American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) OPTIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES
by Darcie Whelan Kortan
From the Editor: Although it can be a challenge to obtain materials and special education services, a growing number of parents across the country are homeschooling their blind children. In this article, Darcie Whelan Kortan describes her homeschooling experience in New York State and offers encouragement to other families.
For a variety of reasons, many parents of kids with visual impairments consider homeschooling. Some families prefer to offer a curriculum in line with their religious values. Some feel that their gifted blind child is not being challenged in the public school classroom. Others are dissatisfied with how the school accommodates their child's need for access to books and other materials. Homeschooling is a daunting task even for the parent of a typical child. Is it possible to give your blind child what he or she needs if you are not a trained teacher of the visually impaired (TVI)?
The answer is yes. You can homeschool your blind or visually impaired child without holding a specialized degree. While many homeschooling families choose to go it alone in almost every aspect of education, this approach is not necessary or even practical for most homeschooling families of blind children. Many states ensure that students with disabilities are legally entitled to the services and equipment that they would receive to support their instruction in the public schools.
My son, Tim, is twelve years old. He is legally blind and has several additional disabilities. I have homeschooled him for almost three years, and he has consistently made greater progress with me than he made in the public schools.
When we began the homeschooling journey, we knew a lot about what our special needs child was entitled to under the New York State Department of Education regulations; he had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that was long and exhaustive. However, we knew nothing about our rights as homeschoolers, so we consulted a special needs lawyer. She had never worked on behalf of a blind student, but she informed my husband and me that every child with a disability in New York State who otherwise qualifies for special education is entitled to the same accommodations offered on his or her IEP, even when homeschooled. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that students with documented legal blindness qualify for an IEP.
New York state law views a homeschooled child as being in a "unilateral placement," nearly identical to when a student is sent to private school. While the parents opt to offer academics through an outside teacher (in this case, the child's mom or dad), the student is still entitled to all special education supports except for the main classroom teacher (general education or special education teacher, whichever the child had).
While I can only confirm the law as it stands in New York, many states around the country have similar policies. The New York regulations can be found at https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oii/nonpublic/newyork.html.
IDEA is a federal law, and its ideals underpin policies in those states where the law requires school districts to support homeschooled special education students. Even when a seasoned homeschooler in your state says you can't get support, don't assume that this information is correct. In my experience, most New York homeschoolers of special needs kids do not have any idea how many of the items below are still the responsibility of the state and the school district. A number of states have a commission for the blind; if your state has one, it may be a good source of information about homeschooling rights and regulations for blind students. Another resource is the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) at www.hslda.org.
In compiling this information, I draw mainly on my experience with my son, who has low vision. I apologize for any information I may have missed. All services and supports such as technology must be determined necessary through an evaluation by a professional. In New York State, if a school district does an evaluation and says your child doesn't need a particular service or support, you can request that the district pay for an outside evaluation. The district is required to pay for this, and you have the right to choose a qualified professional to perform it.
Services deemed appropriate for a child with special needs are called related services. Related services and other supports are listed not in an IEP (the document an enrolled student has), but in an Individualized Education Services Plan (IESP) developed by the Committee on Special Education (CSE) for your child. All special education terms used in this article are relevant to New York State; other states may employ alternative terms for special education services. For us, the services for the school year and, in many cases, the summer, included the following:
We also get services that are related to our son's other disabilities. These include:
Some of the supports that my son is qualified to receive are not directly related to his visual impairment, but his visual impairment may make it more likely that he has such needs. For example, he is eligible to take part in a social skills group with a social worker to improve his conversational exchanges and use of gestures. Tim does not have a cognitive impairment, but he is below grade level because his disabilities have slowed his learning. If an academic evaluation shows that your child is significantly below grade level in certain areas, in some cases this can be considered a "specific learning disorder” with impairments in reading or mathematics. This designation qualified our son for special learning supports, including reading resource room and math resource room. I determine the materials that he is reading and the math that he studies. Although we have not accepted the resource room services in past years, I have seriously considered them of late.
We chose to homeschool Tim because the communication with the public school was very poor, and the school was not modifying most materials to make them accessible to him. Now, as I am the homeschool instructor, the resource room professionals must report to and support me as I work with my son—quite the promotion from being plain old Mom when he was an enrolled student!
The school districts in New York consider homeschools on par with private schools. As such, the districts must provide accessible books and other curriculum materials. I have learned that it is not worth my time to argue to make the school district scan documents or create books and documents in accessible formats, though by law they should do these things. In my experience it takes less time to do the scanning myself than I would spend arguing about it with school administrators. I scan all books as PDFs, which is legal under the Fair Use Act of 2007. Students who need Braille or large print (technically, 16-point font), may be able to get some materials directly from the schools or through Quota Funds (explained below).
In New York, the school district also must provide equipment necessary for the student to achieve equal access to the curriculum. If I did not have special equipment, I could not possibly create accessible materials on my own. According to our New York State Commission for the Blind, all of the equipment a blind student requires to access the curriculum must be paid for and provided by the school, even if the child is homeschooled. This also means, however, that the Commission will refuse to pay for the equipment, even though it has thousands of discretionary dollars. In our case, the technology list is lengthy because Tim gets almost all of his academic materials on the computer.
Did I get the school district to pay for all of this? Much of it, yes. After wasting many years trying to get the school district to pay for equipment, I came to the sad conclusion that it often saves me time and money to buy it myself. The most important piece for us to own outright was the laptop. Whenever anything went wrong with the school-issued laptop, it took from six months to a year (or never) before it was fixed, and forget about timely upgrades to keep it running smoothly. The district paid for a lot of the software, but we insisted on installing it ourselves and getting the original CD.
At times I made the case to the New York Commission for the Blind that items were necessary for activities of daily living (ADLs), and the Commission purchased them. Some items are available through Federal Quota Funds, funds not drawn from the school’s budget but set aside to buy materials for blind students from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). As a homeschooler in New York, I have the right to make the case for technology to support my instruction. However, I can also talk to the TVI at the school and have him or her procure the equipment on my child's behalf.
Finally, and this is one that will allow you perhaps a few hours to kick your feet up and have a cup of coffee (or scrub the sticky OJ off the Brailler), in our state, the school district must provide bus transportation to and from the special education student's "related services."
While it may seem harsh to make your kid take the bus for forty-five minutes rather than give him a much shorter drive yourself, I will let you in on my dirty little secret—I don't care! I need the time to piece my life together; I need as many minutes as possible to be blessedly alone. Usually I while away those hours doing something responsible, such as poring over Tim's IESP for the next annual review (a yearly meeting you must have). But I have been known to eat a bonbon or two. Besides, Tim loves taking the yellow bus. It's his favorite part of the day.