What Is the Most Appropriate Placement for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired?
There is a wealth of information and opinion available on the subject of the “best” school placement for children who are blind or visually impaired. I offer a word of caution and advice as you are wading through the vast information sources that give what may be contradictory advice. Each child (and family) is unique in his or her needs for accommodations and types of programs. What works well for one may fall flat for another. The best environment includes both time with sighted peers, to develop community social skills, and time with others who are visually impaired, to avoid isolation.
In the United States there are three methods used to provide educational services to students who are blind or visually impaired:
- residential/state schools for the blind;
- resource room program in neighborhood schools specifically designed for students with visual impairments;
- itinerant model, where Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments (TVIs) travel to the students’ local schools to provide instruction. All three models have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Residential/State Schools for the Blind
Schools for the blind offer teachers who are trained to teach academic and non-academic subjects, including the visual-disabilities-specific Expanded Core Curriculum, and offer specialized equipment for students with visual impairments. These state-funded schools do not charge families for their services. They are funded by the state department of education and by payment from the local education agency in your child’s home community.
In some instances there may not be a school for the blind in your state. In this case, your child may attend a school for the blind in a neighboring state. For example, Oregon recently closed its school for the blind and now has an agreement that allows Oregon students to be served at the Washington School for the Blind. In addition to state residential schools, there are private schools for the blind that accept students from anywhere for a fee. Most often payment is made by the student’s local school district.
Schools for the blind involve specific advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of schools for the blind is the opportunity to participate in fully-accessible educational, social and recreational activities with peers who are also visually impaired. The ability to identify with and learn from their peers with visual impairments typically provides a comfortable learning environment. These opportunities would likely be far more limited in the students' neighborhood school districts. On the other hand, the disadvantages include a false sense of the general world where most people your child will encounter are sighted. Additionally, students attending a school for the blind residentially sacrifice much family time, as they are bused to school for the week and bused home for the weekends.
Some school districts cluster all of their children with visual impairments into one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. This method maximizes teaching time, as the TVI spends minimal time driving between schools. Each child will visit the resource room for blindness-specific instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum, and will spend the majority of time in a regular classroom. Alternatively, some schools will have resource rooms for general special education services. These environments will most likely be in your neighborhood school and the various professionals will be of the itinerant model.
Resource rooms involve specific advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of the resource room include a great deal of time spent with the general population, while retaining the possibility to receive daily blindness-specific instruction and to have easy access to materials that make the core curriculum accessible.
Additionally, the resource room provides the opportunity for students with visual impairments to spend time socializing with each other in the environment. It also allows for the general staff to become trained and accustomed to working with our students. The disadvantages to being bused to a school with a resource room lies with not attending school with the child’s neighbors, which can make forging friendships a bit more challenging and may result in more drive time to attend social and academic events and parties.
In this model the students with visual impairments attend neighborhood schools and the TVIs travel to them. The TVIs provide the students with training in the expanded core curriculum, coach the general education teachers in providing accessible instruction, and guide the process of ordering and creating accessible textbooks and lesson materials. In many instances there may only be a few children with visual impairments in the school district, making itinerant teaching the only option other than residential schools.
Itinerant teaching involves specific advantages and disadvantages. The advantages to receiving itinerant teaching are the ability to attend schools in local neighborhoods with the general population, to make local friends, attend local parties and more easily become a part of the community. The disadvantages to receiving itinerant services are the possible inability to receive TVI instruction on a daily basis and the impossibility of having all accessibility materials readily available. Additionally, itinerant teaching provides little to no opportunity to interact with other children with visual impairments.
The Most Appropriate Placement
It is during the IEP meeting when the placement options will be discussed and suggested, placement that should allow both adequate instruction and opportunities to meet others with visual impairments. Many students begin in one type of program and change placements as they progress through school and their needs for specialized instruction and support evolve.
The elementary school years involve a great deal of specialized instruction in training such as braille and O&M. High school most often progresses to more accommodations (how are we going to handle geography or dissecting the frog in biology?!) with perhaps a reduced need for direct TVI instruction. On the other hand, certainly the world of technology, which changes rapidly, will present opportunities for substantial direct instruction.
As to the question of attending a state school for the blind, whether private or state-run: Each child has his or her unique reasons for attending the school. The goal is almost always to address the reasons and return the child to the local school program in a matter of months or more likely years. Very few children exclusively attend a school for the blind for all of their school programing.
When searching for the best schooling method for your child, consider which is the most appropriate environment for your child in this particular year. It is best to discuss your needs and options with the professionals on your child’s IEP team, other parents you have come to know and by exploring your options. In my opinion there is not one ideal method for instructing students with visual impairments, but options that each have advantages and disadvantages. The important point is to strive for a balanced set of experiences that contribute to both educational and social growth.
What are the choices or ingredients for creating a balanced mix? The two most prominent are the placement within a school setting and after school programs. You will find that the current trend is towards inclusive environments (meaning, to include your child with sighted peers), providing opportunity to make friends from the neighborhood. For example: you may choose a resource room or itinerant teaching, but take advantage of your state school for the blind’s short-term programs that introduce your child to peers with visual impairments. Summer and weekend programs in particular may give the chance to network with peers and discuss issues, tips and techniques for dealing with vision loss in a sighted world.
A combination of environments will offer your child a greater variety of activities to help him or her develop appropriate social skills for use in the general community and the specialized skills needed to compensate for vision loss. The goal: give your child the opportunity to maximize his or her personal, educational, and employment potential.