence, alternative communication modes and adaptive skills, must also be considered. All areas of the expanded core curriculum for students with visual impairments must be assessed. Only when information concerning all areas of the expanded core curriculum is available can responsible, knowledgeable decisions regarding a child's educational program take place.
Quality assessments require that the professional conducting or orchestrating the assessment be someone with a high level of expertise in the effects of visual impairment on learning. This professional will most often be the teacher of students with visual impairments or the orientation and mobility instructor.
Goal 7: Access to Instructional Materials
Access to developmental and educational services will include an assurance that textbooks and instructional materials are available to students in the appropriate media and at the same time as their sighted peers.
In the early years of placing students with visual impairments in regular classrooms, one of the phrases often heard was "the right book in the right media at the right time." This statement is true today. Receiving braille texts several months late can make a potentially appropriate placement into an inappropriate one. Even before the advent of computer-generated braille, optical devices, and advanced techniques for producing large print, timely delivery of appropriate texts was achievable with concerted effort. When new technologies for producing braille and large print became available, it seemed that timely delivery of instructional materials would no longer be a problem. However, this is not the case. Many students still do not receive the appropriate instructional materials at the same time as their sighted classmates. With the technology available today, there is no valid excuse for this delay.
Through a national collaborative effort of stakeholders, systems must be developed to eliminate delays in delivery of textbooks and instructional materials needed for children to access the same learning opportunities as sighted peers. Access to the general education curriculum, as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), must include immediate and equal access to appropriate instructional materials for learning.
Goal 8: Expanded Core Curriculum
All educational goals and instruction will address the academic and expanded core curricula based on the assessed needs of each student with visual impairments.
Much is known about the disability-specific needs of students with visual impairments. Beginning with anecdotal data gathered on high school graduates, it became apparent that the educational needs of students extend far beyond academic learning. The first disability-specific need to be isolated, described, and offered as a school subject in public schools was instruction in orientation and mobility (concepts and skills needed to travel safely and independently). It was recognized that for most children with normal vision, the ability to travel safely and with ease in the environment was learned in a casual, unconscious, and natural manner. Visually impaired children could also travel safely and with ease, but they needed careful, systematic instruction to accomplish this.
Other disability-specific areas of need have been identified. There are a variety of lists that describe them. Although the number of needs and the words used to define them may vary, there is general agreement regarding the content of those needs. In many cases, the term "disability-specific needs" has been changed. In many states, "core curriculum" refers to the body of knowledge that a student is required to master before high school graduation.
For several years professionals have discussed the concept of an "expanded core curriculum" for students with visual impairments. Local school districts and specialized schools which have demonstrated models of "best practice" have included such an expanded core curriculum in their programs. They have realized that to be successful as visually impaired children and later as adults, a specific body of knowledge and skills must be learned. Presently, we can articulate what the expanded core curriculum contains. As we further our understanding of how visual impairments impact on learning, we also know that the curriculum will evolve and change.
The curriculum for students with visual impairments consists of two parts. The first parallels that which is provided to sighted peers. Pre-learning, such as developing an understanding of visual concepts involved in a given lesson, and adaptations, such as altering the lesson to provide access by the visually impaired student, are often necessary when presenting academic instruction required of all students. Much of the pre-learning and adaptations can and should occur in the regular classroom. In such a way, the student with a visual impairment receiving education at a local school can experience success in an inclusive setting. For students in specialized schools, these parts of the curriculum may take place at the specialized school or through a cooperative arrangement with a local school in the community.
The second part of the curriculum, known as the expanded core curriculum, addresses the unique, specialized needs of visually impaired learners. These needs are directly related to the visual impairment and, therefore, are not shared by sighted peers. This part of the curriculum is expected to be taught by a teacher of students with visual impairments. This specialized part of the core includes, but may not be limited to, the following:
- Compensatory Skills, such as Communication Modes,
- Orientation and Mobility,
- Social Interaction Skills,
- Independent Living Skills,
- Recreation and Leisure Skills,
- Career Education,
- Use of Assistive Technology,
- Visual Efficiency Skills,
The student with a visual impairment will need to be assessed in all areas of the curriculum, including the expanded core curriculum, and decisions will have to be made regarding the need for instruction in each area. For instruction in the expanded core curriculum areas determined to be needed by an individual student, time must be allocated, and frequency and duration of instruction must be determined.
Only when the goals and instruction fully reflect the assessed needs in all areas of the curriculum for each student will educators of visually impaired children be able to meet their instructional obligations to all children with visual impairments.
Goal 9: Transition Services
Transition services will address developmental and educational needs (birth through high school) to assist students and their families in setting goals and implementing strategies through the life continuum commensurate with students' aptitudes, interests, and abilities.
Every move from one service or one placement to another is a transition. Every changing environment, age, and level of maturity is a transition. Moving from in-home infant services to preschool, elementary school, middle school, and senior high school are all major transitions. IDEA requires IEP-driven transition services only at age 14 (or younger if determined necessary by the IEP team). Promising practices would require transition services to be implemented at the early childhood/preschool level as reflected in the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) or Individualized Education Program (IEP). Transition services are an integral part of all educational aspects of the child's learning.
Families, students, and professionals working together must plan for the most appropriate next environment for each student and develop plans to achieve the competencies necessary for success in the identified environment. Collaboration with community-based adult agencies and employers is also encouraged when developing and implementing transition plans. Successful transition from school to adult life requires assessment and instruction in all areas of the expanded core curriculum content areas as well as an understanding of the vision of both students and families for the students' futures.
Goal 10: Ongoing Professional Development
To improve students' learning, service providers will engage in ongoing local, state, and national professional development.
The knowledge and skills required to educate students with visual impairments is very broad in scope and continually grows and expands. It is widely accepted in all fields of education that preservice teacher preparation and induction provides the beginning base of knowledge required to effectively teach students. Teachers and orientation and mobility specialists who provide services to students with visual impairments need in-depth knowledge in many unique areas of teaching and learning such as braille literacy, learning media assessment, low vision, assistive technology, and concept development. In order for service providers to deliver effective services and quality instruction in these unique areas, they need to engage in ongoing professional development that provides a knowledge base beyond the beginning knowledge and skills required to teach students.
It is essential that service providers have access to professional development in vision-specific areas at the local, state, and national levels. Local education agencies, specialized schools, and state departments of education have a critical role in supporting teachers and orientation and mobility specialists in ongoing professional development to meet the unique needs of students with visual impairments.