The Key to a Powerful Start: Preschool Programs for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

by Ron Brooks

About the Author: In addition to chairing ACB’s Board of Publications, Ron is a long-time board member of ACB Families, one of ACB’s special-interest affiliates. He and his wife Lisa (also a blind parent) live in Phoenix, Ariz., with their three sighted teenage children and a house full of dogs — both guide dogs and pets.
 

Introduction: Why Starting Off Right is Critical

Professionals who work with blind and visually impaired children have demonstrated a direct correlation between early intervention and academic success. This is why preschool programs are so important.

What Defines a Good Preschool Program

According to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), preschool programs for children who are blind or visually impaired are typically organized to offer home- and/or center-based services:

  • Home-based services: Teachers, counselors, or consultants come to your home on a regular basis. All activities take place in your home. These teaching/training visits usually last about an hour; they can occur as often as four times a week or as infrequently as once a month, depending on how well staffed your local program is, how many families it serves, and how far staff members have to travel to reach all families.
  • Center-based services: You and your child travel to a central location. All teachers, consultants, and counselors are located at the center and work with children individually and in small groups. Depending on how old your child is, you may be able to drop your child off for a class and return when class is over. Or you may be asked to help out in the classroom, or to join a parent discussion group.

According to AFB, a good preschool program should incorporate the following:

  • A certified teacher of the visually impaired and an orientation and mobility specialist, if not directly on staff as teachers, are at least involved in assessment, planning, and consultation. No other teacher is trained to understand how visual impairments affect development, or how a child can learn to compensate for the visual impairment.
  • An occupational or physical therapist should be available to answer questions about your child’s motor development and to work directly with your child if your doctor prescribes it. If a therapist is not available, the program can refer you to one.
  • You are involved in the choice of which program your child receives and what goals your child works on.
  • The program asks your permission to assess your child, to obtain copies of medical records, and to take pictures of your child, and you are given a copy of any permission forms you sign.
  • Any record on your child contains a sheet of paper that tells you who has looked at your child’s file and who has received copies of any papers in the file. Your child’s file is confidential; no one should be able to see it without a good reason.
  • You are given copies of your child’s assessment report and individualized educational plan (IEP).
  • You are kept up to date on how your child is doing, including receiving ideas for activities you can work on with your child at home.
  • You have a chance to meet with other parents, either in a formal meeting or informally, over coffee or soft drinks.
  • The curriculum (what your child is taught) covers motor development; visual development; self-help skills; language and communication; social and emotional development; mental or intellectual or cognitive development; orientation and mobility and sensory development (touch, smell, hearing, and taste).
  • A variety of support services (extra but necessary services that add to the quality and completeness of the program) are available. Some examples are social workers, speech therapists, low-vision examinations, toy libraries, pediatricians, transportation, ophthalmologists, and psychologists.

For more information about what to look for in a preschool education program for a blind or visually impaired child, including links to other resources, check out AFB’s preschool education page at www.afb.org/info/education/early-education/preschool-education/235.
 

Where Preschool Programs Live

Preschool programs for blind and visually impaired children are available across the country and take many forms. Some are based within a state’s school for the blind, as is the case in Texas and New Mexico. Others, including programs in Boise, Idaho and Franklin County, Pa., are offered by the local public-school district. Still other preschool services are provided through private non-profit blindness rehabilitation agencies, such as the Cleveland Sight Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix, Ariz.

In November of 2017, participants in a teleconference hosted by ACB Families had the opportunity to hear from Sharon Benzinger and Pauletta Feldman of Visually Impaired Preschool Services (VIPS) about their innovative programs and services for preschool-age children with visual impairments and their families across Kentucky and Indiana.

Founded in Louisville in 1985 and later expanded to central Kentucky in 1990 and to Indiana in 2011, VIPS provides educational excellence to young children with visual impairments with the goal of building a strong foundation for each child to reach his or her highest potential. VIPS offers a range of programs and services, including the following:

  • Early intervention, including evaluations, in-home visits, and access to resources that help parents and caregivers better understand and support their children with visual impairments;
  • Orientation and mobility services;
  • Advocacy training for parents;
  • Summer learning and other enrichment programs; and
  • The Kids Town Preschool where children with visual impairments and other children can learn and play in a safe, accessible and integrated environment. Kids Town includes an actual town setting where kids can drive on the streets, mail a letter at the post office and shop at the corner store.

For more information about VIPS, visit them online at www.vips.org, or call toll-free 1-888-636-8477.
 

Need More Information?

For more information about a range of products, services and other resources for blind and visually impaired children, including preschool-age children, visit AFB’s Family Connect website, www.familyconnect.org/parentsitehome.aspx.