Overview of the Service System for Children
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Services for children with visual impairments are offered by a wide range of agencies and organizations at the community, state and national levels. Services and the agencies that provide them may vary from state to state. This is especially true with regard to services for infants and toddlers.
Early intervention and educational services are usually provided through government-funded programs because federal law mandates appropriate programs for children from birth until graduation from school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) establishes the right to a "free, appropriate, public education" that is, an education appropriate to the needs of the individual child for all children from birth to 21, regardless of disability. In addition, this education must be provided in the "least-restrictive environment" appropriate for the child—that is, to the extent possible in the same settings as children who do not have disabilities—and families must be involved in the planning and implementation of services for their children. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is required for each child eligible for services, as is family participation as part of the child's educational team. Educational services are also provided under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; these include classroom accommodations or adaptations such as the provision of materials in large print or other accessible formats.
Educational services are overseen by the U.S. Department of Education but they are administered at the state level and vary considerably from state to state. To learn about available services and where they are, start with the Department of Education in your state and ask for the state vision consultant or the person in charge of services for children who are blind or visually impaired. Information is also available from local public school districts, multischool districts or county special education consortia (such as intermediate units or boards of cooperative education services), and state or private schools for children who are blind or visually impaired.
Early Intervention Services
Services for children under the age of three are mandated under the Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities (Part C of IDEA), which is a federal program that assists states in operating a comprehensive statewide program of early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities. State early intervention agencies, also known as Part C early intervention agencies, may be housed in state departments of education, health, human services, or rehabilitation, although some are in agencies outside the state system. These agencies usually provide referrals to local programs. The local school district may be an additional direct source of information. You may also contact agencies and organizations for people who are blind or visually impaired (either national or local) and special schools for blind students, which may have more information about early intervention, nursery, and preschool programs that have specific experience with children who are blind or visually impaired.
The services provided typically include assessment of the child's condition and needs, developmental enrichment, coordination of health and social services, and an individualized family service plan (IFSP) for both the child and the family outlining the services to be provided. Services to infants and toddlers are provided mainly in the home by itinerant (traveling) professionals, although some are offered in organizations or centers, where a variety of special education and related services are available in the same place.
Many blind and visually impaired toddlers and children ages 3 to 5 attend regular day care, nursery, and preschool programs and receive specialized services from visiting, or itinerant, professionals such as an early childhood specialist and a certified teacher of children who are visually impaired. There are also preschool and early childhood programs that specialize in blindness and visual impairment.
To obtain information about educational services for children of preschool and school age, you can begin by contacting your state's Department of Education that oversees education for children with disabilities or your state rehabilitation agency for blind persons. In addition, the agencies providing the services at the local level, including public school districts, multischool districts, and state or private schools for children who are blind, are important sources of information.
The vast majority of students who are blind or visually impaired attend their local community public schools. Most attend regular classes and receive separate instruction from a teacher certified in the education of children who are blind or visually impaired and the additional skills unique to blindness or visual impairment that they need to learn. These skills may include reading and writing in braille, travel skills (known as orientation and mobility techniques, or O&M), and optimal use of low vision. Children may be taught by an itinerant teacher who travels to different students at different schools within the school district or neighboring districts, or a teacher of visually impaired children may be assigned to a resource room at a given school where he or she meets with several students who are visually impaired during different periods of the day.
Some children may attend a special school for children who are blind or visually impaired, either as day students or residential students. Some programs are geared toward students with single or mild multiple disabilities and emphasize academic programs and an expanded curriculum. Others may focus on functional lifelong learning programs for children with severe multiple disabilities, while still others provide a full spectrum of educational opportunities. It is important that you make inquiries about the full continuum of educational services as well as all the possible educational settings and to find out what types of services are offered and which children are served at each site before deciding on what is best for your child.
In addition to the legal requirements of IDEA already noted, this legislation requires that an IEP be written for all students with disabilities in the educational system. This plan is developed by an educational team, including teachers, special educators, a teacher of students who are visually impaired, an O&M specialist and other professionals as appropriate, parents or family members, and sometimes the student. This team assesses the student's abilities, strengths, and needs; determines the most appropriate educational placement; sets educational goals and objectives for the student; and specifies the special educational and related services that he or she will receive.
Among the services to be included in the IEP are supplementary aids and services that enable the student to make the best use of his or her education. For example, a student may need to have books transcribed into braille, or a student with low vision may need a low vision device such as a magnifier or a closed-circuit television (CCTV) to complete his or her schoolwork. Generally speaking, the teacher of visually impaired students will make arrangements for these services and alert the family to what is needed.
IDEA requires that, beginning at age 14, students receive transition services to prepare them for life after high school. The student's IEP will incorporate goals and activities to begin preparing the student for this transition and the services that will be needed, including preparation for independent living, enrollment in a vocational program or college, career and vocational planning, and the like. Connections also need to be made to services that students may be eligible for after school and as adults. For example, rehabilitation services, such as vocational rehabilitation, may provide financial and other assistance while a young person attends college or trade school, looks for work, and gets established in a new job.
Low Vision Services
Low vision services assist individuals, regardless of age, to make the best use of their vision, with or without the assistance of special optical devices. Individuals are said to have low vision when they are severely visually impaired, even with conventional eyeglasses or contact lenses, but are able to use vision at least some of the time for some everyday activities. These services include a low vision evaluation, a specialized examination to assess the abilities and needs of an individual with low vision; prescription of low vision devices, such as magnifiers or telescopes, and training in their use; and training in adaptive techniques to make optimal use of vision.
Ophthalmologists and optometrists typically do not provide low vision services unless they are specially trained in that area and may not always refer patients with low vision for low vision services. It is crucial, therefore, that individuals who may have low vision, their families, and their service providers be aware of such services and be assertive in finding out where to obtain them.
Low vision services may be located in agencies of and for blind or visually impaired people, hospitals, private rehabilitation agencies, university settings, and private ophthalmological and optometric clinics or practices. In addition, referrals may be obtained from national blindness organizations, state rehabilitation services, agencies or professionals that provide other visual impairment services, state or national ophthalmological and optometric associations, and nearby universities that train professionals in the field of blindness and visual impairment.
There are agencies that provide social and recreational opportunities for children with visual impairment and their families. It is important to recognize the need to locate both peers and mentors who can provide support, information as well as a fun time. Schools for the blind may offer summer programs that provide children with an excellent opportunity to have fun and be with their peer group. Many groups offer camps located throughout the country. To find out about upcoming activities offered in your community or nationally, check out the calendar of events or register to receive e-mail alerts about them.
Services for Families
It is also important to recognize the needs of other family members. There are some programs available for siblings, grandparents and other family members to provide for the specific needs. Families may come together through groups such as the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI), the use of the message boards, and other parent-focused groups. In addition, each state will have a parent training and information center that will have parent-to-parent groups that provide information and support for parents. These groups are often run by and for parents of children with disabilities and can be helpful in assisting you in understanding your rights and how to work with your providers to obtain the services you need.
Agencies that provide services for young children who are blind or visually impaired also provide assistance to families. For example, they may have counseling or support groups and social work services in addition to providing information about adapted communication techniques and developmental stimulation.