Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Educational Placement of Children Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision in Residential and Public Schools: A National Study of Parents' Perspectives

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Educational Placement of Children Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision in Residential and Public Schools: A National Study of Parents' Perspectives

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study analyzed parents' perceived reasons for placing their children with visual impairments in residential or public schools. It found that children were more likely to be placed in residential schools for reasons related to their education and well-being and in public schools for reasons related to the parents' needs.


For more than 175 years, separate facilities, in either residential schools or day schools, were the main setting for educating children who are visually impaired (that is, those who were blind or had low vision) in the United States. These residential facilities were based on European models and have remained a distinctive element of educational programming since 1829, when Samuel Howe founded the Perkins Institution in Massachusetts, the first residential school for children who were blind in North America (Jan, Freeman, & Scott, 1977; Koestler, 1976; Lowenfeld, 1975). Prior to 1900, several public and private schools for children who were blind were established in some states (Roberts, 1986). At that time, the child who was blind lived in a cottage and was surrounded by others with whom he or she could identify. The prevailing philosophy was to operationalize an educational system that was unique to the population of children who were blind because of the low prevalence of the condition, highly individualized instruction, and generally pervasive discriminatory practices of the day.

Throughout the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, residential schools remained one of the few choices for educating students who were blind. With the epidemic of retinopathy of prematurity in the 1940s and 1950s (Bishop, 1996) and the general educational shift toward inclusion (Sacks & Wolffe, 2006), neighborhood schools became a more appropriate educational option. This change has forced many residential schools to readjust their roles to provide multidimensional services to students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities (Erin, 1993; Harley & English, 1989; McMahon, 1994). As Lowenfeld (1982) stated, in 1950, 88.4% of the students with visual impairments were enrolled in residential schools, but by 1988, the same percentage were in public schools. As of 2006, an estimated 48,080 (or 83%) children with visual impairments were in public schools and 5,085 (or 9 percent) were in residential schools (American Printing House for the Blind, 2006). However, many residential schools have assumed the roles of providing professional development, conducting summer academic and recreational programs, offering resources to local schools, and assessing students' needs.

In a national study, Corn, Bina, and DePriest (1995) analyzed responses from nearly 1,000 families who stated that "specialized schools had more comprehensive services, resources, and opportunities for their children than were available locally" (p. 48). They reported that a high percentage of parents said that specialized schools provided higher-quality instruction, maintained higher standards of excellence, and had better-qualified staff members than did their local education agency. Similarly, they found that the parents expected their children to make far more progress in specialized schools than they had in local schools and that enrolling their children in specialized schools would result in more opportunities in adulthood that would not have been achievable without targeted interventions by the residential staff members.

It is interesting that the pioneers of residential education also advocated the establishment of public school classes for children who were blind in large cities, beginning in Chicago in 1900 (Lowenfeld, 1975) and later in other mid-western and eastern cities. In fact, Howe had previously proposed the idea of including blind children in neighborhood school programs. His pragmatic approach notwithstanding, residential schools remained the only option for educating children who were blind in some states for many decades. …

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