WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 9, 2020)—The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) steadfastly believes that students who are blind or have low vision should have the same educational opportunities and programs as their peers without disabilities. With the passage of the $2.2 trillion relief package on March 27, the U.S. Department of Education now has the ability to either support that opportunity, or undermine it by recommending waivers of the two laws that protect students’ civil rights. AFB urges Congress and the Department of Education to focus on providing states, school districts, and schools with the full capacity they need to serve children with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, not on waiving educational rights.

Along with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that makes available a free appropriate public education to children with disabilities and ensures special education and related services. In the law, Congress states: Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

“Blind and low vision students need access to education as much as any other student,” said Stacy Cervenka, AFB Director of Public Policy. “These students need to keep up with their reading and math skills, so they are prepared when school begins again. They also need to maintain their skills in orientation and mobility (O&M), braille, adaptive technology, and daily living skills. Many of these students already face barriers related to low expectations and inaccessibility of classroom materials. Allowing them to fall behind their classmates will only create one more needless barrier.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country have been closing their doors, and most are working to transition to online or distance learning programs. However, some school districts nationwide have delayed or foregone such alternative educational programming, citing concerns about federal law as it relates to providing equitable educational opportunities for students with disabilities as laid out in IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While the Department of Education has sought to dispel this concern, as part of the relief package legislation, the Department has 30 days from the bill becoming law on March 27 to alert Congress if any waivers of these laws are considered necessary as they relate to providing special education services to students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan.

On Friday, March 20, AFB submitted a letter to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) asserting that students with disabilities must have access to the same opportunities as other students during this crisis. The letter was co-signed by the American Council of the Blind, American Printing House for the Blind, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Council for Exceptional Children Division of Visual Impairments and Deafblindness, National Organization for Albinism for Hypopigmentation, and the Perkins School for the Blind. AFB also signed onto a letter with the American Council of the Blind to key leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives, expressing concern about the (then) forthcoming legislation that would allow the Department of Education to waive the civil rights protections of students with disabilities. That letter called on Congress to fully fund the IDEA and thereby provide teachers with significantly more resources with which to educate students with disabilities.

There are numerous positive examples of states, school districts, schools, or individual teachers doing excellent work providing remote services despite the dearth of resources and funding. Yet these educators acknowledge that more must be done. AFB has gathered testimonials from teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) and other professionals in the education field and published them in a set of blog posts:

How TVIs and O&M Instructors are Handling the Challenges of Distance Learning, Part 1

How TVIs and O&M Instructors are Handling the Challenges of Distance Learning, Part 2

“AFB remains committed to protecting the educational rights of blind and low vision students in K-12 education throughout this pandemic,” Cervenka said.

Along with several other organizations in the blindness field invested in the education of students with visual impairments, AFB is working on a survey Increasing Accessibility to Education for Students with Visual Impairments, that will gather information from family members, TVIs, and O&M instructors so that we can better understand the direct impact COVID-19 is having on the education of children from infancy through age 21 who receive special education services.

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About the American Foundation for the Blind
Founded in 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is a national nonprofit that creates a world of no limits for people who are blind or visually impaired. AFB mobilizes leaders, advances understanding, and champions impactful policies and practices using research and data. AFB is proud to steward the Helen Keller Archive, maintain and expand the digital collection, and honor the more than 40 years that Helen Keller worked tirelessly with AFB. Visit: www.afb.org