Resources For Visually Impaired Students: Navigating the School Systems While Blind

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When your child is first diagnosed with a disability, doctors, psychiatrists, and others might tell you how important it is for you and your family to begin to adjust to the “new normal”. For children with visual impairments or blindness, this “new normal” may include, among what sometimes feels like a thousand other changes, early intervention mobility aids, researching and reading books on your child’s specific diagnosis, and beginning to find technological devices that can aid your child in school and everyday life. This adjustment period is, more often than not, confusing and overwhelming. Although you may be experiencing a flood of emotions, take this as a reminder that you’re never alone. There are options, and plenty of resources to guide you through this “new normal”.

One of the adjustments during this new chapter takes place in schools. As your child begins school, it may seem like there are many obstacles put in place for a visually impaired student to navigate. Students who are visually impaired or blind might need special accommodations and modifications compared to other students in class. Oftentimes, there is a common misconception that low vision students and blind students need to attend specialized schools. In reality, the vast majority of these students attend public schools with the general population, they just have some additional accommodations compared to sighted students. These accommodations and modifications are designed and implemented in accordance with federal and state laws such as, the Americans with Disabilities Act (commonly referred to as the ADA), The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA), as well as other government documents and laws.

Though the implementation of these laws greatly varies depending upon the school district and system, all public schools are technically required to provide students with some form of applicable accommodations. For instance, all public institutions that receive funding from the state (or all public schools) are required, by law, to make any and all classroom materials available in braille to students. This includes all textbooks, worksheets, and other written material. In addition to this accommodation, students with low vision, or blindness, are also entitled to extended time on school assignments and tests, the opportunity to sit at the front of the classroom, as well as a certain amount of assistive technology to aid the student in the classroom. To learn more about the specific accommodations public schools are required to offer students with VI or blindness, the article; Accommodations and Modifications at a Glance: Educational Accommodations for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired-Link [1] from Family Connect, a website created by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI) in order to support the parents of children with VI and blindness, is extremely helpful in providing knowledge.

Lauren Ingersoll, a teacher of visually impaired students in the San Diego South County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA for short), offers more insight into the implementation of specific accommodations schools are required, by law, to provide to VI and blind students. Pulling from documents such as, Title 34 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which incorporates the amendments of section 504 of the ADA, helped to analyze and truly understand how this complex legal jargon is applied in the real world. Ms. Ingersoll highlighted and pulled from her years of experience as a teacher for blind and visually impaired students.

One of the first questions asked to Ms. Ingersoll was how many students are relocated to other schools or school districts because of their disability. In Title 34: Education Part 104.34, the document in which lies the laws regarding nondiscrimination on the basis of handicap in programs or activities receiving federal funding, the document states, “A recipient [meaning a recipient of federal funding i.e. any public school] to which this subpart applies shall educate, or shall provide for the education of, each qualified handicapped person in its jurisdiction with persons who are not handicapped to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the handicapped person. A recipient shall place a handicapped person in the regular educational environment operated by the recipient unless it is demonstrated by the recipient that the education of the person in the regular environment with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. Whenever a recipient places a person in a setting other than the regular educational environment pursuant to this paragraph, it shall take into account the proximity of the alternate setting to the person's home”[2].

While Ms. Ingersoll stated students in her district typically receive all of their education in the same district and, more often than not, in the same school setting, she also brought to attention that, in the past, some students would have to relocate to different schools to receive a proper education. With this in mind, it is important to acknowledge the immense variations among school districts, as well as states. There are students in one district who claimed they never had to request for any extra help or modifications from the school, it was simply provided to them. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for parents and students to fight every step of the way for even the most basic rights, such as sitting at the front of the classroom. These discrepancies in the quality and quantity of rights provided to students with VI or blindness can often be frustrating for both the students and parents. In response to these discrepancies in care, Ms. Ingersoll emphasizes the importance of self-advocacy, for both the student and the parents.

There are many confusing aspects regarding the rights of students with disabilities that could aid the student’s learning process, which are often overlooked. So, if you or your child believe you are not being provided adequate care or services from your school district, there are a few steps you can take. The first step is doing your research. Please refer to the list of resources at the bottom of this page to help give you a comprehensive knowledge base regarding the rights of students with disabilities. One article from Family Connect that was particularly helpful was “Knowing Your Rights”[3]. This site provides links to specific questions and areas of law you may want clarification on.

Conducting your own research will make for a stronger conversation with the school district regarding the area of care you believe the school district is not providing. Scheduling a meeting with your school’s administration to notify them of the area you could use support in, may go a long way with basic knowledge to utilize. At this point, the school will hopefully rectify the situation, but if you do have a valid case and the school is still reluctant or ignoring your complaints, the next step is to file a request for reasonable accommodation with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).[4] Once you’ve filed, the OAH will review your case and determine whether the school is providing accurate care for your student. This may seem like a lengthy, daunting process that may require a lawyer and/or an independent accessor, but if you truly believe you or your child is not being accurately cared for by the school, there is a process in place to help you rectify the situation. Every student deserves to learn in an environment in which they feel unimpeded and free to focus on their education, not their disability.

Jimmy Cong, an alumnus of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is legally blind and considers himself to be “severely visually impaired”. He currently works in UCSD’s Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). He double majored in Music Composition and Visual Art-Digital Media. Speaking with Mr. Cong further cemented just how important self-advocacy is for students with disabilities, especially during the transition to college. Mr. Cong explained that before he transitioned to college, he had access to 3 individual assistive technology aids that would help him in the classroom, but when he transitioned to college, no such aides were offered to him. Instead, he, like most students at UCSD, had to seek out help from the OSD. At times, Mr. Cong said he was hesitant to ask for additional help from his professor or the administration, but soon came to realize how integral it was for his education. Mr. Cong received extra time on tests and assignments, housing accommodations, as well as assistive technology. Mr. Cong says the number one piece of advice he has for students with disabilities is to “not be afraid to ask for help”. Too often students with disabilities are pushed to the sidelines, especially in higher education, which is why it is so important to learn from a young age what your rights are and how to effectively advocate for these rights. Today, Mr. Cong works as an Access Specialist for the OSD at UCSD and works to make sure all students, regardless of their disabilities, are provided adequate accommodations and modifications in order to receive a proper education.

Though it is obvious there are still impediments to equal education for all students, no matter their disabilities, it is also clear that by learning your or your student’s rights and becoming an effective self-advocate, you or your child can take advantage of every opportunity possible.

[1] https://www.familyconnect.org/info/education/know-your-rights/accommodations-and-modifications-at-a-glance/135

[2] https://ecfr.io/Title-34/se34.1.104_134

[3] https://www.familyconnect.org/info/education/know-your-rights/13

[4] https://www.dgs.ca.gov/OAH/Services/Page-Content/Office-of-Administrative-Hearings-Services-List-Folder/Accommodations-at-OAH

For more information on this topic, click the links provided below

https://sites.ed.gov/idea/state-formula-grants/

https://www2.ed.gov/policy/rights/guid/ocr/disabilityoverview.html

https://www2.ed.gov/policy/rights/guid/ocr/disability.html

https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html

https://www.sdcoe.net/student-services/special-education/pages/county-selpas.aspx

https://adata.org/factsheet/disability-rights-laws-public-primary-and-secondary-education-how-do-they-relate

 https://www.familyconnect.org/info/education/expanded-core-curriculum/12

https://www.familyconnect.org/info/education/know-your-rights/13

https://www.afb.org/research-and-initiatives/statistics/statistics-blind-children/school-experience

https://nfb.org/resources/blindness-statistics

https://www.teachingvisuallyimpaired.com/prepare-for-college.html

https://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/college-planning-with-visual-impairments/