DOE Memorandum clarifies federal laws for students with visual impairments

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Written by Carlton Anne Cook Walker.  

Posted with permission on Paths to Technology.

The Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education, through a memorandum from its Acting Director Ruth Ryder, has finally brought some sanity to the interpretation of federal laws in relations to students with visual impairments, including blindness.

1. This memorandum clarifies that state regulations may NOT impose visual acuity, visual field, or other limits in the eligibility process. They may not create “State-established standards must not narrow the definitions in the IDEA.” (Memo, page 2). The document further observes that “any impairment in vision, regardless of significance or severity, must be included in a State’s definition, provided that such impairment, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. States may not use criteria or other definitions for “visual impairment including blindness” that result in the exclusion of children who otherwise meet the definition in 34 CFR §300.8(c)(13). (Memo, page 2).

a. I have argued this position for years and years. 
b. Some have argued that states have the right to limit the definition of visual impairment. This memorandum sets forth the inaccuracy of that interpretation.

2. This memorandum instructs that, if states require medical information for eligibility determination: “if a State requires a medical diagnosis consistent with the above criteria, such a requirement exceeds the requirements of Part B of the IDEA. Under 34 CFR §300.199(a)(2), the State would be required to identify in writing to the LEAs located in the State, and to the Secretary, that such rule, regulation, or policy is a State-imposed requirement that is not required by Part B of the IDEA and Federal regulations.” (Memo, page 4). 

a. Too often, schools (LEAs) refuse to consider a student’s eligibility without an eye report.
b. LEAs with such requirements will now need to document these requirements with the U.S. Department of Education.

3. This memorandum directs that schools must pay for any medical information they require for eligibility determination: “there is nothing in the IDEA or the Part B regulations that would prohibit a State from requiring that a medical diagnosis be obtained for purposes of determining whether a child has a particular disability, provided the medical diagnosis is obtained at public expense and at no cost to the parents, and is not used as the sole criterion for determining an appropriate educational program for the child.” (Memo, pages 3-4)

a. Too often, schools refuse to consider a student’s eligibility without an eye report and send parents away, regardless of the parents’ ability to pay for the physician’s appointment.
b. This memorandum demonstrates that districts must pay for documents they require, even documents for eligibility determination.

4. The memorandum reminds states and LEAs that evaluations “should be thorough and rigorous” (Memo, page 4). It further notes, “Such an evaluation generally would be closely linked to the assessment of the child’s present and future reading and writing objectives, needs, and appropriate reading and writing media. The information obtained through the evaluation generally should be used by the eligibility team in determining whether it would be appropriate to provide a blind or visually impaired child with special education or related services as required by the IDEA.”(Memo, page 4) and that “In addition, because the evaluation must assess a child’s future needs, a child’s current vision status should not necessarily determine whether it would be inappropriate for that child to receive special education and related services while in school.” (Memo, page 4). 

US Department of Education website

OSEP Memorandum Letter about Visual Impairments, dated May 22, 2017