Specialized Education Services for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
Who are our nation's blind and visually impaired children?
Federal and state estimates used for planning educational services do not adequately account for the number of children in the United States who are blind or visually impaired. For example, 24,877 children with visual impairments are reported by the U.S. Department of Education (U.S. Department of Education, 1996). However, a recent study indicates that this figure fails to account for as many as 80% of these students (Corn, Ferrell, Spungin, & Zimmerman, 1996).
In some cases, only students who are legally blind are reported, ignoring those who have difficulty seeing but do not qualify as "legally" blind. In other instances, children who are visually impaired and have other disabilities--such as mental retardation--are not counted as visually impaired because they are reported in other federally defined categories, such as "multiple disabilities" or "mental retardation." Tragically, because many professionals lack the specialized skills necessary to recognize and address vision loss, there are also children with visual and multiple impairments whose vision loss remains undiagnosed throughout their school experience (Erin, Daugherty, Dignan, & Pearson, 1990). The inadequate count of visually impaired children means that our nation lacks critical information about the need for specialized services for these children, and cannot correctly allocate the specialized resources and personnel required. Consequently, many children do not receive the appropriate specialized educational services they need (Pogrund, Fazzi, & Lampert, eds., 1992).
What skills do visually impaired children need to learn?
Visual impairments change the way children obtain information about the world in which they grow and function, and limit opportunities to learn through observation of visual elements in the school curriculum and the people around them. This means that, in addition to their regular classroom studies, children who are blind or visually impaired need to learn specialized skills from teachers and others who are specially trained to teach these skills, such as certified teachers of visually impaired children and orientation and mobility specialists. The specialized skills visually impaired children must learn include: Technology and computer proficiency--using computer and telecommunication equipment and software adapted for blind or visually impaired people. Literacy--reading and writing with braille, large print, optical devices, or training in effective use of available vision. Safe and independent mobility--using specific orientation and mobility techniques, long canes, or other mobility tools. Social interaction skills--understanding body language and other visual concepts. Personal management and independent living skills--learning specialized techniques for personal grooming, food preparation, money management, and other tasks.
Where do visually impaired children receive their education?
Children with visual impairments receive educational services from an array of options that includes residential and special schools specifically designed for blind and multiply disabled children, and special classes, resource rooms, and itinerant teaching services in regular education classrooms in the child's community--where most visually impaired children are educated. Based upon the individual needs of children and input from their parents and educators, specialized schools, or classes are appropriate educational options for certain students. In addition, special schools frequently provide outreach support and technical assistance to public schools in their states.
What are the challenges facing visually impaired children?
Although many school programs provide the specialized instruction needed by students who are visually impaired, there is much room for improvement. Too many visually impaired students leave school without having mastered the skills or knowledge essential for further education, gainful employment, and independent living at home and in their communities.
There is a severe shortage of orientation and mobility specialists and qualified teachers of visually impaired students, which restricts access to the specialized skills these children need. This means that students with visual impairments frequently receive instruction from personnel who are not qualified to teach critical skills such as braille, cane and other travel skills, and effective use of available vision. This problem is even more alarming in rural communities, where shortages of qualified personnel are most acute.
Equally detrimental is the continued perception by many that residential and special schools for blind and visually impaired children are too costly, or, because most visually impaired children are educated in regular education classrooms, unnecessary. This fallacy persists despite the fact that education experts agree that for some children, special schools are the best placement option, and that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed by the U.S. Congress makes access to all educational placement options, including special schools, every child's right.
What can you do to help visually impaired children reach their highest potential?
- Support a full array of options in each state to assure appropriate placement for all students. These options must include residential and special schools, as well as special classes, resource rooms, and itinerant teaching services in regular education classes.
- Provide sufficient funding to prepare an adequate number of teachers in all educational settings who are qualified to provide the specialized communication, literacy, academic, mobility, daily living, social, and career education skills that visually impaired children need.
- Provide access to the latest technology so every blind or visually impaired student benefits from computer-based educational programs, such as those delivered via the Internet or multimedia educational software.
- Assure that parents and families of children who are blind or visually impaired are provided with the information they need to determine the best educational option for their child.
Corn, A., Ferrell, K.A., Spungin, S.J., & Zimmerman, G. What We Know About Teacher Preparation Programs in Blindness and Visual Impairment (Report prepared for the National NASDE Policy Forum: Training Educators to Work with Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired). Washington, DC: Authors, September 1996.
Erin, J.N., Daugherty, W., Dignan, K., & Pearson, N. "Teachers of Visually Handicapped Students with Multiple Disabilities: Perceptions of Adequacy." Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, January 1990, pp.16-20.
Pogrund, R., Fazzi, D.L., & Lampert, J.S., eds. Early Focus: Working with Young Blind and Visually Impaired Children and Their Families. New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1992.
U.S. Department of Education. Eighteenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Washington, DC: Author, 1996.
Read more about Specialized Services for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired.
Photo: courtesy of the National Braille Press.