Visual Impairment and blindness

The term “visual disabilities” encompasses a diverse population of individuals who may be identified with a visual impairment, low vision, blindness, and/or deafblindness. Most children and adults with visual disabilities have some degree of functional vision. That is, they are not totally blind with no light perception.

Within visual disabilities, there are two primary conditions: ocular and neurological. Ocular visual disabilities (e.g., glaucoma, retinopathy of prematurity, macular degeneration, etc.) involve the eye or optic nerve being impacted and causing the visual disability. Neurological visual impairments (e.g., cortical visual impairment or cerebral visual impairment) occur when the brain cannot process what the eye is seeing.

Note: Neurological visual impairment is different than a visual processing disorder.

The true prevalence of students with visual disabilities is not known, though federal data as reported by each state suggests that approximately 0.5 percent, or 30,000 students receiving special education services in the U.S., have “visual disability” denoted as their primary disability label. Recent research estimates approximately 75 percent of students with visual disabilities receiving special education services are categorized under a different primary disability label (that is, the students have multiple disabilities and visual disability is not their primary disability label).

Educational Supports:
Through early intervention and school-age (preschool through 12th grade) supports, students with visual disabilities may be found eligible for special education services through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) or Individualized Education Program (IEP). With an IEP, students may receive direct and consultative services from a teacher of students with visual impairment (TVI) and an orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist.

A TVI is a licensed teacher who will collaborate with the student’s educational team to help ensure students have access to appropriate accessible instructional materials based on individualized student need and the implications of their visual impairment (e.g., digital materials, large print, braille, audio, enlarged or tangible symbols). TVIs instruct students in the nine areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC), which include:

  • Assistive technology;
  • Career education;
  • Compensatory/access skills;
  • Independent living skills;
  • Orientation and mobility;
  • Recreation and leisure skills;
  • Self-determination skills;
  • Sensory efficiency skills; and
  • Social interaction skills.

O&M specialists hold national certification to train individuals with visual impairments how to orient to a space, travel independently safely in- and outdoors, and providing training on how to use a long-white cane.

Relevant Professionals and Fields of Study:
There are many qualified professionals who provide supports for students with visual disabilities in educational, postsecondary, and medical settings. Ongoing collaboration between these professionals typically results in the best holistic support for individuals with visual impairments across educational, community, and work settings.

Education Professionals:

  • Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI/TSVI): Professionals who hold teaching credentials or teaching license from the state in which they work.
  • Orientation and Mobility Specialists (OM/OMS/COMS): Professionals who hold national certification from either ACVREP or NOMC. In some states O&M specialists need to hold both a ACVREP or NOMC credentials and a state orientation and mobility teaching license.

Postsecondary Professionals:

  • Orientation and Mobility Specialists (OM/OMS/COMS): Professionals who hold national certification from either ACVREP or NOMC. In some states O&M specialists need to hold both a ACVREP or NOMC credentials and a state orientation and mobility teaching license. (O&M specialists are trained to work with individuals with visual impairments across the lifespan.)
  • Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Counselor: Individuals who help people with varying disabilities plan their careers. VR counselors can educate their clients about their rights and protection based on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and serve as mediators for disabled employees and their employers regarding proper accommodations in the workplace (source).
  • Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist(CVRT): Professionals who instruct individuals with vision impairments in the use of compensatory skills and assistive technology that will enable them to live safe, productive, and interdependent lives (source).

Medical Professionals:

  • Ophthalmologists: Doctors with a medical degree (M.D.) who specialize in the medical health and functions of the eye and visual systems. Some ophthalmologists specialize in pediatric patients or surgery. Ophthalmologists diagnose a visual disability, prescribe medication (when appropriate), perform surgery on the eye (when appropriate), and determine ongoing prognosis and treatment needs relating to eye health.
  • Optometrists: Doctors with a Doctor of Optometry degree (O.D.) who prescribe glasses for individuals with and without visual disabilities and diagnose basic eye health concerns to refer to an ophthalmologist.
  • Low Vision Specialists: Doctors (M.D. or O.D.) who focus on optimizing access to the visual environment for an individual with visual disabilities. They may prescribe optical and non-optical devices such as magnifiers, monoculars, bioptics, video magnifiers, special glasses or lenses.

People related to the topic: Visual Impairment and blindness

Daniel H Ashmead, Ph.D.
Professor of Hearing & Speech Sciences, Emeritus

Amy Needham, Ph.D.
Chair and Professor of Psychology and Human Development

John J Rieser, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology and Human Development, Emeritus

Rachel Schles, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of the Practice, Department of Special Education; Coordinator, Visual Disabilities Track

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