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Education of Individuals with Visual Impairments

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The term blindness brings to mind many images as well as many unfounded beliefs. Although popular opinion suggests otherwise, individuals with blindness do not possess an extra sense allowing them to intuit the visual world. Likewise, people with visual impairments do not exhibit superhuman abilities in touch and hearing. In fact, most people who are blind can actually see–very few people who are blind are completely blind.

An individual who is legally blind has limited visual acuity relative to either distance (visual acuity of 20/200 or less in his or her better eye even with correction), or field (a field of vision so narrow that its widest diameter subtends an angular distance no greater than twenty degrees). Individuals considered to be partially sighted have visual acuity falling between 20/70 and 20/200 in the better eye, even with correction. Educators commonly use a more functional definition of blindness. Educators use the term blind to describe students who are so severely impaired that they must learn to read using braille or aural methods. Children who can read print with magnifying devices or large-print books are often referred to as students with low vision. The different definitions are used in reported prevalence rates. Overall, visual impairment in children is estimated at three per 10,000. In the 1998 through 1999 school year, the Office of Special Education Programs reported more than 26,000 students with visual impairments (approximately.04% of all students ages 6–21).

The causes of partial sight include nystagmus (conditions caused by improper muscle functioning), optic atrophy (conditions including glaucoma), cataracts, and other congenital abnormalities. The main causes of blindness are optic atrophy, retinal conditions, and cataracts and other congenital abnormalities. Although the most serious visual impairments are caused by glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetes, retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is reemerging as a significant cause of blindness. In the 1940s ROP began appearing in premature infants. Excessive concentrations of oxygen administered to prevent brain damage resulted in scar tissue behind the lens of the eye. More than sixty years later, efforts to save the lives of medically fragile infants that use high concentrations of oxygen are also resulting in ROP.

Although blindness is primarily an adult disability, educational services for individuals with visual impairments include not only training centers and sheltered workshops, but also specialized schools, classrooms, and teachers. The first schools for children with blindness opened in the United States in 1832. The Perkins School for the Blind and the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind were modeled after programs in Europe and led by Dr. John Dix Fisher and Samuel Gridley Howe. These schools and others like them developed sheltered workshops designed to give students skills for employment. Many of these workshops in the early twenty-first century operate independently from educational institutions.

The twentieth century heralded many significant milestones in the provision of services for both children and adults with visual impairment. In 1920, the Smith-Fess Act appropriated state and federal funds for the vocational rehabilitation of people with physical handicaps. Later in 1940, the National Federation of the Blind was formed. This federation began advocating for individuals with blindness and continues to prepare and place people with blindness in suitable jobs. Finally, in 1975 the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Pub. L. 94-142) was passed. This act guaranteed a free and appropriate education for all children regardless of disability.

In the early 1900s most students with blindness were educated in residential schools; at the beginning of the twenty-first century most attend regular classes with periodic support from a teacher for the visually impaired. However, some professionals still advocate for special schools and programs, arguing that students with blindness need specific services and supplies that cannot be offered in regular classrooms.

The use of braille declined dramatically in the last half of the twentieth century. In opposition to this trend, many professionals, along with the National Federation of the Blind, have argued that knowledge of braille is essential for independent living and that too few teachers are proficient in braille. In the 1997 reauthorization of Public Law 94-142, the U.S. Congress mandated braille services for all students with blindness unless all members of the educational team deemed the services unnecessary. Students with visual impairment also require mobility training. Historically, white canes were not available to young children; however, some experts now contend that cane training should begin as soon as the child is walking independently. This training should be a critical component of preschool programming. Guide dogs are generally not recommended for children because of the care they require.


BEST, ANTHONY B. 1992. Teaching Children with Visual Impairments. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

HALLAHAN, DANIEL P., and KAUFFMAN, JAMES M. 2000. Exceptional Learners: Introduction to Special Education, 8th edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

VAUGHAN, C. EDWIN, and VAUGHAN, JOAN. 1998. "Blindness in the United States: From Isolation to Full Inclusion." In Social and Cultural Perspectives on Blindness, ed. C. Edwin Vaughan. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.



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