It used to be that the majority of blind and low vision exchange students were placed in schools for the blind in the United States. That is no longer the case. Experienced exchange professionals know that there is no one size fits all approach to placing these talented students in U.S. high schools.
In the United States, the vast majority of secondary students with disabilities are mainstreamed in public high schools.
Laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), state that all children with disabilities have a right to a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) appropriate to their needs. Though appropriate for some students, a school for the blind is considered very restrictive.
Why is Inclusion Important?
Like many other civil rights laws, IDEA grew from a conviction that separate is not equal. Segregation deprives students with disabilities of interaction with their non-disabled peers, and vice versa.
At the same time, we know that inclusion cultivates a respect for diversity and difference among students with and without disabilities. This is an important value shared by the disability rights and international exchange communities.
Mainstream High School or School for the Blind?
Today, 95% of U.S. students with disabilities attend neighborhood public schools, including 90% of blind and low vision high school students. Although specialized schools for the blind may be a good option for international students who require intensive training in assistive technology, independent living, and use of a white cane – most exchange students who are blind can be successful in a mainstream school setting with access to appropriate services and support.
In the United States, those services are provided by Teachers of the Blind and Visually Impaired (TBVIs). TBVIs provide direct instruction to blind and low vision students in a wide range of subjects and skills, such as braille, and support their inclusion in general education classrooms.
TBVIs also counsel students in independent living skills and teach Orientation and Mobility (O&M) techniques.
When exploring options for blind and low vision exchange students, find out if there are particular high schools in a potential host community with TBVIs on site to support the inclusion of blind and low vision students. Those schools may be particularly good placements for international exchange students who are blind or low vision.
Another good option for some students is placement at a school for the blind that partners with a mainstream public high school.
In this arrangement, blind students can take some or most of their classes, including advanced and elective courses, with their non-disabled peers. In doing so, students derive all of the benefits of placement at a school for the blind, such as access to assistive technology and specialized instruction in braille, while experiencing full inclusion with their sighted peers.
If you are considering placing a student in a school for the blind, verify that the school has high academic standards and offers a curriculum on par with that offered in mainstream high schools. Although some schools for the blind have high academic standards, many now serve primarily students with multiple disabilities whose needs can be best met in a specialized school environment.
Finally, for students who attend a school for the blind in the United States, it is important that they have regular opportunities to experience inclusion in their host community. That might be through volunteer service, sports and recreation programs, community organizations, cluster activities, and others.