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smiling boy using braillewriter in the classroom A boy uses a braille writer in his classroom.

From the desk of AFB’s Research Navigator

Research in Blindness and Visual Impairment from the AFB Public Policy Center

The AFB Public Policy Center has been taking a closer look at the special circumstances and educational challenges for bilingual students who are blind or visually impaired, as well as the challenges for their parents, guardians, and teachers in providing appropriate assessments and Individualized Educational Plans (IEP). We were fortunate to arrange an interview with Dr. Olaya Landa-Vialard, assistant professor at Illinois State University and an expert in the topic of special education for students who are both English-language-learners (ELLs) and blind/visually impaired. In sharing the conversation between Dr. Landa-Vialard (OL-V) and AFB’s Senior Policy Researcher, Dr. Rebecca Sheffield (RS), we hope to raise awareness and prompt continued conversations about providing the best educational access and services to our increasingly diverse infant, child, family, student, and adult populations.

RS: So prior to studying for your doctoral degree, you were an educational diagnostician. What does that mean?

OL-V: Educational Diagnostician is the title of a position in the state of Texas for individuals who are certified to administer testing and interpret intellectual and achievement testing data for students to determine eligibility for special education services (Texas Education Agency [TEA], 2012). Basically, as the educational diagnostician for students with blindness/visual impairments, I was the case manager for any students referred for testing, either initial or reevaluation, from ages 0-22 for the school district. As the case manager, I would work with a team of evaluators (parents, teachers of the visually impaired, orientation and mobility specialists, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, nurse consultants, translators (as needed), general education and special education teachers) and conduct a Full and Individual Initial Evaluation or Reevaluation to determine eligibility to receive special education and related services as a student with a visual impairment and any other disabilities that are suspected.

RS: I know that as a diagnostician and as a researcher, you’ve been involved with psycho-educational assessments. What is a psycho-educational assessment, and who do schools give these assessments to?

OL-V: Psycho-educational assessment provides estimates of the client’s (in this case, the student’s) intellectual, or cognitive abilities, and educational achievement levels. It also yields recommendations relevant for educational planning. (Read more about Assessments for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired). Sources of assessment data include background information, educational history, and records and data from tests of intelligence and educational achievement and, at times, rating tests of attention, behavior/emotions, and adaptive behavior. Psycho-educational assessment is designed to answer these questions: Does the student have a learning disability(ies)? Intellectual Disability? Attention problems? What are the student’s academic and cognitive abilities, strengths, and weaknesses? What are appropriate educational recommendations? Accommodations? While learning, not emotional problems, is the focus of psycho-educational assessment, behavior/emotional and medical issues may need to be addressed in psycho-educational assessment. Compiling, integrating, and analyzing all assessment data yield educational and other relevant recommendations (Bell, n.d., p.1; Burgee, 2012).
Once the assessment is completed, it would be sent to the parent, the members of the team, and the special education team at the receiving school. With the parent’s consent a copy would also be sent to any outside agency that was providing services to the student outside of the school setting. This would happen before the IEP meeting where the parent, the assessment team, and the school’s special education team would meet to interpret the report and develop an IEP for the student. I meet with the family before that meeting to help them get through the report and check for understanding and answer any questions they may have had. It is extremely important that the parents/guardians understand what is in the report so that they could prepare questions for the meeting. This way, the parents can be informed advocates for their child.

RS: What made you interested in studying assessments for students with visual impairment who are also English-language-learners (ELLs)?

OL-V: I am bilingual (English/Spanish) so it seemed natural for me to go into bilingual education as I have always wanted to be a teacher. So, I began my education career as a bilingual (English/Spanish) teacher. This is where I developed a passion for working with children who are bilingual and their families. Coming to or living in a country where one does not know English is a scary feeling and can make one feel alone and easily taken advantage of. As a teacher, I had students with disabilities in my classroom who were struggling to get through the academic English curriculum. If the bilingual student has a disability, it should present itself in both languages, English and Spanish. This is where I became interested in finding out whether or not the students had an actual disability or if the issue was language dominance. Then I went back to school to get my educational diagnostician certification through the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. This certificate would allow me to assess bilingual children in order to help determine if a disability exists or if the lack of English ability is what is causing the learning difficulties. Not knowing English is not a disability. Improper assessment of these students can lead to improper identification and placement into a special education program that is not necessary if the learning difficulties are rooted in not knowing English. I then had the opportunity to work with a student who had recently become blind due to a brain tumor. The TVI helped me with information regarding assessment of this unique population of students. She was so impressed she recommended to her boss that a position be created for me to focus solely with students who were blind/visually impaired, as we served many, many students in this unique population. I then became a certified teacher of students with visual impairments. I was able to use my experience as a bilingual teacher and training as a teacher of the visually impaired and combine those skills with my assessment training to help students who were bilingual with visual impairments.

RS: What did you specifically look for in your research, and what did you find?

OL-V: In my research I was specifically looking for answers to two questions: 1. What knowledge do educational diagnosticians possess regarding psycho-educational assessment of students who are bilingual with visual impairments? 2. What psycho-educational assessment practices and procedures are used by educational diagnosticians when assessing students who are bilingual with visual impairments?

Applying the conclusions from this research to the entire population of all bilingual students with visual impairment is difficult as the response rate to my survey was low; however, the responses I did receive were informative and have led me to tweak the survey a bit and prepare to send it out to a group of educational diagnosticians who are specifically charged with assessing bilingual students. Based on the limited data, I found that educational diagnosticians did not receive training from their university preparation program in regards to assessment of students with visual impairments, were not aware of the few books and manuals that have been published that can provide guidance for such an assessment, and finally – even though students who are bilingual with blindness/visual impairments make up the majority of the population in the area I was researching – relatively few of those students were formally assessed. This was alarming to say the least. This has definitely led me to pursue further research in this area to confirm and validate what I found with the limited data I had to interpret.

RS: What do you think needs to happen next in terms of research?

OL-V: In terms of research, current assessments that are available that are commonly used to assess students for eligibility for special education need to be normed and standardized for use with students who are bilingual with visual impairments as well as those who are not bilingual but have visual impairments. The reason for not creating a whole new assessment lies in the fact that since students with visual impairments are so low incidence that educational diagnosticians can go an entire career and never be assigned a case to assess a student who is visually impaired or bilingual with a visual impairment. If they happen to have such a case, receiving training on a new assessment for use with just the one student is time consuming and will not allow enough time for the educational diagnostician to become comfortable enough with the assessment instrument to obtain valid results. Whereas, if the educational diagnostician is able to use an assessment that he/she uses frequently, then the child will have the same opportunity as other students to receive a fair, valid and reliable assessment that can truly measure his/her abilities.

RS: What do you think should be happening in terms of policy and regulation?

OL-V:In terms of policy and regulation, I think we really need to look at the quality of assessments that are being conducted in order to prepare appropriate IEP’s for our students with visual impairments/blindness. Assessments drives the educational plan; if quality and meaningful assessments are not being conducted by trained and knowledgeable evaluation staff, then educational plans may not be developed based on appropriate, accurate data. This can lead to difficulty with transition and future employment and independence.
Another area that I think needs regulation is the scope and depth of the educational preparation programs for teachers of the visually impaired. They vary so much from state to state, from some states only requiring three courses (9-credit hours) to states requiring seven courses (21-credit hours) or more. Additionally, highly qualified (as required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) should not only be required for teachers teaching a particular content area (like math, English, science, etc.) but also for teachers who work at schools for the blind. They should be required to have in-depth personnel preparation in the area of blindness/visual impairment so that students at schools for the blind are receiving a free and appropriate public education (as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) from a teacher who is highly qualified not only in the content area but also in the area of teaching students with visual impairments, especially in the early childhood through elementary grades.

RS: What should parents know if they have a child who is blind/visually impaired and for whom English is a second language?

OL-V: Parents of children who are blind/visually impaired for whom English is a second language should know that it is very important for them to understand their rights and procedural safeguards. In order to assure this, a translator should be secured that speaks the same dialect of the home language so that this information can be explained in a language they understand and can then be an informed advocate for their child. They should also know of the resources available online through the Hadley School for the Blind that may assist them with working with a TVI to get assistance for their child in the home language. See this list of resources for more information.

RS: What can an educational diagnostician or school psychologist do to be better prepared to assess students who are ELLs and who also have visual impairments, and how can the Teacher of Students with Visual Impairment provide assistance?

OL-V: Educational Diagnosticians and School Psychologists – in order to be better prepared to assess students who are ELLs and who also have visual impairments – need to collaborate with the teacher of the visually impaired and with bilingual/ESL teachers. They can reach out to states’ schools for the blind and speak to the outreach departments to get information on how students are assessed at state schools. Additionally, a simple Google search can yield information regarding books and guides that are available to assist in preparing to assess this population of students. A search of websites dedicated to blindness/visual impairments can yield valuable information on how to assess this population of students as well.
Teachers of the visually impaired can seek out the educational diagnostician/school psychologist when they become aware that one of their current students will be due for a reevaluation during that school year, and they should begin the reevaluation process as soon as possible. This will help assure that there is time for the necessary collaboration to take place in order to help the assessment personnel make the necessary accommodations and modifications that are required for the student to be able to access the assessment materials. In addition, the expertise of the TVI can assist the evaluation personnel with understanding the unique learning patterns and needs of students with visual impairments/blindness.

RS: Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise with our readers. Are there any other resources you would like to share?

OL-V: I created the following handouts which may be useful to parents, teachers, educational diagnosticians, school psychologists, and others: - Diagnostic Assessment Considerations for Students who are Blind and Visually Impaired - Resources for Teachers of the Visually Impaired With Students who are English Language Learners - Assessment Instruments for Use with Students from Culturally Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds

Dr. Olaya Landa-Vialard wearing a black and white blouse Dr. Olaya Landa-Vialard

About Dr. Landa-Vialard

Dr. Olaya Landa-Vialard, Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Special Education in Low Vision and Blindness at Illinois State University, obtained her Ph.D. in Special Education with an emphasis in Visual Impairments and Blindness from the College of Education Special Education Program at the Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Visual Impairment at Texas Tech University. Her dissertation investigated the knowledge and practices employed by educational diagnosticians when conducting psycho-educational assessments of students who are bilingual with visual impairments.
Olaya has been an educator for nineteen years, seven of which were spent as the Lead Bilingual Educational Diagnostician for the Program for Students with Visual Impairments in Houston ISD, the 7th largest school district in the nation and the largest school district in Texas which serves 16,000 students in special education. Approximately 300 of those children are students with blindness/visual impairments. Olaya received training in the assessment of this unique population through the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She also serves as a private psycho-educational consultant and evaluator to educational service centers as well as school districts across the country. She co-created the website
Visions of Assessment which serves to assist evaluators with guidance in the assessment of students with visual impairments.