Exploring the Options for Your Child's Education
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"Where will my child get the best possible education?" is a question you may revisit several times during the years your child is in school. The answer will be different depending on her unique educational needs at any particular moment, and since those needs may change over time, the type of program that will best serve her may also vary at different times in her life. When it comes to deciding where your child will go to school and how she will receive the special education services to which she is entitled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), you have a range of options. And, as with many things in life, every possibility has its advantages and disadvantages.
Your child's educational team will generally review the various choices at your child's annual Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting and discuss which setting and program are most appropriate for your child, based on what she needs to learn and the services that are planned for her. Placement decisions are based on your child's needs, not classroom availability, staffing ratios, or other district issues. Once your child is in a particular program, her placement can be changed if you and the rest of the team decide it is necessary—for example, if she needs services that are not available at her local school or more frequent services than are provided in the current placement. To make an informed decision as a member of the team, and the one who knows your child's needs best, you need to understand the different choices and the pros and cons of each.
General or Regular Education Classroom
Most students who are visually impaired today attend their local school along with other children who do not have any disabilities, and they receive special education services of various kinds within that setting. They participate in the general education, often called regular, classroom. Depending on your child's educational needs, a teacher of students with visual impairments might work with her in the classroom during regular instruction, might pull your child out of the classroom to work with her individually on vision-related skills, or might serve as a consultant to the regular classroom teacher and not work directly with your child.
Because under IDEA, your child is entitled to an education in the least restrictive environment—that is, as much as possible in a situation with other students who are not disabled, the regular, or general education, classroom is often assumed to be the most favorable situation for students who are blind or visually impaired. In a regular classroom your child will be taught the regular curriculum alongside other students without disabilities and will gain experience in adapting to a classroom environment with sighted peers. However, if your child is in a general education classroom, it is important to make sure that she will be able to receive all the services she needs—for example, that the teacher of students with visual impairments is able to schedule enough hours per week to teach her braille, if she needs to learn it—and that she will be able to keep up with her academic work. Ultimately, your child's individual needs and the services she requires should determine her placement.
General or Regular Education Classroom and Resource Room Combination
Your child may spend part of her day in the general education classroom and some time in a separate resource room with other children who have various disabilities to receive specialized instruction. Generally, in a resource room, students come and go throughout the school day. For example, your child might come for one or two class periods to learn braille or the use of a video magnifier, also called a closed-circuit television system, or she may come more often to work on academic subjects that require significant adaptation. When a student is pulled out of a regular classroom for instruction in a resource room, the general education teacher and the teacher of students with visual impairments need to collaborate closely to make sure that the student is able to apply the vision-related skills she is learning to her work in the general education classroom, and that the schedule permits her to complete her academic class work.
Self-Contained Classroom for Students with Visual Impairments
Some school districts provide a separate classroom for children with visual impairments that will be taught by a teacher of students with visual impairments. Students spend most or all of the day in these self-contained classes so that the work can be more carefully tailored to their specific needs, although they might return to a general education class for some periods (usually for nonacademic subjects such as gym). There may be only one such self-contained classroom in your district for visually impaired students at your child's age level, so that she might need to be bused to the school where the classroom is located.
Self-Contained Classroom for Students with Other Disabilities
Your child may attend a self-contained classroom for children with varying disabilities that is staffed by a special education teacher who is not a teacher of students with visual impairments. Within this classroom your child will receive instruction tailored to her learning needs and may spend some part of the day in a general education classroom. The teacher of students with visual impairments may work with your child in the self-contained classroom, may pull her out and work with her outside the classroom, or may provide her support in the general education classroom. In addition, the teacher of students with visual impairments will support the self-contained classroom teacher in understanding how your child's visual impairment impacts her learning and what accommodations and materials will best assist her in learning.
Residential or Specialized Schools
Most states in the United States have a residential or specialized school for students who have visual impairments, also referred to as a school for the blind. These state schools have in many cases also become learning centers that provide special assessments, consultation, and other services to schools across the state. Many of their students are youngsters who are visually impaired and have multiple disabilities. Some of the students spend the full day at the specialized school, while other students might also spend some time in class at their local school. Still others live at the school during the week and go home on weekends. Although students in specialized schools are educated separately from nondisabled children of the same age, services may be available there that are more difficult to obtain at a neighborhood public school, often referred to as a mainstream school, and students also have the opportunity to spend time with others who have similar needs and concerns.
Education in the Home
In a few cases, students may receive their main educational services in their own home. Some families see home schooling as a way to maintain strong connections between child and family and to exercise control over the child's education. Other families have a child whose health makes it difficult for her to be transported to school or risky for her to have contact with other students. If your family is considering home schooling, you will need to talk to personnel in your school district about how your child can receive the vision-related services she may need.
Making the Best Choice for Your Child
There are many factors to weigh in choosing a school for your child, but you need to decide what is most important for your child at a particular time. Your child is unique and so are her educational needs. For example, one setting or program may require your child to travel a longer distance to school but provide more specialized instruction than is available in the neighborhood school. Another may offer more contact with nondisabled children. Yet another option may provide greater access to related services you feel your child needs, such as occupational therapy or orientation and mobility. And some school districts may not offer as many placement options as others. Ask questions of the members of your child's educational team and the administrators in your school district to learn about the options available for your child. Visit each potential placement if at all possible, and make a list of your questions and concerns to take along.
Some educators and parents believe that integrating students who are disabled with students who are not is the ideal in a society in which children need to learn from each other about diversity, tolerance, and acceptance. Attending school with nondisabled students can also help students who are visually impaired learn social skills and how to interact easily in everyday environments. However, it has also been observed that students with disabilities who attend specialized schools offer each other support, acceptance, and camaraderie that they may not always find in local neighborhood schools, where they may be regarded as "different." Although the professionals on her educational team can help advise you, ultimately you are the most important participant in the decision about where your child will be educated.
For more information, see A Parents' Guide to Special Education for Children with Visual Impairments, edited by Susan LaVenture