All parents want their child to be successful in school. As a family with a blind or visually impaired child, your child has extra challenges and you have extra responsibilities. One of the best ways to help your child is to understand how the system for special education works both nationally and at your local school level.

Here is some information to help you understand the big picture to help your child achieve educational success:

Three important federal laws protect students with disabilities:

  • IDEA (special education)
  • 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

An additional source of information to link these together is the Federal Quota System that provides federal funding for students with disabilities. For blind and visually impaired students, the federal quota system is administered by the American Printing House for the Blind .


Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) each child who is identified with a disability is required to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) developed jointly by professionals in the school district in collaboration with the parents or guardians of the child who has the disability. An accurate diagnosis of the vision issue (plus any additional issues affecting the ability to learn like his or her peers) is the starting point for the IEP.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the precursor of ADA) protects the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities, including schools, that receive federal funds.

Section 504 provides that: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . .” In general, this means that students with disabilities are to be provided what is referred to as a FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education). Federal funding for Section 504 in terms of blind and visually impaired students is administered by contract with the American Printing House for the Blind. In addition, states add additional special education funding to supplement the federal funding. Between the two, most school districts receive funding to offer special education classes as well as needed accommodations to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

The Blind Children’s Fund recommends that you read the additional resources listed below to more fully understand your child’s rights to an education and resources to help him or her succeed to the extent possible.

The reality is that schools must balance their budgets while not short-cutting students with special needs. Parents and guardians who are well informed about their child’s right to an education and the school’s responsibility to provide it can work collaboratively to achieve the best potential for success of the student.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the same accommodations (though it has no specific regulations for this population), so when a school district complies with 504 regarding services for a covered student (of any age) a parent or guardian can generally feel confident that the school system is also complying with the ADA.

The Americans with Disabilities Act: ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities that are like those provided to individuals on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in employment, public accommodations (including most private schools, child care centers, etc), transportation, State and local government services (including public schools), and telecommunications.

“Student Placement in Elementary and Secondary Schools and Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act”

The memo by Mass. Education Commissioner David Driscoll dated 11/2/98 discusses some of the issues involving eligibility and services under IDEA and Section 504.

A final note: Both Sec. 504 and the ADA are major civil rights laws that protect not only eligible students, but also – unlike IDEA — they extend basic access and participation rights to all other persons with disabilities who are involved in the world of public education. These include: parents, teachers and all other staff, volunteers, school committee members and other local officials, members of the public, etc.

  • Understanding the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for your child
  • Understanding the federal Quota system under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, Part C)
  • Non-Discrimination under Section 504


  • “Free Appropriate Public Education for Students with Disabilities: Requirements Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973“.
  • Another useful Office for Civil Rights publication is “Protecting Students With Disabilities: Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities.” The Office for Civil Rights offers many other publications in several languages, which are generally easy to read and understand.
  • Section 504 and IDEA: Basic Similarities and Differences by S. James Rosenfeld, Esq. President EDLAW, Inc.
  • The specific federal regulations for Sec. 504 that apply to pre-school, elementary and secondary schools are found in Title 34 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR),Part 104.