Children with Multiple Disabilities Need the Expanded Core Curriculum, Too!

Who Are These Learners?

Among other sources, the Centers for Disease Control has estimated that over 70 percent of children with multiple disabilities have visual impairment as one of their co-existing exceptionalities. These children might have one or more of the co-existing disabilities listed in the IDEA legislation including intellectual, emotional/behavioral, and specific learning disabilities. They may also have health impairment, Autism, traumatic brain injury, or a speech or language impairment.

Finally, children with visual disabilities may qualify for special education services due to developmental delays or dual sensory impairments (hearing and vision loss) or Deafblindness. To ensure access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), these students must be appropriately assessed for instructional strengths and needs by fully qualified teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) and/or orientation and mobility instructors (O&Ms).

What Is the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) for These Learners?

Regardless of disability, all children have the same needs to maximize their quality of life by achieving the greatest possible learning and independence. Therefore teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors have a vital role as members of the educational teams for children who have visual and additional disabilities. All areas of the expanded core curriculum are appropriate and necessary to achieve these goals for all children. However, there may be modifications or adaptations of goals, skills, and strategies based on the unique needs of individual learners.

For example, many people think braille is only an "academic skill" or a literacy medium that is too complicated for children with intellectual disabilities. In truth, braille, like print, is simply a symbolic communication system. If a student would be provided with a functional or sight word literacy program in print (except the student has a visual disability), then that student should be given the opportunity to learn the same functional literacy skills in an appropriate and accessible tactile medium.

The same is true for children with multiple disabilities who can access print with modifications or optical devices. For children whose co-existing disabilities limit their access to print or braille, there are also tactile symbols and augmented communication systems that can help children express and receive communication in a variety of settings including home, classroom, community, and work environments.

Why Teach The Expanded Core Curriculum to These Learners?

The law has clarified that each child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) must (1) relate individualized educational goals to the child's involvement and progress in the general curriculum, the same curriculum accessed by nondisabled children, and (2) address unique needs arising out of the child's disability or disabilities. Clearly, a student with co-existing visual and additional disabilities will be unable to make program progress without appropriate disability-specific accommodations and instruction.

Communication and Productivity: This area refers to teaching the disability-specific skills that allow students to participate in their school programs as independently as possible. In addition to braille, low vision devices, and/or augmented or alternative communication systems, all children with visual disabilities benefit from direct instruction in assistive technology, whether low- or high-tech.

For more information, read "Millie Smith’s Advice on Communication Skills for Children with Multiple Disabilities."

Self-Sufficiency and Social Interaction: This includes self-care and independent living skills, recreation and leisure skills, and age- and developmentally-appropriate social skills. Children with multiple disabilities also need to develop their sensory efficiency to ensure their access to auditory, tactile, and even vestibular, olfactory, and gustatory information to learn and develop concepts about the world.

Even if a student is not expected to become an independent traveler, he or she will still need to learn how to safely and efficiently explore the environment through orientation and mobility (O&M) training. Youths and adults with severe and multiple disabilities access their local communities through family and supported group outings. Therefore, these students need to learn how to safely use a white cane to identify themselves as a person with a vision impairment and even access tactile information about the environment in which they are traveling.

For more information, read "Sharon Zell Sacks’ Advice on Social Skills."

Self-Determination, Transition, and Career: Finally, all children with visual impairments, including those with multiple disabilities, need age- or developmentally-appropriate self-determination, career, and transition assessments and instruction to ensure that all students' transition plans take into account not only their strengths and needs but also their personal interests and preferred sensory channels.

For more information, read "David Brown’s Advice on Self-Determination Skills for Children Who Are Deafblind."

TVIs and O&Ms: Part of the Educational Team

Because of the unique ways that students who are blind and visually impaired learn new concepts and skills, their instruction must be provided by a team of fully qualified professionals who are knowledgeable about the strategies used to accommodate the curriculum for students with complex learning needs. Teachers of students with visual impairments are integral parts of educational teams for all children with visual impairments and have a critical role in helping the teachers, related service providers, and classroom staff understand the preferred and supportive sensory learning channels for these children. This includes helping design direct instruction and supporting IEP goals developed by other professionals through active consultation and collaboration.

Therefore, teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors must receive thorough training in teacher preparation programs regarding the use of appropriate assessments, how to identify the appropriate learning media for students, and how to provide students with the skills they need to access the curriculum. Teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors also need to receive ongoing disability-specific training in the best practices for identifying the most appropriate learning media and for providing instruction to children with vision disabilities in these areas. In addition, they must have access to and training in assessment instruments and instructional materials developed for use with children with complex learning needs.

How Do TVIs and O&Ms Support Instruction in the ECC in Schools?

Students who have multiple disabilities that include a visual impairment typically cannot access the instructional materials provided to their fully sighted peers even when assigned to self-contained or center-based classrooms. The access solutions, materials, and instructional strategies for these students will need to take into account a complex interaction among visual and additional disabilities. Therefore, assessment, program development, and instruction for these students are most effectively addressed by an educational team where each member contributes their individual expertise to ensure that everyone supporting the student is also supported.

Assessment: Teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors assess these students in order to determine how their vision is affecting their access to learning and community environments. These vision professionals also provide information to the educational team that describes how, when, and even why students access or prefer specific activities or materials.

This information is vital for appropriate assessment and program development by other team members. Teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors are a critical part of the assessment process. Their expertise on the student's vision, orientation, and independent mobility skills must be shared with all other educational team members to ensure the student is being assessed with appropriate materials. In addition, they should make certain that all of the teachers and related service providers working with the individual child understand how that student's performance on assessments and during staff observations is impacted by the student’s visual disability.

Conversely, to understand and analyze the specific sensory tasks required of students with multiple disabilities, teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors need to work closely with these students' other teachers and related service providers. By working with every member of the IEP team, teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors ensure their ability to target appropriate assessments and develop recommendations that are effective for each learning task and environment.

Direct Instruction: Teachers of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility instructors are the personnel on the education team who are experts on vision impairment and how to create accessible education programs. When assessments and IEP goals call for instruction in braille, O&M, disability-specific assistive technology, and optical devices, these lessons are best developed and managed by these professionals as appropriate. Additionally, fully qualified teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors are also the school personnel most familiar with the unique access and learning needs of children with visual disabilities and are best suited to provide direct instruction, modeling, and consultative support in other areas of the expanded core curriculum, such as age- and developmentally-appropriate social skills and career education.

Consultation and Collaboration: For example, a child using a tactile communication system might also be transitioning to an augmented communication device. In this situation, the teacher of students with visual impairments develops the tactile symbols by working with the assistive technology specialist who knows the technology and the speech and language therapist, parents, and special education teacher who know the phrases or specific language the student will need to communicate. O&M instructors could add this same information for travel goals in the school or broader community.

This collaboration also includes supporting the student’s use of the communication device when that student goes to class with peers and by modeling use of the device and tactile symbols for the paraeducator who works directly with the student in the general education classroom. In isolation, any of these specialists working with the student would miss a crucial part of a complex learning activity. Together, they create a learning activity that meets the student's goals and supports all participants' needs to know the student's tasks, symbols, and descriptor language to ensure consistent instruction and support of this complex learning activity.

Individualized Education Program Development: Whether developing goals for direct instruction or collaborating with the educational team, teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors have a pivotal role in the IEP development for a child with visual impairment and additional disabilities.

Typically, classroom teachers and related service providers know about child development, adapted academic programs, communication, and fine and gross motor development. Sometimes they need additional information about working with children who are visually impaired, and they always need specific information about the visual and sensory channels of a specific student.

For example, without collaboration, an occupational therapist (OT) might want to develop goals for handwriting without knowing that the student will be a braille reader. By working collaboratively, the teacher of students with visual impairments can help the occupational therapist understand the needs of an emergent braille reader (finger strength and isolation), and the therapist can help the teacher and educational team understand the student's progress in these critical areas. By working together, the teacher of students with visual impairments can help related service providers develop effective and functional IEP goals for complex learners.

In this era of high-stakes testing, resource special education teachers are often at a loss of how to develop IEP goals that translate into alternative or portfolio assessment. By working collaboratively, the teacher of students with visual impairments can show the special education teacher how classroom goals for literacy or math can be developed using materials and techniques adapted for children with visual disabilities.

For example, if the classroom is working on sequencing, reading a schedule, or writing sight words, the student with visual and co-existing multiple disabilities might place tactile communication symbols in a schedule of the day's events, "sequence" the day's activities, or use tactile symbols to write. When the student returns to the schedule throughout the day to review which tasks have been completed and which will still occur, the student is also "reading" the tactile symbols.

Conclusion

It is arguable that children with disabilities in addition to visual impairment represent the majority of students with visual disabilities in the United States. Regardless of the type or severity of their co-existing disabilities, these complex learners have some type of visual impairment that impedes their access to the learning environment. To ensure their access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), these students must be appropriately assessed for their instructional strengths and needs. This evaluation must include both functional vision and learning media assessments conducted by a qualified teacher; a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) and/or an orientation and mobility instructor (O&M). Without appropriate assessment of a student's sensory access, educational teams are limited in their ability to develop appropriate and effective instructional programs designed to maximize these complex learners' access to and progress in their educational programs.

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