It’s been 5 days since our 8-hour mediation proceeding with the school district. (Yes, 8 long, emotionally draining hours.) The mediation was in response to a formal complaint we filed in September. Our allegations were that the school was not providing a Free Appropriate Public Education and was not upholding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the areas of Accessibility and IEP Implementation.
I’m writing this article to assist other parents of blind children who are facing these issues. I hope to convey the process as we experienced it, as well as the immense emotional toll it took on our family.
My son has been in the same school system since kindergarten and is now a sophomore in high school. He began losing his vision to Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) in 3rd grade and is currently legally blind with about 5 degrees of cloudy vision per eye. Over the last seven years, he’s gone from being an avid print reader to becoming a Braille reader. He’s also a very independent mobility cane user and has recently applied for a guide dog.
As his vision has declined the school has struggled to provide adequate services that meet his ever-changing visual needs. He has excellent service team members including a Dedicated Parapro (Para), a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) and an Orientation and Mobility Instructor (O&M). However, the process for obtaining timely, high-quality Braille classroom materials has been a nightmare for all involved — especially my son.
Our state is one of eight who has adopted an Open Educational Resources (OER) model. Prior to the 2015 decision to implement OER, our State Board of Education chose the textbooks to be used by our districts and proactively sent them off to be transcribed into Braille for use by all of the state’s Visually Impaired (VI) students. For a textbook to be transcribed, and go through the entire quality control process it could take up to a year and a half. It was a process that the state managed and materials were provided fairly seamlessly for VI students.
Now, in our district, textbooks are rarely/never used and instead, the teachers access online materials that they share and modify for use in their classrooms. Once modified, the local school system must find a way to make the materials accessible to their VI students (a process that used to be handled by the state). Schools are now tasked with the creation of materials for their VI students, however, due to the lack of on-site Braille transcribers, many materials need to be sent off to “on-demand” transcription services. Most materials requests are last minute, making transcription timelines extremely short. Short timelines make it next to impossible for transcribers to create accurate materials, so VI students are having to deal with “dirty-braille.”
OER sounds like a great option – saves money on textbooks, makes materials openly available online allowing students to use technology in the classroom. However, not all digital files are accessible to VI students. Literature is usually easy to find and is accessible by most refreshable braille displays or it’s accessible via audio and/or screen reader, however, graphics for math and science are big issues as schools are required to provide tactile graphics at the same time that the sighted classmates receive their assignments.
My son loves math and science and is enrolled in honors and AP courses. His entire Analytical Geometry course was required in Braille/tactile format due to all the images contained in the math problems. The quality of the materials has been awful. Hence, our formal complaint.
As an example, one of my son’s recent geometry test had 10 questions and the test contained a total of 4 errors. The 4 errors impacted his ability to independently access 3 of the 10 questions. Making that test only 70% accessible to my son.
Each day when I pick him up from school he’d give me a rundown of the day’s Braille errors and his frustrations. Then he’d crank his metal music til home, then he’d get on his drum set and drum for an hour or two. Thank God he’s a drummer. He needs a constructive way to release the pressure from the day. Then, one day he said, “I feel like I’m being punished for being blind.” And, that’s the day I knew something had to change and fast.
Believe me, a formal complaint was an absolute last ditch effort to solve the problem for our child. We had tried, for years, to work it out through IEP meetings and communicating with the Special Education Department at the school, county and state levels. However, the rigor of his courses, combined with the poor quality materials finally broke us down and forced us to take the next step in advocating for our son.
When filling out the formal complaint form it asks “Are you willing to mediate?” I selected “Yes” simply because I wanted to remain open to a solution and demonstrate “good faith” on our part. However, even after all my reading and research I really had no idea about how grueling the complaint and mediation processes would be or what it would involve. I’ve learned a lot and will do my best to outline the process over the next several posts, but for you who want to know the highlights:
Ultimately, through mediation, we came to an agreement that is in the best interest of my son. The plan is detailed and has built-in safeguards. The plan’s implementation is fully enforceable in state and federal court. The proceedings are confidential so I am unable to give details about the discussions we had, but I can tell you that it’s taken me 5 days to be able to sit down and write this because it was all so emotionally draining.