Future Reflections Spring 1996, Vol. 15 No. 2

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OSERS ISSUES POLICY LETTER ON EDUCATING BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED STUDENTS

Editor's Note: Parents who have been around the block a time or two in trying to get services (such as Braille) for a blind child know first-hand the frustration of figuring out how the provisions and regulations of the special education law (IDEA-the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) apply to blind kids. Part of the problem, no doubt, is that once the law defines "blind" and "visually impaired," there is no further reference to the distinctive needs of these students. This lack of specificity has often been used to distort the intent of the law. For example, one parent was told that her child couldn't get Braille because it would violate the "least restrictive" provisions of the law. The child could stay in the regular classroom (least restrictive setting) and learn print, but would have to be pulled out (restrictive setting) for Braille instruction. Based on this twisted reasoning, the school denied the child Braille instruction. Finally-as of November 3, 1995-parents, teachers, and other school officials have a tool to help them apply the provisions of IDEA to the specific educational needs of visually impaired students. This tool is in the form of a policy letter issued by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS). Policy letters are issued occasionally by OSERS as a means of clarifying a section of special education law. (Readers may remember that several policy letters were summarized in an article about assistive technology in the Fall 1995 issue of Future Reflections.)

This policy letter is reprinted below in full because it has the potential, if aggressively used, to be of sound help in the development of appropriate Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for blind and visually impaired students. Additional copies of this issue are available free of charge, or readers may make photocopies of the letter from the magazine as they wish. The more widely the letter is distributed and read, the more useful it can be.

Please note, however, that useful as this policy letter may be, it does not have the same force as law. There continues to be an urgent need for strong Braille literacy provisions to be added to IDEA. The National Federation of the Blind, in cooperation with other agencies and organizations serving the blind, remains committed to this goal. With the reauthorization of IDEA due for consideration this Spring, this is the time to make such an amendment a reality. Contact the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; (410) 659-9314 for information on how you can help this effort.

Here is the policy letter from OSERS:

United States Department of Education
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
600 Independence Ave., S.W. Washington, D.C. 20202

Our mission is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the Nation

November 3, 1995

Contact Person
Name: Rhonda Weiss
Telephone: (202) 205-9053
OSEP 96-4

To: Chief State School Officers
From: Judith E. Heumann, Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Thomas Hehir, Director Office of Special Education Programs
Subject: Policy Guidance on Educating Blind and Visually Impaired Students

Introduction

One of our highest priorities at the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) is improving services for students with low incidence disabilities, particularly those with sensory deficits. On October 30, 1992, the Department published a Notice of Policy Guidance on Deaf Students Education Services1 (Notice) to provide additional guidance to educators on the free appropriate public education (FAPE) requirements of Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Part B) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Acts of 19732 as they relate to students who are deaf. In OSEP Memorandum 94-15, dated February 4, 1994, we clarified that the policy guidance in this Notice is equally applicable to all students with disabilities.

Nevertheless, it has come to our attention that services for some blind and visually impaired students are not appropriately addressing their unique educational and learning needs, particularly their needs for instruction in literacy, self-help skills, and orientation and mobility. We at OSERS are strongly committed to ensuring that our educational system takes the steps that are necessary to enable students who are blind or visually impaired to become productive and contributing citizens. Therefore, OSERS has determined that there is a need for additional guidance on the FAPE requirements of Part B as they relate to blind and visually impaired students. This guidance will provide some background information on blind and visually impaired students and discussion of their unique needs, and will identify the steps that educators can take in meeting their responsibilities under Part B to blind and visually impaired students.

We hope that the attached guidance is helpful to you and educators in your state as you implement educational programs for blind and visually impaired students. If there are any questions, or if further information is needed, please contact the contact person listed above or Dr. JoLeta Rey- nolds in the Office of Special Education Programs at (202) 205-5507.

Attachment

CC: State Directors of Special Education
RSA Regional Commissioners
Regional Resource Centers
Federal Resource Center
Special Interest Groups
Parent Training Centers
Independent Living Centers
Protection and Advocacy Agencies

Background

The population of students who receive services under Part B because of blindness or visual impairment is extremely diverse. These students display both a wide range of vision difficulties and adaptations to vision loss. The diversity that characterizes the student population is true of the population of blind and visually impaired persons in general. So far as degree of vision loss is concerned, the student population includes persons who are totally blind or persons with minimal light perception, as well as persons with high levels of functional vision, though less than the norm. For some students, visual impairment is their only disability; while others have one or more additional disabilities that will affect, to varying degrees, their learning and growth.

Identifying other characteristics of this diverse population is far more complex. This is because adaptations to vision loss vary greatly and are shaped by individual differences in areas such as intellectual abilities and family supports. Degree of vision loss, therefore, does not give a full understanding of how that loss affects learning. Students with similar degrees of vision loss may function very differently. A significant visual deficit can pose formidable obstacles for some students and far less formidable obstacles for others. However, regardless of the degree of the student's vision loss or the student's ability to adapt to that loss, there is general agreement that blind and visually impaired students must acquire the skills necessary to function in settings in which the majority of people have vision sufficient to enable them to read and write regular print as well as to move about in their environment with ease.

To state the obvious, children begin at a very young age to imitate the actions of others, particularly by imitating what they see others doing. Typically, learning is based on this principle. The challenge for educators of blind and visually impaired students in schools is how to teach their students to learn skills that sighted students typically acquire through vision, including how to read, write, compose, and obtain access to information contained in printed materials. We recognize that blind and visually impaired students have used a variety of methods to learn to read and write. For example, for reading purposes, some students use Braille exclusively; others use large print or regular print with or without low vision aids. Still others use a combination of methods, including Braille, large print, and low vision aids while others have sufficient functional vision to use regular print, although with considerable difficulty. In order to receive an appropriate education under Part B, unless a student who is blind or visually impaired has other disabilities that would inhibit his or her ability to learn to read, we believe that instruction in reading must be provided for blind and visually impaired students in the medium that is appropriate for their individual abilities and needs to enable them to learn to read effectively.

One of the most serious concerns voiced by parents of blind children and their advocates, and by adults who are blind or visually impaired as well, is that the number of students receiving instruction in Braille has decreased significantly over the past several decades. As a result, these individuals believe that Braille instruction is not being provided to some students for whom it may be appropriate. Braille has been a very effective reading and writing medium for many blind and visually impaired persons. In fact, data from a recent study demonstrate that blind and visually impaired adults who know Braille are more likely to be employed than those who do not, suggesting a strong correlation between knowledge of Braille and a person's ability to obtain future employment. The American Foundation for the Blind's Careers and Technology Information Bank, which lists 1,000 different jobs held by blind and visually impaired people, indicates that 85 percent of those who use Braille as their primary method of reading are employed.3 Undoubtedly, there are numerous other benefits that individuals for whom Braille instruction is appropriate would derive from knowledge of Braille, particularly a heightened sense of self-esteem and self-worth that a student gains from the ability to read effectively.

Another significant concern voiced by parents of blind and visually impaired students and their advocates, as well as by many blind and visually impaired adults, is that these students are not receiving adequate instruction in orientation and mobility to address their individual needs. In some instances, it has been reported that these students do not even receive adequate evaluations of their needs for such instruction. The intent of Part B cannot be achieved fully if a blind or visually impaired student who needs instruction in orientation and mobility does not receive that instruction before completing his or her education.

I. Application of the Free Appropriate Public Education Requirements of Part B to Blind and Visually Impaired Students

Under Part B, each State and its public agencies must ensure that all children with specified disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education (FAPE), and that the rights and protections of Part B are afforded to those students and their parents. FAPE includes, among other elements, special education and related services that are provided at no cost to parents under public supervision and direction, that meet State education standards and Part B requirements, that include preschool, elementary, or secondary school education in the State involved, and that are provided in conformity with an individualized education program (IEP).4

Before a student with a disability can receive special education and related services, a full and individual evaluation of the student's educational needs must be conducted in accordance with the requirements of 34 CFR 300.532.5 Section 300.532 requires, among other factors, that the child be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team or group of persons, including at least one teacher or other specialist with knowledge in the area of suspected disability.6 Thus, for blind or visually impaired students, an individual with knowledge of blindness and visual impairment would be an essential participant on this multidisciplinary team.

An assessment that meets the requirements of Part B must assess the child in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, "health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities."7 Assessments for blind and visually impaired students must evaluate the student in the areas listed above, as determined appropriate by the multidisciplinary team.

For example, an assessment of academic performance would include an assessment of the student's ability to master the skills necessary for literacy, including reading, reading comprehension, composition, and computing. If appropriate, an assessment of vision would include the nature and extent of the student's visual impairment and its effect on the student's ability to learn to read, write, and the instructional method or methods that would be appropriate to enable the student to learn the above skills. For the teaching of reading and composition, these methods could include Braille, large print or regular print with or without low vision optical devices, or a combination of Braille and print. A range of devices that utilize computer-generated speech could be helpful tools in the instruction of children who are blind or visually impaired. Because of the importance for some blind and visually impaired students of mastering the skills necessary to acquire information, additional assessments may be necessary to determine whether the student should receive specific instruction in listening skills. Possible assessments that could be considered for this purpose could include assessments of hearing, general intelligence, or communicative status. The student's need for instruction in orientation and mobility and the appropriate method or methods for acquiring this skill could also be assessed. As with other educational decisions, the results of the student's assessments must be considered as the student's IEP8 is developed, and the participants on the student's IEP team determine the specially designed instruction and related services to be provided to the student.

Under Part B, the public agency responsible for the student's education must initiate and conduct meetings to develop or review each student's IEP periodically, and if appropriate, revise its provisions. A meeting must be held for this purpose at least once a year.9 Required participants at all IEP meetings include the child's teacher; an agency representative, who is qualified to provide or supervise the provision of special education; the parents, subject to certain limited exceptions; the child, if determined appropriate; and other individuals at the parent's or agency's discretion. If the IEP meeting occurs in connection with the child's initial placement in special education, the school district must ensure the participation of evaluation personnel, unless the child's teacher or public agency representative or some other person at the meeting is knowledgeable about the evaluation procedures used with the child and the results of those procedures.10

Each student's IEP must contain, among other components, a statement of annual goals including short-term objectives, the specific special education and related services to be provided to the student and the extent that the student will be able to participate in regular educational programs, and a statement of needed transition services under certain circumstances.11 To ensure that blind and visually impaired students receive adequate instruction in the skills necessary to become literate, IEP teams must ensure that the instructional time that is allocated is appropriate for the required instruction or service.12 For a student to become literate in Braille, systematic and regular instruction from knowledgeable and trained personnel is essential. Likewise, for students with low vision, instruction in the utilization of remaining vision and in the effective use of low vision aids requires regular and intensive intervention from appropriately trained personnel.

In all instances, IEP teams must consider how to address the needs of blind and visually impaired students for the skills necessary to achieve literacy. For students who are blind or for students with a minimal amount of residual vision, it is probable that Braille will be the primary instructional method for teaching the student to learn to read. Therefore, for blind students and for students with a minimal amount of residual vision, Braille should be considered as the primary reading method, unless the student has a disability in addition to blindness that would make it difficult for the student to use his or her hands or would otherwise adversely affect the student's ability to learn to read. In developing IEPs for other students with low vision, IEP teams should not assume that instruction in Braille would not be appropriate merely because the student has some useful vision. While IEP teams are not required to consider the need for Braille instruction for every student with a visual impairment who is eligible for services under Part B, IEP teams may not fail to consider Braille instruction for students for whom it may be appropriate. This consideration must occur despite factors such as shortages or unavailability of trained personnel to provide Braille instruction, the ability of audiotapes and computers to provide blind and visually impaired persons with ready access to printed textbooks and materials, or the amount of time needed to provide a student with sufficient and regular instruction to attain proficiency in Braille.

IEP teams also must select the method or methods for teaching blind and visually impaired students how to write and compose. Students whose appropriate reading medium is Braille may benefit from using Braille for these purposes. Alternatively, in addition to Braille, they may benefit from using a personal computer with speech output for composition. Therefore, IEP teams must make individual determinations about the needs of blind and visually impaired students for instruction in writing and composition, and must include effective methods for teaching writing and composition in the IEPs of those students for whom instruction in this area is determined to be appropriate.

In addition to mastering the skills taught to all students, blind and visually impaired students must receive instruction in the skills necessary to acquire information, particularly because Braille or large print documents frequently cannot be made accessible to them in a timely manner. The skills that could be taught to accomplish this include recordings that utilize compressed speech, personal computers with speech output, and optical scanners with speech output. As determined appropriate, use of these devices and methods would be considered on an individual basis. In appropriate situations, one or more of these devices could be used to supplement Braille instruction for students for whom Braille is the primary reading medium, or to supplement print or large print for students using print as their primary reading medium. In rare instances, methods for acquiring information could be used in place of Braille or print for students who, by reason of other disabilities, cannot be taught to read.

To ensure that IEPs for blind and visually impaired students address their specific needs effectively, the following unique needs should be considered as IEPs for these students are developed:

* Skills necessary to attain literacy in reading and writing, including appropriate instructional methods;

* Skills for acquiring information, including appropriate use of technological devices and services;

* Orientation and Mobility Instruction;

* Social Interaction Skills;

* Transition Services Needs;

* Recreation; and

* Career Education.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Participants on IEP teams could determine that it would be appropriate to consider an individual student's need for other skills, in addition to the skills listed above. Therefore, in making decisions about the educational programs for blind and visually impaired students, IEP teams must consider the full range of skills necessary to enable these students to learn effectively.

II. Least Restrictive Environment and Placement Requirements

Part B requires States to have procedures for assuring that, to the maximum extent appropriate, students with disabilities are educated with students who are not disabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of students with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.13 This requirement is known as the least restrictive environment (LRE) requirement.

Recognizing that the regular classroom may not be the LRE placement for every disabled student, the Part B regulations require public agencies to make available a continuum of alternative placements, or a range of placement options, to meet the needs of students with disabilities for special education and related services. The options on this continuum, which include regular classes, special classes, separate schools, and instruction in hospitals and institutions, must be made available to the extent necessary to implement the IEP of each disabled student.14

Part B requires that each child's placement must be based on his or her IEP.15 Thus, it is the special education and related services set out in each student's IEP that constitute the basis for the placement decision. That is why placement determinations cannot be made before a student's IEP is developed. Rather, it is the special education and related services set out in the student's IEP that must constitute the basis for the placement decision. After the IEP of a blind or visually impaired student is developed, the placement determination must be made consistent with the special education and related services reflected in the student's IEP. In addition, the potential harmful effect of the placement on the visually impaired student or the quality of services he or she needs must be considered in determining the LRE.16 The overriding rule in placement is that each student's placement must be determined on an individual basis.17 As in other situations, placements of blind and visually impaired students may not be based solely on factors such as category or disability, severity of disability, configuration of delivery system, availability of educational or related services, availability of space, or administrative convenience.

In addition to the Part B requirements applicable to placement in the LRE, Part B requires that each student's placement decision be made by a "group of persons, including persons knowledgeable about the child, the meaning of evaluation data, and placement options."18 While Part B does not explicitly require the participation of the child's parent on this placement team, many states include parents in the group of persons that makes placement decisions. It also is important to emphasize that parents of blind and visually impaired students, through their participation on the student's IEP team, can play a critical role in ensuring that the student's unique needs are appropriately addressed. Public agencies and parent information centers should take steps to ensure that parents are fully informed about the instructional media that are available to address the unique needs arising from the student's visual impairment.

In implementing Part B's LRE requirements, in some instances, placement decisions are inappropriately made before IEPs that address a child's unique needs are developed. Determinations of appropriate special education and related services for blind and visually impaired students must be made through the IEP process, and must examine the development of skills necessary to address the effects of blindness or low vision on the student's ability to learn and to access the curriculum. Since Part B requires that each child's placement be based on his or her IEP, making placement decisions before a student's IEP is developed is a practice that violates Part B and could result in the denial of FAPE in the LRE.

Still in other instances, some students have been inappropriately placed in the regular classroom although it has been determined that their IEPs cannot be appropriately implemented in the regular classroom even with the necessary supplementary aids and supports. In these situations, the nature of the student's disability and individual needs could make it appropriate for the student to be placed in a setting outside of the regular educational environment in order to ensure that the student's IEP is satisfactorily implemented. By contrast, there are other instances where some blind and visually impaired students have been inappropriately placed in settings other than the regular educational environment, even though their IEPs could have been implemented satisfactorily in the regular classroom with the provision of supplementary aids and services. As is true for all educational decisions under Part B, the above concerns about the misapplication of the LRE requirements underscore the importance of making individual placement determinations based on each student's unique abilities and needs.

In making placement determinations, it is essential that placement teams consider the full range of placement options for blind and visually impaired students. The following are some examples of placement options that could be considered:

* placement in a regular classroom with needed support services provided in that classroom by an itinerant teacher or by a special teacher assigned to that school;

* placement in the regular classroom with services outside the classroom by an itinerant teacher or by a special teacher assigned to that school;

* placement in a self-contained classroom in a regular school;

* placement in a special school with residential option.

III. Procedural Safeguards

Part B also requires that public agencies afford parents a range of procedural safeguards. These include giving parents written notice a reasonable time before a public agency proposes to initiate, or change, the identification, evaluation, educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to the child. This notice to parents must include a description of the action proposed, or refused, by the agency; an explanation of why the agency proposes, or refuses, to take the action; and a description of any options the agency considered and the reasons why those options were rejected.19 The requirement to provide a description of any option considered includes a description of the types of placements that were actually considered, e.g., regular class placement with needed support services, regular classroom with pull-out services; and the reasons why these placement options were rejected. Providing this kind of information to parents will enable them to play a more knowledgeable and informed role in the education of their children. Part B affords parents and public educational agencies the right to initiate an impartial due process hearing on any matter regarding the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to the child.20

Disagreements between parents and public agencies over issues such as the extent that Braille instruction should be included in a student's IEP and the educational setting in which the child's IEP should be implemented are examples of some of the matters that can be the subject of a Part B due process hearing. Since many State procedures call for mediation before resorting to formal due process procedures, issues that can be the subject of a Part B due process hearing also can be addressed through mediation if the State has such a process, or through other alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. We strongly encourage alternative dispute resolution without a need to resort to due process and informing parents about such procedures. Public agencies also need to inform parents of blind and visually impaired students of their right to initiate a Part B due process hearing when agreement cannot be reached on important educational decisions.

1See 57 Fed. Reg. 49274 (Oct. 30, 1992)

2 Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of Federal financial assistance. The Department's regulations implementing Section 504, at 34 CFR Part 104, require recipients that operate public elementary and secondary education programs to provide appropriate educational services to disabled students. See 34 CFR 104.33-104.36. Section 504 is enforced by the Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Title II, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by State and local governments, whether or not they receive Federal funds; OCR enforces Title II of the ADA as it relates to public elementary and secondary educational institutions and public libraries, and interprets the requirements of Title II of the ADA as consistent with those of Section 504. OCR officials have reviewed this guidance and find it to be consistent with recipients' obligations to provide FAPE to blind and visually impaired students under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA.

3Study of Issues and Strategies Toward Improving Employment of Blind and Visually Impaired Persons in Illinois, American Foundation for the Blind, (March 1991).

4 20 U. S. C. 1412 (2) ; 34 CFR 300. 121; 20 U.S.C. 1401 (a) (18) and 34 CFR 300.8.

5 34 CFR 300.531.

6 See 34 CFR 300.532(e)

7 See 34 CFR 300.532(f).

8 The IEP is the written document that contains the statement for a disabled student of the program of specialized instruction and related services to be provided to a student. 34 CFR 300.340-300.350.

9 20 U.S.C. 1414(a)(5) and 34 CFR 300.343(d).

10 34 CFR 300.344.

11 34 CFR 300.346.

12 Appendix C to 34 CFR Part 300 (question 51).

13 20 U.S.C. 1412(5)(B); 34 CFR 300.550(b).

14 See 34 CFR 300.551 and 300.552(b).

15 See 34 CFR 300. 552 (a) (2). That regulation requires that each child's placement is determined at least annually, is based on his or her IEP, and is in the school or facility as close as possible to the child' s home. 34 CFR 300.552 (a) (1) - (3). Further, unless a disabled student's IEP requires another arrangement, the student must be educated in the school or facility that he or she would attend if not disabled. 34 CFR 300.552(c).

16 34 CFR 300.552(d).

17 34 CFR 300.552 and Note 1.

18 34 CFR 300.533 (a) (3) .

19 See 34 CFR 300.5O4(a) and 300.505(a)(2)-(4).

20 See 20 U.S.C. 1415;(b)(1)(E) and 34 CFR 300.506(a).

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