This article presents an overview of special education in the United States for learners with visual impairment (VI), which includes children who are blind or who have low vision. It provides a historical perspective on the continuum of educational settings (i.e., specialized schools for the blind vs. public schools) and curricula that have been available for children with VI. The controversy over Braille literacy is explained. The challenge of providing learners' with VI access to the common core curriculum while still teaching the expanded core curriculum (eight specific skills and strategies necessary for individuals with VI to succeed in school and in life) is addressed. A description of various assistive technologies is provided. Finally, issues related to employability after graduation, multimedia accessibility, and testing accommodations are discussed.
Keywords Assistive Technologies (AT); Blind; Braille; Common Core Curriculum; Expanded Core Curriculum; Low Vision; Special Education; Visual Impairment (VI)
About one in 1,000 school-aged children has a visual impairment, or VI (Council for Exceptional Children, n.d.). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997 defines VI as "an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance" (20 U.S.C. §1401). The term includes both low vision and blindness. Approximately 90% of individuals with VI have low vision while 10% are functionally blind (American Federation for the Blind, 2007). Throughout history, students with VI have been referred to as blind, visually handicapped, visually disabled, partially sighted, partially blind, visually limited, or sight impaired (Jackson, 2005).
Curriculum for Visual Impairment
In 1879, the United States Congress acknowledged the importance of improving the learning experiences of students with VI. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, these students were primarily educated in residential schools for the blind. Instruction in these specialized schools consisted primarily of the common core curriculum (e.g., language arts, math, science, social studies), while teaching students to read and write by using Braille. Interestingly, the use of Braille has been controversial throughout the history of American education. It took more than a century-a period known as "the war of the dots"-for Braille to be established as the preferential reading method for blind learners (Jackson, 2005).
In the early 20th century, there was a widespread belief that extreme nearsightedness would become worse through eyestrain; therefore, curriculum materials for nearsighted students were enlarged and supplemented by oral reading. This "sight saving philosophy" persisted well into the 1960s until it was discovered that efficiency of vision improved through use rather than by disuse (Jackson, 2005). The resulting "sight utilization philosophy" then persevered into the 1980s, when
“. . . declining Braille literacy rates among blind students were observed to correlate with unemployment. Concurrent with the sight utilization philosophy was an increase in public day school attendance by blind students. Children who may have learned Braille at residential schools were now using enlarged print or print with optical magnification. From the perspective of many special educators, this overemphasis on the importance of sight utilization deprived many severely visually impaired students of the opportunity to learn Braille. Hence, the 1990s brought on a new era of curriculum emphasizing Braille literacy” (Jackson, 2005, p. 38).
Today, IDEA (2004) presumes that all students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP's) who have VI shall use Braille as their primary literacy medium unless the IEP team determines that print is more efficient for a particular student with usable vision. According to Jackson (2005), the following factors must be taken into account when considering the needs of visually impaired learners:
Age at onset of visual impairment,
Degree of impairment,
Site of impairment,
Prognosis for improvement or degeneration in condition,
Day-to-day stability of condition,
Individual tolerance for visual fatigue, and
The extent of any co-existing additional impairments (Jackson, 2005).
Historically, specialized schools for the blind were the only option available to students with VI. Curriculum design for low-vision students began to emerge in the early part of the 20th century when children with VI were removed from residential schools for the blind and placed in public schools. Chicago was one of the first public school districts to intermingle blind children with sighted children. This arrangement, which was referred to as the "Chicago experiment," established separate classrooms for blind students while allowing them to spend some time in classrooms with their sighted peers (Ely, 2006).
Jackson reports that,
“During the 1950s and 1960s, public day school programs for blind and visually impaired students expanded rapidly. Resource models, itinerant teaching services, and teacher-consultation models emerged and soon overtook residential school placement as the preferred approach for meeting blind students' educational needs. With the enactment of IDEA (1997), special education is no longer considered a place but rather a network of services and supports designed to enable students to derive full benefit from a public school education” (Jackson, 2005, p. 39).
The International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment and the World Blind Union
“. . .supports inclusive education as one of the alternative models of service delivery, on condition that all necessary steps are taken to first put in place the required number of teachers trained in the special needs of blind and low vision children and the essential support systems, the necessary equipment, Braille books, and low vision devices to guarantee true inclusion” (ICEPVI/WBU, 2003).
Unfortunately, in the United States, there is an estimated shortage of more than 5,000 teachers of trained students who are visually impaired--a shortage that is especially acute in rural areas (Johnson & Lawson, 2006). Therefore, in some cases, an IEP team determines that an “alternative and highly specialized setting” is the best choice, and therefore the “least restrictive,” placement for meeting the needs of a student with VI, especially if the local public school “is not sufficiently equipped to provide a safe and successful educational experience for that student” (Jackson, 2005, p. 13). Therefore, for some students with VI, the road “toward the greatest access to the general education curriculum may be pursued more appropriately in a separate setting” such as a residential school for the blind (Jackson, 2005, p. 13).
What is most important when considering appropriate educational settings for learners with VI is that the placement or location of services is the last decision an IEP team should make during the assessment and planning process. Previously, the disability label itself would dictate the setting, and that placement would then define the treatment or nature of the instruction (Jackson, 2005, p. 15). Today, the individual needs of a student are of more importance than a categorical label.
Expanded Core Curriculum
Prior to IDEA (1997), advocates for public school settings tended to de-emphasize the special challenges of students with VI when immersed in the general educational environment. According to Jackson (2005), they believed that these students “needed the same curriculum as every other student and that teachers should supply just a few additional skills and resources” (p. 39). Such supplemental skills and knowledge areas became known as the “plus curriculum.” Today, the plus curriculum is known as the “expanded core” curriculum, emphasizing that it must correlate with the “common core” curriculum (Jackson, 2005). Although the concept of a disability-specific curriculum has been present in the field of VI since its inception (Ely, 2006), the term "expanded core curriculum" has reached a level of general acceptance in recent years.
According the American Federation for the Blind, the expanded core curriculum includes eight areas of instruction “specific to students with VI. Intervention from a teacher for students with visual impairments is necessary to provide direct instruction in the expanded core” (AFB, 2007). The Federation’s website outlines the areas of the expanded core as follows:
1. Compensatory or Functional Academic Skills, including communication modes-skills that a student with a visual impairment must acquire to access the regular curriculum. These skills include learning Braille, study and organizational skills, spatial understanding, and any adaptation of the existing curriculum.
2. Orientation and Mobility -skills involved in independent travel and the concepts that underlie spatial reasoning and navigation.
3. Social Interaction Skills -acquisitions of the subtle modes of interaction that people develop by watching, imitating, and reacting to each other.
4. Independent Living Skills -can include cooking, personal hygiene, money management, time monitoring, and organization. These are often skill areas that children with visual impairments do not develop because they do not observe them in others and they are often not explicitly taught.
5. Recreation and Leisure Skills -while physical fitness is generally addressed in the regular curriculum, activities that can be used to actively fill leisure time are often not addressed. Without direction instruction, it is not likely that a child will be exposed to the range of activities possible.
6. Career Education -as in many of the other areas listed, children with visual impairments are often not exposed to a large variety of career options. This is both because of a lack of prior visual experiences and because of a perception that the range of options is severely limited for children with visual impairments. Unemployment and underemployment is one of the biggest problems facing adults with VI in today's society.
7. Use of Assistive Technology -technology can be a great tool for providing access to information for people with visual impairments. Whether it is through speech, Braille, or large print output, the use of technology gives a person with a visual impairment access to information at approximately the same time as a person who is sighted.
8. Visual Efficiency Skills -although the amount and type of vision varies greatly among individuals, a common requirement is instruction in using what vision they have efficiently. For a student with a field loss, it might be viewing print eccentrically to maximize clear perception of the print. For another student it might be paying attention to objects in their peripheral field when walking to get as much advance warning of impending obstacles as is possible (AFB, 2007 http://www.afb.org/section.asp?sectionid=44&topicid=189&documentid=2646).
A person who is visually impaired and who has a command of expanded core curriculum skills as well as knowledge of common core subjects is fully equipped to be competitive in the workforce. This person is then in a position to contribute to the economy, rather than being dependent on governmental assistance. However, the average national unemployment rate for people who are blind or visually impaired is a disappointing 70% (McDonough, Sticken, & Haack, 2006).
Parents and special educators have been lobbying for formal support of the expanded core curriculum since the 1990s. Toward that end, the 2003 Senate bill S1248 included language that addressed the need for instruction in a handful of areas of the expanded core curriculum (McDonough, Sticken, & Haack, 2006). Unfortunately, this language was not included in the most recent reauthorization of the IDEA in 2004. Despite an established place in the education of children with VI, the expanded core curriculum has not yet been fully embraced by some administrations, state education departments, and the federal government (McDonough, Sticken, & Haack, 2006).
Since the purpose of education is to equip children with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in school and...
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