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by Marnee Loftin, Psychologist, TSBVI

All teachers and other professionals in the field of visual impairment recognized that students who are visually impaired can also have learning disabilities. Diagnosing these in a way that is meaningful to the educational process and complies with federal and state law is often difficult. At TSBVI a great deal of effort has been directed toward developing systematic procedures that can be used to document the present of a specific learning disability. At this time, the determination of a specific learning disability in the area of reading is one that has been well developed. Further work is being done in developing specific procedures in the areas of mathematics as well as exploring the concept of dyslexia in students with visual impairment.

The Texas special ed rules state that the presence of learning disabilities may be determined either by statistical comparison of intelligence to scores on tests of individual educational achievement or by informal methods that focus upon observation and classroom data. For a variety of reasons, the second method seems to be the most effective way for determining the presence of learning disabilities. Formal assessment may be used to begin the process of determining a learning disability, but is always supplemented by examples of classroom work and classroom observation.

The formal assessment process will vary depending upon the particular needs that are of concern to the teacher and/or parent. However, in all cases, we begin with a formal measure of intelligence that has been administered and interpreted in a manner consistent with an understanding of the impact of visual impairment. Again this gives us a baseline that allows us a rough "predictor" of anticipated educational achievement. Additional sources of data are discussed below.

READING DISABILITIES 

When assessing the presence of a specific disability in reading, formal assessment data is generally supplemented by a comprehensive speech and language evaluation. Skills assessed usually are those such as verbal sequencing, verbal memory, ability to rapidly retrieve information, and phonological awareness. In addition, history is reviewed to determine age at which letters were first recognized and any difficulties with rhyming that occurred early in life. These are all skills that are frequent deficit areas in students with learning disabilities. They seem to be equally predictive with students who also have visual impairment.

Classroom observations and informal assessments are used to determine functional performance at this time. Aspects such as slow reading rates, numerous false starts and dysfluencies, incorrect use of suffixes, excessive reliance on context clues and good comprehension even in the presence of great difficulties with decoding are all diagnostically significant in analyzing these materials.

Writing samples are often used as further data in establishing the presence of a reading disability. Punctuation and spelling errors do not assume the same importance in diagnosing a reading disability with a student who has a visual impairment. These are often a direct result of a variety of issues associated with visual impairment. Diagnostically, the most important issue may be the sheer simplicity of a writing sample. Given adequate adaptations, clear directions, and appropriate modifications, the final product of a very simple writing sample may be another indicator that all attention is being directed to the encoding process.

As mentioned in the article that appeared in RE:view, care should be taken "not to over identify learning problems by basing any assessment upon poor spelling , punctuation or both; or by doing any such assessment when a student's skills are being affected by a transition to a new medium. Equally, care should be take not to under identify learning problems by refusing to recognize significant problems simply because the student has a visual impairment.

FUTURE AREAS OF INTEREST

Again, efforts are underway to develop a systematic procedure for determining the presence of a learning disability in mathematics. Additionally work is being done in exploring the concept of dyslexia as well as visual processing difficulties. Observation in this environment suggests that both of these issues exist in children with visual impairments and seem to be a separate and severely limiting factor in the learning of new skills. Objectively determining the presence of these conditions as a separate disability is an area of interest for us at TSBVI.