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Crafting the Best IEP for Your Child Who is Blind or Visually Impaired

In this webcast, Tim Pennington provides advice to parents regarding IEPs and how to negotiate the process to obtain the best result for their child.

In this webcast, Tim Pennington provides advice to parents regarding IEPs and how to negotiate the process to obtain the best result for their child. As a parent of two girls who are visually impaired, Tim shares his knowledge and experience on this important topic.

Read full transcript »

Presented by Tim Pennington

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. Introduction
  2. Laying the Groundwork for a Successful IEP
  3. Goals and Objectives: The Heart of the IEP
  4. Making Adjustments to the IEP and Advocating for Your Child
  5. Taking a Seat at the IEP Table
  6. Cover All the Bases

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Crafting the Best IEP for Your Child Who is Blind or Visually Impaired with Tim Pennington.PENNINGTON: I have two daughters who are blind, and you’re correct. No one starts out an expert in this. In fact, you start out completely confused and befuddled. It’s very chaotic, there’s a lot of papers. I’ve written probably 30 IEPs in my lifetime with my kids, and I learn something every day. In fact, I learned something last week I didn’t know. So it’s an ever-changing, evolving process. I do rely on asking other parents their experiences, but truly, it’s getting to know the system, how it’s written.

I know it’s very frustrating for some parents, but what I tell them is, “Look, there are safeguards written for you. “It’s a very well-written document. The federal government did a very good job.” It’s as important as simply breaking it down to what’s important for your child in school and then working to negotiate the best deal you can.

NARRATOR: We see an example of a page from an IEP that has been developed for a five-year-old boy in Texas who is visually impaired. This page lists benchmarks for short-term instructional objectives, such as “will be able to trace along vertical and horizontal raised lines” and “will close buttons, snaps, belts, and zippers on his own clothing.”

PENNINGTON: The most interesting things I learned about the IEP is reading information that’s written for school districts and teachers because when it’s written to them, it’s almost telling them how to deal with parents and how to, you know, facilitate meetings and do certain things. And actually, from reading some of those articles or reference manuals is where I came to learn some of these, as I said, best tools to use. You know, I’m in Ohio, and it may be different in Kentucky or Massachusetts, and I will tell them, “Get on your state Department of Education site, download a complete IEP packet, look at every page.”

NARRATOR: We see the cover of a 90-page document prepared by the Kentucky Department of Education. The title of the document reads “Specific Learning Disabilities Eligibility Guidance Document.”

PENNINGTON: Read what the…there’s usually instructions on there, and say to yourself, “Would this benefit me to have this document as a permanent record in my IEP?” Because oftentimes, they are.


CHAPTER 2: Laying the Groundwork for a Successful IEP

PENNINGTON:I tell parents that when classes are scheduled in February or March, they should go to their principal and say, “Who’s going to be the teachers for next year?” And then politely ask those teachers, you know, “Do you have ten minutes or 15 minutes?” And when you do that, you go in and you ask the teacher, “Tell me about your classroom, tell me about the homework, how will students be working?” Those will quickly give you ideas if you could, you know, close your eyes and think, “What is my child going to be doing in this class every day?”

One of Tim's daughters wears a maroon t-shirt with the words "Quiz Team" on the front.NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see one of Tim’s daughters standing with a teacher in a high school library. She wears a maroon t-shirt with the words “Quiz Team” on the front.

PENNINGTON: Again, I just… for my daughter who’s in high school, she’s going to be in science and working with a lot of microscopes, so right there, I need to start thinking about that. What’s very good is that a lot of teachers, if you say to them, “List four or five things that you would want the students to accomplish this semester or this year,” and they’ll tell you, “Oh, I want them to be able to identify species out of plants.

I want them to be able to find points on a map.” Those are the things that you make notations for, and then when you sit down with your IEP team, you can bring those out and say, “This is what my child’s going to be asked to do. They need to develop skills to do these certain things.” Nothing should be taken for granted. How will they look at microscopes? How will they decipher the maps? How will they give the information to the teacher? And from that point, it’s a starting point and it becomes very meaningful in the IEP.

A graph of two intersecting lines along an x/y axis.NARRATOR: We see an example of a homework assignment that one of Tim’s daughters completed. It is a graph of two intersecting lines along an x/y axis. Two triangular areas within the graph have been denoted by filling those spaces using a red and green colored pencil.

PENNINGTON: It’s often good to ask teachers, with any child with a disability. Some of them remarkably look at it as a challenge, almost the highlight of their career, is that they really can face a challenge and they can overcome it in their career too. It’s very good because some of them will talk about, they’ve had children with hearing issues or even communication issues, and they have had that experience.

And then they’ll ask a lot of questions, such as, you know, “What type of verbalization should I be using in class?” And I always tell teachers, you know, “Don’t worry about it.” “If you say ‘look here’ or point to certain things, “don’t worry about it. It’ll still get through to them.” But a lot of the teachers are very open. I’ve never in our career come across teachers that didn’t want to educate a child or get better at what they were doing.


CHAPTER 3: Goals and Objectives: The Heart of the IEP

PENNINGTON: I tell parents all the time who are in IEPs, and IEPs are basically goals and objectives that are written for what the student’s going to learn that particular year. One of the things I tell parents is to use that IEP as a measuring stick for how well their school is teaching their student, and how in most meetings, the schools will tell the parents, “This is what your child did and this is how well they did it.”

But I tell them to sort of flip it around and use that as a sort of a barometer when they talk about goals and objectives — that their child met five of these goals or six of these goals — and that’s where I think a lot of parents get confused, because a school will tell them, “Your son only met three of the six goals,” and it frustrates parents and they go home and they wonder, you know, “Is he trying hard enough? Am I not doing enough?” When in reality, they should be going to the school and saying, “What more can we be doing? The reason I think it is is that it’s a measurable performance, and often, schools do not like to be measured.

Goals and objectives around prevocational skills, such as orientation and mobility.NARRATOR: Again, we see a page from the IEP prepared for the five-year-old boy in Texas. This page lists goals and objectives around prevocational skills, such as orientation and mobility. The method for evaluating the mastery of the tasks, such as “ascending or descending stairs,” or “negotiating curbs with correct O&M technique,” is listed as “teacher observation”.

PENNINGTON: You know, they like to measure students, but they don’t want to be measured, so they try to limit. In my experience, I’ve had a lot of schools who will say, “Do we really want to measure that? Do we really want to put that as a goal?” And it’s something that I, you know…I tell parents, “Make sure that the goals are very meaningful, “they’re not just throwaway goals. “First of all, never go into a meeting “where they’re already written for you, because you had no input on those.” But it is confusing because it’s very hard to measure certain things.

What I tell parents is to start from the test and quiz point and work backwards, and what I mean by that is if it’s a history test — and this is information that you will get talking to teachers — if you ask them, “What type of test do you give in history?”, and this just happened to me a couple years ago where a teacher said, “Well, a lot of my tests are maps, and we have to. I ask kids to point out points on maps.” There’s my goal and objective.

My daughter is going to have to identify points on a map nine out of ten times, five times, correctly. From that point, it really is a meaningful goal, because when she masters that goal, she’ll be able to take a test or a quiz very effectively. But a lot of parents, as I say, they really. They go in not knowing what are proper goals and objectives, and then it just really confuses them because they try to come up with something, and it usually is something that is just not that important for the school to be spending time on.


CHAPTER 4: Making Adjustments to the IEP and Advocating for Your Child

PENNINGTON: A lot of parents think that the IEP is written in May, it’s required to be written before the end of the school year for the following school year, and the parents that I’ve talked to who have struggled, who have had a lot of animosity with their school district, will simply just refer to the document a lot of times, “Well, we wrote it in May, and woe is me.” And I’ll say, “Well, you can go back and change it.”

It is a living, breathing document. You need to keep checking and talking and making adjustments, and those are things that often, they don’t do. They think that, you know, usually there’s one required meeting, and that’s where they can have all their say, and then they suffer until the next school year. But I tell them, you know, that really, they should be. Again, when the school year starts, just talking to teachers, really reviewing quarter grades.

School districts are required to give really a progress report on the IEP to parents at quarter grades and semester grades, and schools do not do that a lot. They won’t do it unless you ask them to give it to you. But what I tell parents is to read those very carefully, talk to people, and if you need to make adjustments, by all means, initiate adjustments. Don’t just sit and say, “Next May, I’m going to do it differently.” You can actually do something different next week.

An example of IEP progress report to be presented to parents.NARRATOR: We see the progress report that Tim is referring to. Among the information that is to be presented to parents is a statement of the measurable annual goal, or goals, and the progress made towards measurable objectives, or benchmarks.

PENNINGTON: One of the first things I tell parents, any parents, I’ll say, “I just want to remind you, be extremely professional.” And I refer to the great movie, “It’s not personal; it’s a business.” And these people are working with. School people may have 600 kids with an IEP, and for them, they’re trying to get through it as pleasantly as they can. However, one thing I tell parents is, you know, if you think you’re right on this, pick and choose what you want to argue to them about, build your case, make sure you know everything you know about what you’re asking for.

If it’s technology, you better know it, because somebody’s got to write a check for that. But I tell parents that, you know, you need to be professional at all times. There’s no silly name-calling or threats. Do not threaten. And I also tell them again that the IDEA law is well-written if you understand it, and therefore, you shouldn’t need to get upset.

An example of a document called a PR-01.If you go in and make your request and it’s denied, there are very simple procedures, and the one I use, I tell a lot of parents, I call it the best tool, is there’s a document called a PR-01 that they can hand the school and say. It’s six questions, which is what, when, why, and who, and they have to fill it out and give it back to you within a week to tell you who they spoke with to make this decision, what did they refer to, how did they come about this decision?

NARRATOR: We see an example of the page Tim described. The school is required to justify certain actions or inactions and describe the basis for their reasoning.

PENNINGTON: Most school districts do not want to put that down in writing. Therefore, they usually will then turn around and agree with you with what it is that you wanted.


CHAPTER 5: Taking a Seat at the IEP Table

PENNINGTON: That’s one thing that a lot of schools, especially when younger students, is they will sometimes forget that a parent is very instrumental in the team. And I went into a meeting, I believe it was my daughter’s third grade, and I remember the first phrase they said to me was, “Well, the team has decided.” And that’s when it struck me, because I said, “Stop. I am the team too.” And you know, it really is a difficult situation for a parent to say, “I want to be a part of this.” They really speak up and say, “I’ll take this under advisement, but I want to have more discussions about this.”

A lot of parents, I don’t want to say that they’re bullied onto it, but they sort of just believe that the best interest is being given to them, and, “Boy, these people are experts. They know what they’re talking about.” But again, I think as a parent, they need to be knowledgeable about what their student is doing, be knowledgeable about their curriculum, and have a very good relationship with the school, and a good relationship is, again, just being professional. And from that point, to making sure that they, if there’s any discussions, that they feel that they’re being heard in these meetings.

Both of Tim's daughters sitting at a table side by side and smiling at the camera. NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see both of Tim’s daughters sitting at a table side by side and smiling at the camera. One of the girls wears a lanyard that has the name “Xavier University” printed on it. The girls appear to be in a campus commons area.

PENNINGTON: My daughters started attending and being actively involved in their own IEP meetings I believe right around the fifth or sixth grade, but I, you know, asked them if they were comfortable. Of course, they’re kids and they don’t like to talk out front, but they both realized that they wanted to be heard, and truly, I’d say after the fifth or sixth grade and getting into. Certainly in high school, I sat back.

I mean, it was really my daughters coming in, and the people that were part of the team, we’d build some good relationships, some not so good, but they were able to speak up for themselves and ask questions and answer questions. And you know, there were times where we would simply turn and say, “Emily, what do you think about this?” and in a heartbeat, she would say, “No, I don’t think that’s the best thing to do,” or, “Yes, I really do need to do that.” And so it really turned the tables because you’re not going to get much contention in the room when you’ve got a student in there.

School personnel are very much trained not to do that. The other thing that it does is it means we’re talking about a real, live person sitting across from them, and whenever you can do that, that’s fantastic. And I’ll even add onto that is that, you know, middle school, I would always go meet with teachers.

One of Tim's daughters stands in front of a display of her science fair project.In high school, my daughters, they will usually now, at the end of the school year, start meeting with their teachers for next year. They have little meetings, they brief me on it. But basically, one of the things that it really does is it puts the teacher at ease. They’ve met the student, they know what the student can do, and it really starts everything out on a very good first step.

NARRATOR: In a photograph, one of Tim’s daughters stands in front of a display of her science fair project. The project is an exploration of whether birth order affects the participation in athletics. Data has been collected on coaches, managers, spectators, and players.

PENNINGTON: But they are very active, and I would advise any parent, when you feel that the child’s comfortable and they tell you that they’re comfortable, that they should be attending and be able to answer any questions and give as much input as they feel like they can give the group.


CHAPTER 6: Cover All the Bases

PENNINGTON: It is important to have, you know, every conceivable accommodation listed. In fact, again, one of the phrases I tell parents, “If it’s not in the IEP, it’s not gonna happen, “and I’ll guarantee you it will not happen if it’s not written down and people look at it.” So you should have, if the discussion comes up about accommodation, however minute, it needs to be noted, and also noted who’s going to deliver it. The other, adding onto that is that I asked the schools, our school, and I didn’t find this out until about a year or two ago that it was actually a requirement of the school, is to paraphrase the IEP document to give to each of the teachers of my daughters. Very single page, what accommodations are going to be taking place in the classroom, who do they contact if they have any questions, and because most IEPs will turn out to be 15, 16 pages, and there are lots of words and there are lots of things that you just try to decipher through it.

So if you can give a very simple one-page document to a teacher and list all the accommodations, and of course they’ve got to be written down, so all of the accommodations, that tremendously helps communications because often, they’re the last people to know what accommodation is to be given to that student.

NARRATOR: On a page from the Texas IEP, we see an area noting “Program Modifications and Supports for School Personnel.” It lists one item: consultation with a vision specialist and an occupational therapist.

Below that, we see an area listing “Supplemental aids, services, and supports for the child.” Listed are four assistive technologies: large print, adaptive keyboard, adaptive writing tools, and a tape recorded. Also listed are braille textbooks and patterns curriculum.

PENNINGTON: I’ve learned that parents usually can only remember a few things, sometimes up to three, of what I’ve told them in an hour, and so I usually use phrases that I’ve been taught over the years and that really have stuck with me, and they’ve stuck with me because they really resonate. And one is I tell parents to expect, don’t accept. You know, expect their child to surpass anybody else in that class.

Tim's daughters in  her graduation gown with a stole identifying her as a member of the National Honor Society.NARRATOR: In a photograph, one of Tim’s daughters is shown standing with one of her classmates. Both girls wear their graduation gown, and Tim’s daughter has a stole identifying her as a member of the National Honor Society.

PENNINGTON: The other is what I tell parents, which is… especially the ones that will start out by sort of either talking about their issues that they’re having or the problems they’re having with their schools, and I will always tell them, “You don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.” No one’s going to hand you a Cadillac IEP program and say, “We’re going to have seven people standing by to do this at all times.”

It also means, as I said, I tell parents that you need to negotiate. You need to understand what’s best for your child. You don’t need four people — and my daughter at one time had four people in a classroom with her just for her, and finally, she came home and said, “I can’t study and I can’t learn,” and we cleared them all out. But you know, you really have to take a look at what you really want to get, what you really want your child to achieve, and then from that point, put your negotiation points down, “This is what I want,” and when you go in, negotiate that, work with your school, always be professional.

And the last thing, which I have broken it many times, is, “Do not get emotional.” People will look at you and they’re very stoic and you’re sitting there getting very emotional about things, and it just doesn’t work. You have to really put that aside, go in, and know that when you leave that room, that you have put together the best educational plan for your child for the next year, and keep working on it.

Crafting the Best IEP for Your Child Who is Blind or Visually Impaired with Tim Pennington.

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