"How will he do in school?" is the question that pediatric ophthalmologist David Epley, M.D., is most often asked by parents when he diagnoses a child with vision impairment. (Question #2 is "Will he be able to drive?") "It's normal to worry about whether your kid will be able to read, learn, and have typical life experiences," explains Dr. Epley. "Most of these kids do really well, but even if they're just dealing with moderate vision loss, they all need extra support." Here's how to make sure your child gets what he needs.
Babies and toddlers with vision problems will usually qualify for your state's early intervention program, which coordinates visual stimulation therapy and other therapies for children with special needs from birth to age 3. "These therapists can help your child learn to do basic things that come naturally to other kids," says Dr. Epley. Ask your pediatrician for a referral or contact your county public health department to find out what services are available to you. Or go to EarlyInterventionSupport.com and scroll down to Finding Help.
In most states, early intervention services are completely free and therapists will come to your home to work with your infant or toddler. Your early intervention program should also be able to help connect you with a preschool or day-care center that is equipped to work with your child once she turns 3.
Your child's pediatrician, ophthalmologist, and therapists can make suggestions, but you know him best--which means you know whether he needs help navigating a new environment (which many kids with vision impairment find especially intimidating) or to be placed near the front of the classroom so he can more easily see the board. Don't be shy about passing those tips on to his teacher and don't be afraid to bring in reinforcements. "Sometimes schools need a little cajoling or arm-twisting to make the right accommodations," says Dr. Epley. "Your ophthalmologist can help with this. We find a letter from a doctor identifying a child's needs goes a long way towards getting those needs met." Remember: You aren't getting a favor or special treatment when you ask for this support--your child is legally entitled to such arrangements. In fact, federal law requires schools to provide all students with access to the educational environment and to incorporate accommodations and modifications for students who need them.
Once your child is school-age, you will need to meet with her teachers and therapists and other school staff to come up with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) so she can receive any necessary accommodations, support, and extra services throughout the day. This can include making sure all of her workbooks have enlarged print and having the school provide magnifying sheets or special instruction in how to use Braille, identify money, and walk with a cane. "Kids with vision problems often benefit from working in small groups or having some one-on-one instruction to make sure they're following everything discussed in class," says Dr. Epley.
Doctors and experts can tell you how to manage your child's vision problem, but they can't tell you what that involves day to day. For example: How do you persuade a toddler to keep her glasses on? What do you do if your kid gets teased for his eye patch? Finding support from families who have been there is key. Little Four Eyes (littlefoureyes.com) is an online community for parents of little ones with glasses, contacts, and patches; its Just Starting Out page will answer questions you might not have even thought of yet.
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