December 8, 2020
Dear [Education Official]:
This spring, the American Foundation for the Blind took the lead role in bringing together 22 organizations and companies to conduct the Access and Engagement Study to investigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education of students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities and deafblindness, and their family members. The families of 455 children with visual impairments from all 50 states; Washington, DC; and Puerto Rico responded to the survey while 1,028 professionals responded, of whom 710 were teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs), 138 were orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists, and 180 were dual-certified professionals.
Through this study, we confirmed many of the anecdotal experiences of families and students who are blind or have low vision and identified key areas in which children, families, and education professionals need additional action to meet their students’ educational needs during the pandemic. As states plan for the remainder of the school year, facing difficult decisions about remote education, keeping school buildings open, or finding a hybrid solution, we urge you to take the following actions to support children birth through 21 years who are blind or have low vision and are receiving educational services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Section 504.
Ensure that all educational technologies used in the classroom are accessible to and usable by students who are blind or have low vision. Eighty-five percent of TVIs who took part in the Access and Engagement study and had students in a general or special education online class reported having at least one student who had difficulty accessing class content due to their visual impairment. Sixty-eight family members reported that the online programs used by a classroom teacher were not accessible to their child due to their visual impairment; forty-two reported the child was not able to access information in the packets sent home; and thirty-one reported that pre-recorded videos were inaccessible1. Earlier this month, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sent an open letter to state education officials that specifically highlighted the extent of accessibility challenges facing blind students in the virtual classroom.
AFB echoes NFB’s call for state and local education agencies to commit to procuring and using only accessible educational technologies that meet the highest industry standards, namely the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that identify criteria for accessibility and which have been incorporated into Section 508 regulations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. To achieve digital accessibility, some teachers need professional development and administrator support and advocacy to ensure they have the knowledge and tools to meet students’ individualized needs. Administrators should provide general education teachers with training on accessibility, such as how to create accessible videos, slide decks, and printouts. Through comprehensive training, classroom teachers will be able to ensure that their students with visual impairments have the same access to instructional content as students who do not have visual impairments. In other cases, schools, districts, and states may need to leverage their collective strength to pressure technology developers to make accessibility changes to products that are already in use. Now and into the future, digital accessibility is a critical means to delivering a free appropriate public education and allowing all students to learn alongside their peers.
Ensure that students and teachers have access to the accessible instructional materials, technology devices, and other tools needed to participate equitably in learning. In the Access and Engagement survey, some professionals reported that they were unable to reach or teach some of their students because the students and their families did not have access to the needed technology3. Both families and TVIs reported that they did not have access to all the materials they needed, so that students could take part in all aspects of their education4.
Students learning at home, including children receiving early intervention and preschool services, must have access to necessary materials, including braille materials, whether staff make contactless deliveries, families pick up items from a centralized location, or materials are sent via U.S. Postal Service or another delivery service. The purchase of additional materials may be required if those items would usually have been shared between students. Students who use both mainstream and assistive technology in the school building must have access to the same technology when engaged in remote instruction. In many cases this necessitates that family members receive instruction and support, so they can aid their child in using the technology. When mainstream technology, such as Chromebooks, are assigned to students by the school, it is imperative that accessibility features be turned on and can be adjusted as needed based on the child’s learning needs and visual demands of tasks.
Provide professionals with support to find and implement service delivery models and tools to meet the unique needs of students, especially those with additional disabilities or deafblindness. Education of students with visual impairments is a civil right that must be met even in these extraordinary circumstances. State and local education officials should work together to ensure that teachers and other professionals working with students are equipped to provide a free appropriate public education to all students with disabilities. As an example, some schools need additional guidance on fulfilling key IDEA responsibilities such as maintaining Child Find and IDEA evaluation activities in a virtual environment. For others, staffing may be an issue. In the field of special education, personnel shortages have been a concern for many years. AFB is concerned that the pandemic will only deepen the shortage of highly qualified professionals, which will negatively impact students’ ability to advance in their educational attainment
We also know that many students are returning to school buildings, so we strongly urge administrators and policymakers to ensure that all teachers have access to the PPE and other resources needed to provide education to their students, many of whom require hands-on instruction that does not allow for social distancing.
To be sure, not all of the findings from the Access and Engagement survey were negative. We celebrate the teachers and administrators who have worked hard to deliver services in new ways, who built collaborative networks, and who have developed new bonds with family members as together they sought novel ways to meet students’ and families’ educational goals. We hope that educators continue to have the resources and opportunity to maintain these new strategies, collaborations, and relationships. The connections built between teachers and family members especially provide new opportunities to reinforce learning in the home as well as provide information and support to family members who may struggle in normal times to fully support their children with disabilities.
We similarly look forward to the innovations that will come out of best practices for remote learning to support students and teachers (who are often itinerant) in making connections even when they cannot be together in person. To illustrate some of the positive connections made during the pandemic, below are two quotes from the Access and Engagement survey.
“At first it was chaotic and awful and a lot of time was lost as states, districts, and teachers tried to figure out what to do. This isn’t a criticism; everyone just needed to figure out a whole new way. Now that things are up and running a little more, it is rewarding to do some work with students. However, it is clear that the impact of so much missed school will be significant. I do also feel like this situation has sparked creativity in our field and good things will come out of it, including possibly more connection and enjoyment with families.” – A Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments
“There is more focus on what I can be doing as a parent to support my child, which is appropriate and appreciated. I think this is the way services should be happening ongoing. Previously our services were taking place at day care so we were not as involved, so telehealth has given us more opportunities to connect with our child’s provider.”— A family member of a child with low vision, under 2 years old
At AFB, we are acutely aware that school systems are facing extraordinary challenges, including significant budget challenges. We encourage you to reach out if you have any questions about the concerns we are raising in this letter or if we can work together with you to support your plans to ensure students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities or deafblindness are engaged in accessible and equitable education regardless of their age, complexity of their disabilities, or geographic location. Please contact Sarah Malaier, Public Policy and Research Advisor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chief Public Policy and Research Officer
1. Rosenblum, L. P., Herzberg, T. S., Wild, T., Botsford, K. D., Fast, D., Kaiser, J. T., Cook, L. K., Hicks, M. A. C., DeGrant, J. N., & McBride, C. R. (2020). Access and Engagement: Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on Students Birth-21 with Visual Impairments, Their Families, and Professionals in the United States and Canada. American Foundation for the Blind. www.afb.org/accessengagement, page 56.
2. In addition to the experiences of families, 200 TVIs reported that teachers were using websites, apps, or online programs that were not accessible to students. 91 TVIs reported that teachers were recording inaccessible videos. 72 TVIs reported that classroom teachers did not have time to meet with the TVI to discuss accommodations needed by the student. Ibid., page 85.
3. Ibid., page 80.
4. Ibid., page 83. Examples of materials that were missing include braille and large print texts, hands-on manipulatives for science or math instruction, computers with screen magnification software, video magnifiers/CCTVs, reading stands, and lighting.