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What are visual impairments?

The term visual impairments means much more than just blindness, but also includes:
  • Partially-sighted: A visual problem resulting in a need for special education.
  • Low vision: Unable to read at a normal viewing distance, even with eyeglasses or contact lenses.
  • Legally blind: Less than 20/200 vision in the better eye or a very small field of vision (less then 20 degrees).
  • Totally blind: Cannot see at all.
About 12 of every 1,000 children under 18 have a visual impairment. Severe visual impairments (legally or totally blind) occur at a lower rate (about 6% per 1,000). For more information, click on this link from the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities: NICHY Fact Sheet.
(National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities)

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How can I tell if my child has a visual impairment?

Sometimes it is easy to tell that a baby is blind. The eyes don't follow you across a room, or you hold a toy in front of the child and he or she doesn't react until it makes a noise. But sometimes it is hard for a parent to tell if a child has a vision problem that is less severe than total blindness. Other conditions make it seem that your baby can't see. Are your child's vision skills developing normally? How would you know? Just as physical and mental skills develop, so do visual skills. For help, click on this link Parents' Guide to Children's Visual Development  for a visual development checklist broken down by a baby or child's age.

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What effect do visual impairments have on my child?

The effect of visual problems on your child's development depends on the severity of the loss, the cause of the problem and any other problems (multiple handicaps).

A baby born blind or severely visually-impaired experiences the world differently from children who can see. Child development experts tell us that nearly all - about 85% - of early learning is related to seeing. The child who cannot see is at great risk for developmental delays (falling behind). But early intervention can help a great deal. Click Florida's Children and Families Program  to learn more about early intervention and other services.

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What can I do to help my child?

You have made an important first step by reading about visual impairments. Another step is to talk with other parents of children with vision loss. They have gone through what you are going through and perhaps can help.

Click on this link http://www.homeschoolviews.com/feature/peek-a-boo.html to read what the mother of a four-month-old blind baby says about playing and interacting with her son Ivan. She has wonderful ideas and suggestions.

You also can get help and connect with other parents by contacting local support groups such as Parent to Parent of Miami. Research tells us that the earlier we begin to help children, the better the results for the child and family.

Below are some checklists to help your child. Remember, you are not alone.


 Get my child evaluated (tested): If your child is between ages birth to 3, he or she can be evaluated by a team of experts through the Early Steps  program for free, and might be eligible for free services.

If your child is 3 to 5 years old, he or she can be evaluated by a team of experts through the Child Find/Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System (FDLRS/South). FDLRS-South also provides evaluations and assessments for special education programs.

 Contact Children's Medical Services (CMS): This agency helps to coordinate the care for children with complex medical conditions and provide direct medical care for less involved children.

 Contact the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Click on this link http://www.miamilighthouse.org/LittleLighthouse.asp for information on the Little Lighthouse, which has programs, information, events and activities for children birth to 13 and their parents.

 Work with my child's service providers: Examples of services providers are your pediatrician, ophthalmologist, optometrist, teachers and social workers. Service providers help you and your child, but keep in mind that you live with your child every day and know more about that child than anyone else. Ask questions and make comments. Be as specific as you can in what you want and need for your child. Be honest about what you expect, any worries you have, or about anything you don't understand. If you think your child needs something in particular (such as vision therapy or new glasses), keep asking until you get it or until you learn why it is not needed.

 Work with professionals in early intervention or in my child's school in writing my child's IFSP (Individualized Family Support Plan) or IEP (Individualized Education Program): The plan should reflect your child's needs and abilities and should include such services as assistive technology.

 Get more information: Visit more websites. Read a book. Watch a video on visual impairments. Include your child and family. Talk with another parent. Parent to Parent of Miami  can help you meet other parents and get services.

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What are some fun things for my child to do?

Take part in family fun, recreation activities, play and all parts of your daily life. Having a visual impairment doesn't mean your child can't enjoy the day. Many activities are available for children with vision loss.

The Miami Lighthouse STAR program (Summer Training and Recreation) provides a fun learning environment for children ages 6 to 13. Children enjoy recreational activities such as swimming, ice skating and crafts. Click Miami Lighthouse STAR  for more information or to sign up.

For suggestions on toys for blind and visually disabled children, click on Good Toys for Blind Kids. This list, done by parents, is put in age categories (2 and up, 5 and up, 9 and up). These toys can be bought at local stores.

Dial 211 to find recreation areas and programs

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What everyday things can I do to help my child?

Combine what you do in an ordinary day with things to help your child's development. Bath time, mealtime, shopping, traveling in the car and family outings are great times to do this. Some suggestions:
  • Carry your baby in a front pack while doing chores around the house. Talk about what you are doing. For example, "Mommy is putting the laundry in the machine now. You hear the water going in and smell the soap, Sweetie?"

  • If your child has some vision, place toys and other things on a light-colored background to make them stand out. For example, place a red ball on a white floor. Do this at mealtime, too. Try putting food in plates with contrasting colors, e.g., mashed potatoes on a dark blue paper plate.

  • Make toys using senses other than sight. You can use everyday objects. Put beans in a well-sealed potato chip can for sound, different types of cloths (terrycloth, satin, lace, velvet) for tactile (feel) play, and spices and perfumes for play with smells.

  • Take a walk around the neighborhood and talk about the everyday noises you hear such as dogs barking or cars and trucks driving by. Encourage your child to touch trees, smell flowers or feel a gentle rain on his or her face.

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What treatment and aids are there for my child with a visual impairment?

Many treatments and devices can help your child with vision loss. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that children with visual impairments receive free and appropriate early intervention programs and special education programs from birth to age 21.

Examples of aids for children with visual impairments include:
  • Magnifier: A glass lens to make things appear to be bigger. They can be very useful to people with low vision. For more information on the many types of magnifiers, click on this link: http://www.lowvision.org/magnifiers.htm.

  • Service Dogs: Seeing-eye dogs, canine companions, guide, facility or service dogs refer to the wonderful partnership between dogs and people with disabilities. Service dogs help children and adults with a variety of disabilities, including hearing loss or deafness and physical disabilities. Children as young as 5 can apply to have a guide dog through Canine Companions for Independence.

  • Assistive Devices: Technology has improved greatly in recent years. Many more devices are available to help people with vision loss. For example, there are talking calculators and household appliances and Braille-based global positioning devices (telling your child out-loud directions and how to get places). Don't worry if your child can't type or push buttons because there are other ways to make the technology work. Click here http://enablingdevices.com/newsletter_5.aspx  for more information. You also can check with an assistive technology specialist for advice on what technology will best help your child.

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What causes visual impairments in children?

Vision problems can develop before a baby is born. Sometimes parts of the eyes don't form the way they should. Or your baby's eyes might be fine, but the brain has trouble processing the information sent.

Blindness can be genetic or inherited, meaning this problem is passed from parents to child.

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) covers a large group of inherited visual problems that cause problems in the retina part of the eye. Peripheral (or side) vision gradually decreases, and eventually is lost. Central vision is usually all right until later.

Leber's Congenital Amaurosis is another condition from birth that causes visual loss. Click on this link for more information: http://www.eyemdlink.com/Condition.asp?ConditionID=261.

For information on a genetic condition called Usher Syndrome, click on this link: http://www.hknc.org/WhoWeServeUsher.htm. Children with Usher Syndrome are often deaf and blind.

Sometimes an illness or condition a mother has during pregnancy can cause vision problems for the developing baby. Optic nerve hypoplasia is an example. This means the baby's optic nerve doesn't develop properly during pregnancy. For more information, click on this link: http://www.blindbabies.org/factsheet_onh.htm.

Babies born prematurely have a higher chance of vision problems. Click on this link for more information on this condition, called retinopathy of prematurity http://www.blindbabies.org/factsheet_rop.htm.

For information on other causes of visual impairment, click on these links http://www.tsbvi.edu/Education/infant/page15.htm and http://www.blindbabies.org/fact_sheet.htm.

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What does this mean about my child’s intelligence and learning?

Having vision loss or blindness does not mean that your child cannot learn. But how much and how fast they learn may be different. Your child will need support and extra time to learn.

Vision and eyesight are not the same thing. Vision is more than just seeing objects clearly, but also means moving our eyes together, focusing, depth perception and how we understand what we see. Think of having a car, but not knowing how to use it. To make the car go, you need to figure out how to use all the levers, knobs and pedals. Vision is similar. You may have two working eyes, but any problem along the way between the eyes and the brain will affect the vision. Learning how to put together and interpret the information coming in takes skill and practice.

Many children with visual impairments have other problems. If your child has other disabilities, he or she should be evaluated (tested) by a qualified psychologist who can tell you more about your child's ability to learn.

Sometimes children with vision loss and another disability have difficulties with behavior and attention. An evaluation by a psychologist can help. Click on the link below to find a psychologist for an evaluation.

Children with serious vision loss are entitled to ongoing evaluations through the Early Steps program (birth to 3 years of age) and/or in special-education programs within the public school system that will check your child's ability to learn and reason. Some parents also seek private evaluations.

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Who are some professionals my child may need to see?

Your child may need to see many different health care specialists. For example:

Pediatrician: A doctor who specializes in treating children. The word "pediatric" in front of a professional's title means he or she works with children.

Pediatric ophthalmologist: A medical doctor (M.D.) who specializes in treating children with eye disease and vision disorders, prescribing contact lenses or glasses to correct vision. Ophthalmologists are trained to do surgery.

Pediatric optometrist: A doctor who has spent four years beyond an undergraduate program studying the anatomy and function of the eyes. This doctor treats eye diseases and vision disorders and prescribes contact lenses or glasses to correct vision. But he or she does not do surgery. Optometrists are more apt to use lenses, prisms and vision therapy to enhance and improve visual function.

Social worker and counselor: A professional who provides counseling and emotional support for the child and family, and may help coordinate services, too.

Care coordinator: An individual responsible for organizing the details across agency lines and serving as your contact to help you and your family get services and assistance.

Early childhood special educator/special-education teacher: A teacher trained to work with your child, focusing attention on your child's development and working with you to learn the techniques to benefit your child.

Assistive technology specialist: A specialist who provides assistive technology solutions (tools) to help with people with disabilities to accomplish tasks of daily living, including eating, speaking, getting around, bathing, working and playing. An assistive technology specialist knows many tools to help your child. Some devices are covered under Medicaid.

The Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired has a store that sells aids, appliances and tools for everyday living. Those include talking watches, magnifiers, mobility canes, special lighting and games. Click Solutions  for more information.

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What are some websites where I can learn to help my child?

Fast Facts on Visual Impairments: http://www.moddrc.com/Information-disabilities/FastFacts/VisualImpairments.htm This website has information on causes, treatments, resources and support groups on visual impairment.

The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities: http://www.nichcy.org/pubs/factshe/fs13txt.htm This website has information on disabilities in infants, toddlers, young children and teens. For a fact sheet on visual disabilities, click above.

Teachnology: The Web Portal for Educators: http://www.teach-nology.com/teachers/special_ed/disabilities/visual_impairment/ This website links many excellent resources on visual impairments for teachers.

The National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments: http://www.spedex.com/napvi/parent_directory.html This site has information on visual impairments as well as an online parent directory where parents, grandparents, guardians and others can list personal information and get in touch with one another to share support and information.

The National Federation of the Blind, Deaf-Blind Division: http://www.nfb.org/nfb/Default.asp Some children with visual impairments also have hearing impairments. This is also called dual-sensory-impairment -- Helen Keller being the most famous example. This site has information and links to many other resources for deaf-blind children.

The Blindness Resource Center: http://www.nyise.org/deaf.htm This site also has much to offer to parents of visually impaired children or children with both visual and hearing impairments. Includes information on books, videos, schools, conditions and assistive technology.

The Heiken Fund http://www.heikenfund.org/ Provides glasses and full vision appointments (eye care) to children in the Miami-Dade school system with vision problems who qualify.

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Books and videos for children

This list is only a sampling of books and videos. Check your local library, bookstores and websites listed here for more.

Children With Visual Impairments: A Parents' Guide (The Special-Needs Collection) by M. Cay, Ph.D. Holbrook, Editor.

Helping Children Who Are Blind (Early Assistance Series for Children With Disabilities) by Sandy Niemann, Namita Jacob and Heidi Broner.

Living and Learning With Blind Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers of Visually Impaired Children
by Felicity Harrison and Mary Crow

Family Guide To Assistive Technology (online publication) http://www.pluk.org/AT1.html by Katharin A. Kelker, Roger Holt, and John Sullivan (2000). This guide helps parents learn more about how assistive technology can help a child. Parents can better meet their child's needs if they are involved in selecting assistive technology.

The Blind Children's Center has a list of inexpensive books and videos. Click this list and links for more information: http://www.blindcntr.org/pubs.htm#auw

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