IDEA: What Parents of Blind Children Need to Know About the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

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Since the mid-1970s legislation has been in effect to guarantee children with disabilities "a free and appropriate public education (FAPE)" in the "least restrictive environment (LRE)." Over the years there have been changes to the law, but the premise behind it remains the same. Your blind or visually impaired child, like any child with a documented disability in the United States, is entitled to educational opportunities in the public school system at no additional cost to you.

The current version of the law is referred to as IDEA 2004, shorthand for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which was reauthorized, revised, in 2004. IDEA 2004 is divided into sections. If your child is birth to 3 years of age services for her are described in Part C of the law and are referred to as early intervention services. Early intervention services are provided in the "natural environment" meaning the environment in which your child would be, (home, day care) if she did not have a disability. The document that serves as a blueprint for your child's early intervention services is called the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).

When a child reaches age 3 she receives services under Part B of IDEA 2004. Services are typically delivered in a school setting, though if a child is medically fragile services may be in the home, hospital or long-term care facility. The document that serves as a blueprint for a child's school age services is called the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

IDEA 2004 has six basic principles that as a parent you want to be aware of. Each is briefly described below.

Free and Appropriate Public Education: Your child is entitled to a free education that is appropriate to her special education needs as a student who is blind or visually impaired. This education is to be provided in a public school setting.

Least Restrictive Environment: IDEA 2004 requires that children with disabilities be educated with children who are not disabled to the greatest extent possible. Today, most children who are visually impaired go to their neighborhood school. However, there is a range of possible educational placements for students who are blind or have low vision, including a regular classroom, a special classroom in a regular school, or a special school. The decision about which educational placement is most appropriate for your child will come when the team develops her IEP and determines which placement will provide her with the greatest opportunity to achieve the goals on the IEP.

Comprehensive Evaluation: Evaluation is the process used to determine whether a child has a disability and needs special education and related services. Although your child's visual impairment may seem obvious to you, she needs an evaluation to formally document her disability in order to start the special education process.

Your child is entitled to have a comprehensive evaluation of her strengths and needs at least once every three years at no cost to you. This is referred to as a "full and individual evaluation" (sometimes abbreviated as FIE) and should include the following types of assessments:

  • an eye report from your child's eye care professional
  • functional vision assessment, to see how your child uses any vision she has
  • learning media assessment, which determines the primary way in which your child gathers information and the literacy tools and medium appropriate for her instruction
  • orientation and mobility assessment
  • functional, developmental, and academic assessments as appropriate

(See an overview of Assessments for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired for more information about evaluation and the various types of assessments that may be appropriate for your child.)

Individualized Education Program and Individualized Family Service Plan: If your child is under age three an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) will be developed by you and other members of her educational team. If she is age 3 to 22 then an Individualized Education Program (IEP) will be developed. The IFSP or IEP will be developed based on evaluation results and discussion among team members. IDEA prohibits team members from coming to the IFSP or IEP meeting with the document already written. A cornerstone of the law is that the team come together and develop the IFSP or IEP as a team of which you are an equal member.

Parents' and Students' Input into Educational Decisions: IDEA 2004 protects your role as a parent to be a full participant in the decision making that goes into educational planning for your child. This planning is formalized through the IFSP or IEP process. You know your child better than anyone else and can be a powerful resource, as well as an advocate, for her development and education. Students also need to learn to advocate for themselves and IDEA 2004 promotes this idea by stating that they are members of the educational team, when appropriate. By the time a child with visual impairments is in late elementary school she should be participating in her IEP meeting as appropriate.

Procedural Safeguards: The term "procedural safeguards" refers to the processes both your local school district and your state's educational agency set up to make sure that you can enforce your child's right to a free and appropriate public education. Many of these measures are designed to keep you informed about any decisions that affect your child's education and to make sure that you and your child (as well as the school and professionals), are treated equally and fairly. Your school district is required to provide you written information in your native language about these procedural safeguards.

In addition to the six basic principles, IDEA also mandates planning and other services that enable teenagers to make the transition to life after high school—whether that includes a job, college, or other plans—and to get access to whatever services they will continue to need.

We've only provided a basic overview of IDEA 2004 here on FamilyConnect. For in-depth information about the provisions of IDEA 2004 and the full wording of the law and its regulations, see http://idea.ed.gov; http://www.wrightslaw.com is another helpful website.) Although legal terminology can sometimes be intimidating, becoming familiar with the key provisions of the law lets you know what to ask for to make sure that your child receives all services she is entitled to.

IDEA 2004 will be changed, referred to as reauthorized, periodically. To stay current on the law keep in touch with FamilyConnect, your child's teacher of students with visual impairments and parent organizations such as the National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI).

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