Premier’s Special Education Scholarship
Special education models
for students with vision impairment
in the United States
Bass Hill Public School
Focus of the study
The five-week scholarship study involved travel to several cities and states in the United
States, including Boston in Massachusetts, Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, New York City,
and Los Angeles and San Francisco in California. The focus of the scholarship was to
view models of special education for children with vision impairment and blindness. This
included discussion on school-based programs and the use of Braille and related
resources in the classroom. The range of schools included preschools and elementary,
middle and high schools. The children were enrolled in public, private and residential
schools for the blind and vision impaired. The study also included visits to universities
and colleges which were involved in research in vision impairment and Braille studies,
teacher training, and professional development of teachers and administrators.
Definitions of vision impairment
There are two common ways of defining vision impairment and blindness in the United
States. The medical or legal definition describes vision acuity as 20/200 (measured in
feet) or less in the better eye with correction, or a vision field subtending an angle of 20
degrees or less. This definition is still widely used in the medical profession and may be
used in the rehabilitation of adults. The second way of defining vision impairment, which
is used for children with vision impairment, uses the terms ‘functionally blind’ or
‘functionally with low vision’. Functionally blind children are those whose primary
avenues of learning are tactual and auditory, while those who are functionally with low
vision have a vision impairment that affects learning but who still use vision as their
primary avenue of learning.
There are many variations of these definitions and the legal definition of blindness is not
an accurate measure when determining educational decisions for children, especially
about the learning media of Braille, print, or both (Pugh & Erin, 1999). In regard to the
forms of vision impairments, Ferrell (1998) found that optic nerve hypoplasia and
albinism were the most frequent visual diagnoses in children who did not have additional
disabilities, whereas children with severe multiple disabilities were most often diagnosed
with retinopathy of prematurity and cortical vision impairment. Studies indicated that
from 56 to 64 per cent of young children with vision impairment have additional
disabilities (Ferrell, 1998; Robinson, Jan & Kinnis, 1987).
Legislation on individuals with disabilities
In the United States, the combination of litigation, state legislation and pressure from
advocacy groups culminated in the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975
(Public Law 94-142), which was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,
IDEA (Public Law 101-476) in 1990, and amended in 1997 (Public Law 105-17). It
ensures a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for children
with disabilities. The IDEA amendments of 1997 define children with vision impairment
as having an impairment which even with correction adversely affects their educational
performance (Pugh & Erin, 1999; Sacks, 1998).
Legislation to support early intervention programming for young children with
disabilities and their families required expansion of services within public school
programs to support the needs of children from birth through to age three. Public law
99-457 (Part H) created a framework for service delivery which emphasised the need for
specialised assessment and instruction of young children with vision impairment and
other disabilities (Sacks, 1998). The 1997 amendments of IDEA (Public Law 105-17, Part
C) specified that services (including vision services and orientation and mobility) be
delivered to infants with disabilities and to those who are at risk for developmental delay
from birth through to three years. Those eligible infants and their families are required to
receive a multidisciplinary assessment and to have an Individualised Family Service Plan
(IFSP) developed (Pogrund, 2002).
In 1995, the US Department of Education issued a document on the Policy Guidance
for educating students with vision impairment and blindness (Heuman & Heir, 1995, as
cited in Pugh & Erin, 1999). The policy was in support of appropriate assessment
performed by professionals with knowledge of vision impairment; literacy instruction,
especially in braille reading and writing, and instruction in orientation and mobility (O &
M) by qualified professionals. In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (Public Law 107-
110) reauthorized a number of federal programs that aimed to improve the performance
of primary and secondary school students by increasing the standards of accountability
for states, school districts and schools, as well as providing parents more flexibility in
choosing which schools their children will attend.
Over the past 15 years, there has been greater focus on providing high-quality instruction
for students in Braille literacy programs. A significant number of authorities have
expressed concerns about the low level of literacy skills with Braille using students,
including the assessment and instructional practices used to teach Braille literacy skills
(Ryles, 1996; Spungin, 1990). Koenig & Holbrook (2000) have identified 12 areas of
Braille literacy skills which vary in consistency and intensity depending upon the skill area
to be addressed and the individual needs of the child.
Models of special education:
vision assessment and teams
The IDEA amendments of 1997 (PL 105-17) defines a specific process before a student
with a suspected disability receives educational services. The sequence of events involves
four steps (Pugh & Erin, 1999; Lewis & Russo, 1998):
Comprehensive assessment of needs;
Determination of short and long term goals (Individual Education Program);
Identification and referral is usually from the parent, caregiver or a person in a
professional position. Comprehensive assessment is necessary for four reasons:
screening, determining exceptionality and eligibility, instructional planning and
placement, and evaluation of the child’s progress. Eligibility for special education services
is dependent upon the student having identified exceptionality and special learning needs
as described and defined in IDEA.
The Individual Education Program (IEP) team is responsible for determining the child’s
exceptionality and eligibility. The team determines the scope of the assessment based
upon referral information and preliminary screening results. Several assessments are
required—a medical and ophthalmologic assessment and a functional vision assessment.
In order to determine the child’s special learning needs, an assessment of academic
performance, potential and learning style is required. The assessment must also include
particular skill areas, specific for children with vision impairment. In accordance with
IDEA, students with disabilities must be assessed by individuals who have knowledge
about that disability (34 CFR 300.532). It is the usual process for a credentialed vision
teacher to be an active participant on the IEP team to prepare, conduct, and interpret the
results of assessments (Pugh & Erin, 1999; Lewis & Russo, 1998).
Comprehensive assessment identifies the child’s strengths and weaknesses, which assists
the IEP team to prioritise their educational needs. Determining the appropriate
placement is strongly linked to the assessments conducted for the educational planning
process (Curry & Hatlen, 1988). Three team models are formed for assessment, planning,
instructional design, discussion and support, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and
A multidisciplinary team model is based upon a medical approach in which assessment
and instruction are conducted outside the classroom, and there is no collaboration or
sharing of instruction among the professionals.
The interdisciplinary team model is based upon independent assessments in which the
entire team works together to develop goals and instructional planning. Direct
instruction, particularly for specialised skills and activities, may occur in isolation of other
educational contexts rather than working together to initiate a consistent teaching
The transdisciplinary team model places the student as the primary focus and decisions
regarding assessment, instruction, placement and IEP goals are made by the team as a
whole. The team members work together to complete assessments and decide who will
provide the instruction, and in which environment. Related-services personnel (such as
vision teacher, O & M specialist or a therapist) work in the classroom or in the
community (Sacks, 1998).
In accordance with the regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, the Policy
Guidance Paper issued by the US Department of Education (Heuman & Heir, 1995, as
cited in Corn & Huebner, 1998), state legislation, and Goal 5 (McMahon, 1998) of the
National Agenda, it is acknowledged that in order to provide children with vision
impairment a free and appropriate education, a range of placement options is needed.
Placement options are as follows (McMahon, 1998):
Regular classroom: Children receive the majority of their education program in
regular classes and may receive special education outside the classroom for no more
than 21 percent of the school day.
Resource room: Children receive their education program in a resource room and in
regular classes. They may receive special education outside the regular classroom for
at least 21 percent but no more than 60 percent of the school day.
Separate class: Children receive their education program in separate classes outside
the regular classroom for more than 69 percent of the school day. (This does not
include children in separate day or residential schools, which may be public or
Public separate school facility: Children receive services in a public separate day
school for greater than 50 percent of their school day.
Private separate school facility: Children receive services in a private separate day
school at public expense for greater than 50 percent of their school day.
Public residential facility: Children receive services in a public residential school for
greater than 50 percent of their school day.
Private residential facility: Children receive services in a private residential school at
public expense for greater than 50 percent of their school day.
Homebound and hospital placement: Children receive services in their home or in
Residential and day schools for the blind and vision impaired offer a variety of services
for children attending public and private schools in the state in which they live (for
instance, academic programs, alternative academic programs, Braille specific literacy and
numeracy programs, technology programs, extended day programs, extended year
programs, summer programs, sport and recreation programs and camps). These schools
also provide a consultation process for parents, teachers, administrators, schools, other
agencies and community outreach services. Specialised personnel perform functional
vision assessments for students as a service. These schools are also venues for in-
servicing teachers and other personnel involved with children who have vision
Special education curriculum models
Children with vision impairment in inclusive education classrooms require adaptation
(Braille or large print) of the core curriculum or academic subjects studied from
kindergarten through to high school graduation. These children also require
competencies in an expanded core curriculum. The expanded core curriculum is
considered a unique educational curriculum for students with vision impairment who are
learning to access information that is acquired casually and incidentally by sighted
learners. The expanded core curriculum consists of:
Compensatory academic skills, including communication modes;
Social interaction skills;
Recreation and leisure;
Use of assistive technology;
Orientation and mobility;
Independent living skills;
Visual efficiency training (Hatlen, 1996).
In an endeavour to address the educational needs of children with vision impairment,
Corn and Huebner (1998), in the National Agenda for the Education of Children and
Youths with Visual Impairments, defined the expanded core curriculum as a set of
priorities stated as goals which apply to infants, toddlers, and youths with vision
impairment, including those with multiple disabilities. These goals have been widely
acknowledged as the critical issues confronting the quality of education for children with
vision impairment (including Braille and large print learners). The goals are as follows:
Goal 1: Students and their families will be referred to an appropriate education
program within 30 days of the identification of suspected vision impairment.
Goal 2: Policies and procedures will be implemented to ensure the right of all parents
to full participation in the education process.
Goal 3: Universities with a minimum of one full-time faculty member in the area of
vision impairment will prepare a sufficient number of educators in the area of vision
impairment to meet personnel needs throughout the country.
Goal 4: Service providers will determine caseloads based upon the needs of students
and will require ongoing professional development for all teachers and O & M
Goal 5: Local education programs will ensure that all students have access to a full
array of placements options.
Goal 6: Assessments of students will be conducted in collaboration with parents by
personnel having expertise in the education of students with vision impairments.
Goal 7: Access to development and educational services will include an assurance
that instructional materials are available to students in the appropriate media, and at
the same time as their sighted peers.
Goal 8: Educational and developmental goals, including instruction, will reflect the
assessed needs of each student in all areas of academic and disability-specific core
curricula (Corn & Huebner, 1998).
In the delivery of the expanded core curriculum for students with vision impairment,
Hatlen (1996) affirms that the additional learning experiences contained in the expanded
core curriculum are not easy to implement. The components of the curriculum require
time to teach and their importance does not diminish with age or competency. The
certified vision teacher is responsible for the assessment, instruction and evaluation of
the curricular areas. Programming is necessary to accommodate the time involved in
addressing the competencies required in this curriculum. Children need to have the
necessary transition skills to progress from school to adulthood (Hatlen, 1996).
In a national survey of the current level of instruction in the core curriculum, Hatlen
(1998) identified barriers to providing the core curriculum:
Caseloads of vision teachers were too large, and therefore, insufficient time to
consider the expanded core curriculum.
Academic issues were considered more highly than issues related to the core
Assessment materials were not adequate or available to address the core curriculum.
There was a lack of recognition of the student’s special needs from administrators.
Hatlen (1996) suggested some options for overcoming these barriers:
Summer school programs;
Schools for the blind;
Extended year and or an extended day;
In-servicing for administrators, policy makers, and teachers;
More placement options for students.
Conclusion and recommendations
Ongoing professional development of vision staff at a team or district level, at a
regional level, and at a state level. This includes greater links with universities or
colleges involved in the research of vision impairment and Braille instruction for
teacher training of vision staff, and links with private institutions involved in the
teaching of children with severe vision impairment or blindness.
Collaboration with private institutions involved in the services of children and adults
with severe vision impairment and blindness.
Continued focus on the academic curriculum and the expanded core curriculum for
students with vision impairment and blindness.
International links with selected residential schools for the blind in the United States
or other countries for the sharing of ideas, knowledge, expertise and resources.
The proportion of students who have vision impairment and other disabilities
continues to grow. Recognition and understanding the unique needs of these
children assists with quality programming and instruction.
In conclusion, collaboration and professional development are the keys to successful
special education practice.
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