The Role of Vision Professionals for Students with a Visual Impairment Under Section 504
Authors: Michael Munro, Visual Impairment Specialist, Region 6 Educational Service Center, and Stephen F. Austin State University and Kelly Bevis, TSVI Program Coordinator, Region 10 Education Service Center
Keywords: Section 504, IDEA, evaluation, specially designed instruction, Expanded Core Curriculum, local education agency, FAPE, collaboration, Child Find, accommodations
Students who qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as a student with a visual impairment receive services from Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments (TSVI) and/or certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists (COMS). State and federal laws are clear that these professionals must provide eligible students with specially designed instruction. Additionally, per the Texas Education Code §30.002(c)(4)(A)(B), each child eligible for special education, due to a visual impairment, receives evaluation and instruction in the ECC [Expanded Core Curriculum]. The ECC is the specially designed instruction for students with visual impairments that enables students with visual impairments to access and make progress in their educational program and be independent in life.
All students in the evaluation process should be considered for both Section 504 and special education. If a student is suspected of having a disability, they should be considered for all programs to support their growth and access to the curriculum. That includes an array of services including special education and Section 504. Both IDEA and Section 504 regulations require a local education agency (LEA) to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each qualified student with a disability who is in the school district’s and charter’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability.
But what about students with visual impairments who are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?
Because Section 504 is a civil rights statute, eligible students must have a disability that substantially limits a major life activity, such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Students with visual impairments under Section 504 receive accommodations and/or instructional strategies only. Students typically do not receive additional services or support from trained vision professionals. Additionally, students under Section 504 do not receive instruction in the ECC, because the ECC is considered specially designed instruction and must be provided within the confines of special education.
What is the role of the vision professional when students have a disability under Section 504?
With consent from the student’s family, the vision professional may assist Section 504 committees in several ways, such as: understanding the eye medical report, explaining the impact of the visual impairment on learning and access, suggesting accommodations and/or instructional strategies that may remove barriers to accessing the general curriculum, etc. As an example, it may be beneficial for the TSVI to explain the benefits of patching for amblyopia so that appropriate accommodations can be identified.
There are, however, limits to what a TSVI and COMS can do when working with a 504 committee. For a student who has not previously received an evaluation, the TSVI and COMS must be careful when advising Section 504 committees, as they may not utilize tests or procedures that would be used in a functional vision evaluation (FVE), learning media assessment (LMA), or orientation and mobility (OM) evaluation. The vision professional should never observe a student with the specific viewpoint of determining the need for services as this would violate TE Code §300.304(b)(2) which states that no “single measure or assessment” may be used “as the sole criterion for determining whether a child is a child with a disability.”
When considering Section 504, LEAs are to give primary consideration to the auxiliary aid or service requested by the student with the disability when determining what is appropriate. Examples of auxiliary aids and services for students who are blind, deafblind, or have low vision include, but are not limited to: qualified readers, taped texts, audio recordings, braille materials and displays, screen reader software, magnification software, optical readers, secondary auditory programs (SAP), large print materials, accessible electronic and information technology.
One of the ongoing challenges is determining when to make a referral to special education and when to refer for Section 504. Anytime the LEA suspects or has reason to suspect that a student has a visual impairment, is deafblind, or has another disability condition, and needs special education services, the LEA must seek parental consent for a full individual and initial evaluation (FIIE) under IDEA. If a student needs training in the ECC to be successful in school and life, follow the established Child Find process and make a referral to special education. Child Find is not a part of Section 504 but is a provision of IDEA. If a student’s needs can be met with supplementary aids and services, i.e., accommodations and instructional strategies, then a Section 504 referral is appropriate. A few examples are listed below:
Section 504 vs. Special Education Examples
- A student has a stable eye condition and needs minimal accommodations and instructional strategies, such as preferential seating and large print, to access instruction which can be provided under Section 504.
- In comparison, a student demonstrates the need for increased instructional support that may create a change in general education placement and need for specially designed instruction provided through special education services.
- A student undergoes a surgical procedure that improves vision. The level of specialized instruction the student once received becomes minimal. A reevaluation is conducted, with family consent, to ensure no additional needs or concerns exist. The ARD Committee determines the student no longer requires specially designed instruction and may instead receive accommodations through Section 504.
- A new eye medical report indicates an increased vision loss or progression of a condition and the accommodations and instructional strategies that previously worked well under Section 504 are no longer supporting the student’s access to the general curriculum. A referral to special education is made.
- After evaluation, the ARD committee determines whether a student has a disability and does not have a need for specially designed instruction requiring support from a TSVI. There is, however, a need for orientation and mobility as a related service which can be provided through Section 504. A section 504 committee meeting is held with the COMS in attendance to interpret evaluation results and support committee discussions.
- A student with a visual impairment under Section 504 struggles to make progress in reading despite receiving interventions available to all students in general education. The family shares an outside, independent evaluation stating the student has dyslexia. A referral to special education is made.
Section 504 acts as a safety net during the Special Education evaluation timeline
- The family expresses concern that their student, who wears prescription glasses, does not hear their name when called and cannot see beyond 15 feet. The student requires accommodations and instructional strategies to access various learning environments at school. The student can receive services under 504 until evaluations in the areas of suspected disability are completed and the ARD committee determines eligibility.
- A student’s family refuses a full and individual initial evaluation (FIIE) of a student suspected of a disability. Section 504 support may be instituted to help provide the student access to the general curriculum. In these instances, the school should provide the family with a copy of their Procedural Safeguards and follow the LEA’s established processes when a parent refuses an evaluation under IDEA.
What is the key to supporting a student’s educational needs?
Collaboration! No one person has all the answers. It is important that the LEA work together with the student and family to ensure areas of concern are addressed without delay and that instructional practices meet the needs of each student. Outside organizations, such as Education Service Centers, Texas Workforce Solutions, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Regional Day School Programs for the Deaf, SpedTex, and Texas SPED Support can all help school staff, administrators, and families in seeking support and information.
For more information, refer to the Section 504 and Visual Impairment: Frequently Asked Questions document.
Authors’ contact information:
Michael Munro, Ph.D., firstname.lastname@example.org
Kelly Bevis, M.ED, TSVI, email@example.com