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The Core Curriculum for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, Including Those with Additional Disabilities

This article from Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired describes the core curriculum, the expanded core curriculum, and delivery of the core curriculum for students who are blind or visually impaired.

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Approved by the National Agenda Steering Committee

Revised November 2007

(*The term “including those with additional disabilities” will not be repeated, as it should be assumed under the definition of “blind and visually impaired students.”)


Some years ago, a reporter asked a prominent blind woman, “What is it that blind people would want from society?” The woman replied, “The opportunity to be equal and the right to be different.”

As Lowenfeld so graphically portrayed in The Changing Status of the Blind: From Separation to Integration (Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, 1975), opportunities for equality grew tremendously in the 20th Century.

“In the field of education then the move from separation to integration is evident. Educational provisions for blind children, the administration of these educational provisions, and teacher preparation, all moved from special or separated arrangements to integrated ones. This move has been consistently spearheaded and supported by legislation…”. (Lowenfeld, 1975, p. 117.)

It was Lowenfeld’s belief that the American Creed (all of us are equal under the law) has resulted in educational integration for blind and visually impaired students. Integration with their sighted peers, which, for visually impaired students, began at the turn of the century, has provided these students with the opportunity to be equal.

All of us – parents, consumers, professionals, and others – continue to promote equal opportunities for blind persons. But how do we feel, and how do we react, to “…the right to be different…?” What did this woman mean by two remarks that seem diametrically opposite? Perhaps she meant that print and braille are equal, but very different; that the need for independent travel is similar for sighted and blind persons, but the skills are learned very differently by blind people; and that concepts and learning that occur for sighted people in a natural, spontaneous manner require different learning experiences for blind persons. Perhaps she was emphasizing that blind persons should have the opportunity to learn the same knowledge and skills as sighted people, but that their manner of learning will be different.

Historically, many educators behaved as though they did not believe that blind and visually impaired students had “…the right to be different.” The integration (soon to be called “mainstreaming,” then “inclusion”) of blind students into regular classrooms in great numbers, beginning in the 1950s, brought with it an era of belief that the only need a visually impaired student had was adapted academic material so that she/he could learn in the regular classroom. The only difference acknowledged by many teachers (indeed, the profession itself), was the media and materials used for learning.

Few, if any, changes or additions were made to the curricula offered these students. Therefore, early efforts to include visually impaired students in regular classrooms sometimes attempted to provide “…the opportunity to be equal…” without recognizing the student’s “…right (and need) to be different…”

It has been demonstrated that curriculum developed for sighted students is available for, and success in its mastery is achievable by, visually impaired students. If the educational system provides students who have a necessary foundation of experiential learning with appropriate educational materials, and if there are excellent support services, including qualified and credentialed teachers of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility instructors, then the existing curriculum for sighted students will provide the visually impaired student the “…opportunity to be equal…”.

However, “…the right to be different…” clearly implies that there is more to education for visually impaired students than the exact same curriculum provided to sighted students. This added curriculum that is specific to visually impaired students is also well-known, but has not been diligently implemented. Could it be that parents and professionals have no problem with the “…opportunity to be equal…”, but have difficulty with “…the right to be different…”?

It has not been an easy transition for professionals in education for visually impaired learners to accept the concept that visually impaired students have educational needs that are in addition to curriculum required for sighted students. Many factors have made this transition difficult. Some professionals are loathe to give up the belief that there is any difference between the educational needs of sighted students and visually impaired students. Others have difficulty accepting the idea that an expanded curriculum is the responsibility of educators. Still others find it impossible to add to their teaching responsibilities because of time and/or size of caseload.

Though our profession has documentation and ample evidence of the need for a “Core Curriculum for Blind and Visually Impaired Children and Youths, Including those with Additional Disabilities,” it has not been uniformly recognized, accepted, or implemented. Goal 8 of the National Agenda will directly address this issue and bring educators and parents together to ensure the blind and visually impaired children and youths of the nation an appropriate education based on this expanded core curriculum.

What is a Core Curriculum?

Educators define “core curriculum” as the knowledge and skills expected to be learned by a student by high school graduation. Generally, the core curriculum consists of knowledge and skills related to academic subjects. Mastery of the core curriculum is what both parents and teachers stress as essential for academic success in school, and later in life. In most states, opportunities are provided for students to meet other criteria in cases when those students cannot meet the academic demands of the core curriculum.

There are many versions of the core curriculum. In our country, each state assumes responsibility for minimum standards for high school graduation. This core curriculum becomes the foundation for almost all learning, from kindergarten through high school.

With respect to blind and visually impaired students, the existing core curriculum, as developed for sighted students, is entirely appropriate and generally available. Because educators of visually impaired students have developed expertise in curriculum adaptation, it should be possible to take any curriculum that has been developed and make it readily available for visually impaired learners. If blindness or visual impairment presents only the problem of accessibility to learning materials, then the issue of education of visually impaired students is solved by adaptation of the existing core curriculum.

Some educators of visually impaired students believe that it is true that the child in a regular classroom who has access to all curricular materials is as equally prepared to learn as her sighted classmates. But most professionals hold a strong position that there is an expanded core curriculum for visually impaired students that requires additional areas of learning.

There are experiences and concepts casually and incidentally learned by sighted students that must be systematically and sequentially taught to the visually impaired student. The core curriculum for visually impaired students is not the same as for sighted students. Indeed, it is much larger and more complex.

The concept of a core curriculum for visually impaired learners has been discussed by professionals and parents for many years. It has been called many things. It has been referred to as the specialized curriculum, or specialized needs, the unique curriculum, or unique needs, the non-academic curriculum, the dual curriculum, and most recently, the disability-specific curriculum.

These other terms are sometimes a distraction to the important issue. The term core curriculum has been used to define the basic educational needs of sighted students for many years. It is proposed that the term core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students be used to define the basic educational needs for this population. It conveys the same message as the original core curriculum. Words like specialized, unique, and disability-specific are not needed, and, indeed, may give an erroneous connotation to basic educational needs. The terms imply two separate lists of educational needs for visually impaired students. One list contains the elements of a traditional core curriculum. The other is a list of “disability-specific” needs. Two lists provide educators with options, such as one list being required and the other consisting of electives. There should be only one list, and that should consist of the required core curriculum for visually impaired students.

The existence of special needs, or a unique core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students, has been known for years. References to the subject of grooming skills date back as far as 1891. The need for social interaction skills appears in the literature in 1929 and again in 1948. Between the years 1953 and 1975, there are more than two dozen references to books and articles written about daily living skills and visually impaired students. Many more articles and documents have been written about orientation and mobility and career education. The expanded core curriculum now being promoted is not new–its need has been known for decades.

Although states determine the content of the core curriculum individually, most states demand that competencies in basic subjects be mastered. The following example incorporates these basic subjects and adds the expanded core curriculum for visually impaired students:

The Core Curriculum for Blind and Visually Impaired Children and Youths

The Existing Core Curriculum

  • English language arts
  • other languages, to the extent possible
  • mathematics
  • science
  • health
  • physical education
  • fine arts
  • social studies
  • economics
  • business education
  • vocational education
  • history

The Expanded Core Curriculum

  • Assistive technology/technology
  • Career Education
  • Compensatory/Access Skills
  • Independent Living
  • Orientation & Mobility
  • Recreation & Leisure
  • Self-Determination
  • Sensory Efficiency
  • Social Interaction

A short description for each of these areas of expanded core curriculum follow:

Compensatory/Access Skills

(Note: for this area of the expanded core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students, a distinction must be made between compensatory skills and functional skills. Compensatory skills are those needed by blind and visually impaired students in order to access all areas of core curriculum. Mastery of compensatory skills will usually mean that the visually impaired student has access to learning in a manner equal to that of sighted peers. Functional skills refers to the skills that students with multiple disabilities learn that provide them with the opportunity to work, play, socialize, and take care of personal needs to the highest level possible.)

Compensatory and functional skills include such learning experiences as concept development, spatial understanding, study and organizational skills, speaking and listening skills, and adaptations necessary for accessing all areas of the existing core curriculum. Communication needs will vary, depending on degree of functional vision, effects of additional disabilities, and the task to be done. Children may use braille, large print, print with the use of optical devices, regular print, tactile symbols, a calendar system, sign language, and/or recorded materials to communicate. Regardless, each student will need instruction from a teacher with professional preparation to instruct students with visual impairments in each of the compensatory and functional skills they need to master. These compensatory and functional needs of the visually impaired child are significant, and are not addressed with sufficient specificity in the existing core curriculum.

Orientation and Mobility

As a part of the expanded core curriculum, orientation and mobility is a vital area of learning. Teachers who have been specifically prepared to teach orientation and mobility to blind and visually impaired learners are necessary in the delivery of this curriculum. Students will need to learn about themselves and the environment in which they move – from basic body image to independent travel in rural areas and busy cities. The existing core curriculum does not include provision for this instruction. It has been said that the two primary effects of blindness on the individual are communication and locomotion. The expanded core curriculum must include emphasis on the fundamental need and basic right of visually impaired persons to travel as independently as possible, enjoying and learning from the environment through which they are passing to the greatest extent possible.

Social Interaction Skills

Almost all social skills used by sighted children and adults have been learned by visually observing the environment and other persons, and behaving in socially appropriate ways based on that information. Social interaction skills are not learned casually and incidentally by blind and visually impaired individuals as they are by sighted persons. Social skills must be carefully, consciously, and sequentially taught to blind and visually impaired students. Nothing in the existing core curriculum addresses this critical need in a satisfactory manner. Thus, instruction in social interaction skills becomes a part of the expanded core curriculum as a need so fundamental that it can often mean the difference between social isolation and a satisfying and fulfilling life as an adult.

Independent Living Skills

This area of the expanded core curriculum is often referred to as “daily living skills.” It consists of all the tasks and functions persons perform, in accordance with their abilities, in order to lead lives as independently as possible. These curricular needs are varied, as they include skills in personal hygiene, food preparation, money management, time monitoring, organization, etc. Some independent living skills are addressed in the existing core curriculum, but they often are introduced as splinter skills, appearing in learning material, disappearing, and then re-appearing. This approach will not adequately prepare blind and visually impaired students for adult life. Traditional classes in home economics and family life are not enough to meet the learning needs of most visually impaired students, since they assume a basic level of knowledge, acquired incidentally through vision. The skills and knowledge that sighted students acquire by casually and incidentally observing and interacting with their environment are often difficult, if not impossible, for blind and visually impaired students to learn without direct, sequential instruction by knowledgeable persons.

Recreation and Leisure Skills

Skills in recreation and leisure are seldom offered as a part of the existing core curriculum. Rather, physical education in the form of team games and athletics are the usual way in which physical fitness needs are met for sighted students. Many of the activities in physical education are excellent and appropriate for visually impaired students. In addition, however, these students need to develop activities in recreation and leisure that they can enjoy throughout their adult lives. Most often sighted persons select their recreation and leisure activity repertoire by visually observing activities and choosing those in which they wish to participate. The teaching of recreation and leisure skills to blind and visually impaired students must be planned and deliberately taught, and should focus on the development of life-long skills.

Career Education

There is a need for general vocational education, as offered in the traditional core curriculum, as well as the need for career education offered specifically for blind and visually impaired students. Many of the skills and knowledge offered to all students through vocational education can be of value to blind and visually impaired students. They will not be sufficient, however, to prepare students for adult life, since such instruction assumes a basic knowledge of the world of work based on prior visual experiences. Career education in an expanded core curriculum will provide the visually impaired learner of all ages with the opportunity to learn first-hand the work done by the bank teller, the gardener, the social worker, the artist, etc. It will provide the student opportunities to explore strengths and interests in a systematic, well-planned manner. Once more, the disadvantage facing the visually impaired learner is the lack of information about work and jobs that the sighted student acquires by observation.

Because unemployment and underemployment have been the leading problem facing adult visually impaired persons in the United States, this portion of the expanded core curriculum is vital to students, and should be part of the expanded curriculum for even the youngest of these individuals.

Asssistive Technology/Technology

Technology is a tool to unlock learning and expand the horizons of students. It is not, in reality, a curriculum area. However, it is added to the expanded core curriculum because technology occupies a special place in the education of blind and visually impaired students. Technology can be a great equalizer. For the braille user, it allows the student to provide feedback to teachers by first producing material in braille for personal use, and then in print for the teacher, classmates, and parents. It gives blind persons the capability of storing and retrieving information. It brings the gift of a library under the fingertips of the visually impaired person. Technology enhances communication and learning, as well as expands the world of blind and visually impaired persons in many significant ways. Thus, technology is a tool to master, and is essential as a part of the expanded core curriculum.

Sensory Efficiency Skills

The visual acuity of children diagnosed as being visually impaired varies greatly. Through the use of thorough, systematic training, most students with remaining functional vision can be taught to better and more efficiently utilize their remaining vision. The responsibility for performing a functional vision assessment, planning appropriate learning activities for effective visual utilization, and instructing students in using their functional vision in effective and efficient ways is clearly an area of the expanded core curriculum. Educational responsibility for teaching visual efficiency skills falls to the professionally prepared teacher of learners with visual impairments.

Bringing together all of these skills learned in the expanded core curriculum produces a concept of the blind or visually impaired person in the community. It is difficult to imagine that a congenitally blind or visually impaired person could be entirely at ease and at home within the social, recreational, and vocational structure of the general community without mastering the elements of the expanded core curriculum. What is known about congenitally blind and visually impaired students is that, unless skills such as orientation and mobility, social interaction, and independent living are learned, these students are at high risk for lonely, isolated, unproductive lives. Accomplishments and joys such as shopping, dining, attending and participating in recreational activities are a right, not a privilege, for blind and visually impaired persons. Responsibilities such as banking, taking care of health needs, and using public and private services are a part of a full life for all persons, including those who are blind or visually impaired. Adoption and implementation of a core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students, including those with additional disabilities, will assure students of the opportunity to function well and completely in the general community.

The components of the expanded core curriculum present educators with a means of addressing the needs of visually impaired children with additional disabilities. The educational requirements of this population are often not met since the lack of vision is considered “minor”, especially when the child is severely impacted by cognitive and physical disabilities. Each area in the expanded core curriculum can be further defined to address the educational issues facing these children and assist parents and educators to fulfill their their needs.

This expanded core curriculum is the heart of the responsibility of educators serving visually impaired students. These areas are not adequately addressed by regular classroom teachers, nor should they be, for this is the core curriculum that is essential only to blind and visually impaired students, and it epitomizes their “…right to be different…”

The Delivery of the Core Curriculum for Blind and Visually Impaired Students

In varying ways, and to various degrees, the existing core curriculum is essential to the learning of blind and visually impaired learners. This fact has been generally accepted in the profession of educators for visually impaired learners and by parents of visually impaired students. Of equal importance is the acceptance of the expanded core curriculum as being necessary for blind and visually impaired students. Assuming this second level of acceptance has occurred, what must be done next is to determine how the expanded core curriculum will be provided for visually impaired learners.

The Expanded Core Curriculum for Blind and Visually Impaired Students will be difficult to complete in 12 years of education, especially for students who are high academic learners. Several approaches for fitting the Expanded Core Curriculum into a normal education career have been suggested. One possibility that has been used is to depend on the infused competencies contained in the Existing Core Curriculum for providing the additional skills and knowledge needed by the visually impaired learner.

While it appears as though many of the competencies reflected in the expanded core curriculum might be achievable when infused within the existing, traditional curriculum, there is compelling evidence that infusion is risky and does not provide the appropriate urgency and emphasis to the expanded core curriculum. These students learn differently, in ways that are not intuitively obvious to individuals who rely on their visual sense for 80% of all that they learn and understand. Because blind and low vision youngsters often do not bring the same visual experiences to the learning environment, it is very likely that all of their curriculum needs will not be met without planned, sequential, direct instruction by individuals who understand their learning style.

At this time, no single, simple method has been developed that assures visually impaired students of accessing both traditional and expanded core curricula within the same time frame as their sighted peers. This remains a significant, but attainable challenge.

For too many years educators behaved as though they were unaware of the unique and specialized needs of blind and visually impaired students. The outcome has become a modern tragedy, with too many products of our educational efforts living isolated, troubled lives. For too many years educators have known the content of the curricula needed by blind and visually impaired learners that would equalize education by neutralizing the effects of visual impairments on incidental learning. And for too many years educators have found reasons not to implement the expanded core curriculum.

The additional learning experiences contained in the expanded core curriculum are not easy to implement. They require time to teach, and the need for them does not diminish with age or competency. The professionally prepared teacher of students with visual impairments must be responsible for assessment, instruction, and evaluation in unique and specialized curricular areas. This educator needs to teach the skills and knowledge necessary or to orchestrate the teaching through utilization of other community resources.

The competencies that result in an expanded core curriculum require that educational time be allocated to teach these skills. Programming that appropriately addresses all of the educational needs of blind and visually impaired students must assume that most students will need sizable periods of time in order to master the competencies required in the expanded core curriculum. If the profession does not demand that this time be made available, it has done a disservice to students with visual impairments, and may disable them in their efforts to successfully transition from school to adulthood.

The expanded core curriculum must become the unifying issue among educators for visually impaired students. It must first be adopted by the profession as the education needed by blind and visually impaired students. Once the profession has adopted the expanded core curriculum, it then takes on the enormous task of carrying the curriculum message to parents, administrators, and the public at large. The message must transcend fiscal issues, conflicting philosophical and political positions, and the doubts and misgivings of educators and parents. The spotlight must be on the individual child, and must begin with a thorough assessment of the child, one that covers every area of the expanded core curriculum. Using assessment results and invaluable information from parents, goals and objectives must be developed for the individual child, based on assessment. If assessment has truly covered every area of the expanded core curriculum, then there will likely be goals and objectives for each area. Someone must meet, or orchestrate the meeting of, all goals and objectives. This will be the professional teacher for visually impaired children. Decisions must be made on placement, on priorities, and on frequency and duration of instruction. Care must be taken that the competencies contained in the expanded core curriculum receive equal attention to academic competencies, as stressed in the existing curriculum.

All students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities, have a fundamental right to an expanded core curriculum that emphasizes the students’ “…opportunities to be equal and right to be different…”.

The Advisory Council of the National Agenda calls all professionals and parents to action on this issue. Action includes knowledge, familiarity, acceptance, commitment, and implementation. Knowledge means that educators and parents know that the expanded core curriculum must be offered. Commitment means that educators and parents are ready and willing to make sacrifices and change beliefs in order to make it happen. Implementation means that our lives as professionals and parents will be dramatically changed. Implementation means that parents and professionals will become partners in preparing their children for a rich and fulfilling adult life. And, finally, implementation means that the blind and visually impaired students to whom we have committed our love, our talents, our hopes, and our gifts for teaching will enjoy a full, exciting, and productive life.

This article was originally published by Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) and is reprinted here with permission.

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