L. Penny Rosenblum is director of research for the American Foundation for the Blind.
“It takes a village, and many students don’t have a village to support them.”
These words came from a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) who was one of 1,432 participants this spring in the American Foundation for the Blind's Access and Engagement to Education Study, which examined the impact of COVID-19 on students with visual impairments, their families and professionals in the United States and Canada.
They’ve been echoing in my head for months. I can relate from multiple perspectives: lead researcher on the report, 34 years as a TVI myself, and an individual who was lucky as a visually impaired child to have a village to support my education.
Since the mid-1960s, my mother was an advocate and trailblazer on my behalf. In the early 1970s, for example, mom convinced the PTA to buy a new copy machine so I could have a “black copy” rather than a smeared purple ditto. Looking back, I appreciate the village my mother created that allowed me to graduate high school with the tools I needed to survive in college — three times, having earned a Ph.D. in 1997.
But not all children with and without disabilities have a "village," and that is an issue we as a society need to address. Today I am focusing on our children with visual impairments — including those with additional disabilities and deafblindness — who were the focus of the spring Access and Engagement Study. Data from family members/guardians of 455 students and 1,028 TVIs and orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists raise concerns on many levels.
For visually impaired students taking classes alongside their sighted peers, 85% of TVIs said they had at least one student with an accessibility issue, whether it be an app, website, program or teacher-recorded video the student couldn’t access because of their visual impairment. That 85% has kept me awake many nights.
On average, 50% of TVIs reported they didn’t have the materials at home they needed to support their students’ education remotely. This included the ability to produce and get braille materials to their students. How successful can a student be if they can’t read the class content?
The majority of family members/guardians did not believe their child was making educational progress in the same way they would if school had not been interrupted due to COVID-19. This was especially true for families whose child was young or had additional disabilities or deafblindness.
As our 10-member research team analyzed the data, we have reflected on many points, including:
- We must ensure all students have access to all educational content.
- TVIs, O&M specialists and other educators must have the resources and time they need to meet the unique educational needs of a diverse group of students whose educational success shapes our country’s future.
- The challenges and successes (and there were a few) identified in spring 2020 are persisting into the current school year. We must document these and use the data to determine if students with visual impairments are regressing or progressing. Hence, we are undertaking Access and Engagement 2.
- Families, educators, administrators and policymakers must work together to address COVID-19 created issues and systemic issues impacting the education of children with disabilities.
In the words of one family member of a 7-year-old with additional disabilities, “I’m grateful that there are researchers out there with the foresight and compassion to focus on the unique needs of our special needs children during the pandemic. This is obviously hugely disruptive and hard for all children, but I believe the negative impacts for my child will be more far-reaching than [for] typically developing children.”
This child, like all children, deserves a village. COVID-19 has shown us, now more than ever, we must work together, invest resources and address equality within our educational system.