Each state in the United States has a designated state unit for providing vocational rehabilitation and other disability-related services for state residents who are blind, visually impaired, legally blind, low vision, or deafblind. Each state has a different name for this department, but they all generally provide similar services- Virginia is the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI), Maryland services are provided through the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS), Washington state is Department of Services for the Blind, etc. Here are some of the most common services provided for people who have a case file with their state’s department for visual impairment.
Who qualifies to receive services from the state for vision loss?
Each state has their own guidelines for who qualifies to receive services from the state unit for visual impairment, and some programs within the unit have their own criteria as well. In general, state residents can refer themselves for program services or be referred by another professional such as a social worker, low vision specialist, or teacher of the visually impaired either online or by phone. Services are available for people of all ages, including infants, children, and seniors, and can be requested at any time.
The majority of state units for visual impairment require medical documentation of vision loss that is not corrected by glasses as well as a recent report from an eye doctor. People with low vision do not necessarily have to be certified as legally blind, but will need to share documentation that shows their visual acuity with corrective lenses.
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Vocational Rehabilitation services
Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services provide training for developing skills for accessing information with low vision or nonvisual assistive technology for the purpose of gaining or maintaining employment. VR services are provided by certified vocational rehabilitation professionals and may cover areas such as learning to use a screen reader and keyboard access, using a blindness cane, getting access to assistive technology devices, and attending other trainings. Some VR programs offer a residential option for developing independent living skills such as doing laundry and accessing transportation, while other VR programs involve meeting with a case manager and living at home.
Most states require VR participants to be 18 years old or older, and many college students have a VR case file for getting assistive technology and other training supports while attending a two-year or four-year institution.
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Assistive technology assessments
State units often have an assistive technology lab that has a variety of different low-tech, mid-tech, and high-tech devices that users can test out. Assistive technology assessments are conducted by an assistive technology professional and can help determine what technology options will be the best option for an individual and can help them with improving functional capability in the home, work, or school environment.
Examples of assistive technology devices that can be found in an assistive technology lab can include, but are not limited to:
- Mainstream technology with assistive technology programs/accessibility settings enabled, such as computers, tablets, and phones
- Smart glasses and wayfinding tools
- Adapted keyboards and peripheral accessories
- Tools for preparing and serving food and drink
- Labeling tools
- Magnification aids and optical devices
- Smart speakers and virtual assistants
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O&M services and instruction
Orientation and Mobility, also known as O&M, focuses on training blind and visually impaired individuals with tools and strategies for safe and effective travel. O&M instructors may be employed by the state unit for visual impairment and can provide lessons on selecting and learning to use a blindness cane, using GPS applications, accessing public transportation and paratransit services, and learning to navigate a school or workplace environment. Many college students receive O&M services as part of their vocational rehabilitation case file, and this is how I received O&M services when living on a college campus. Some state units also provide free or discounted blindness canes for people who receive O&M services.
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Financial assistance for assistive devices
People that have a case with their state unit for visual impairment and that meet financial or individual program criteria can receive financial assistance for assistive devices or items that are being used for vocational rehabilitation, either providing the device at a discount or for free. As part of my vocational rehabilitation case with Virginia’s department for visual impairment, I received an E-Bot Pro video magnifier for accessing materials in my college classes, and the device’s ownership was transferred to me after a year. Some of my other friends have received laptops, braille notetakers, and other high-tech devices through financial assistance programs associated with their state units for visual impairment as well.
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Special education services for IEPs, 504 Plans, and other disability accommodations
I officially received a case file with the state unit for visual impairment when I was in high school, and was able to have a case manager and advocate from the department attend IEP meetings and other meetings related to my disability accommodations. This was helpful when my family and I were dealing with teachers not following my disability accommodations, as the case manager was able to step in and let us know about additional resources that could be requested by my school district at no cost to them. Unfortunately, my case file went missing about a year after I was approved for services and no one followed up until the day before I graduated from high school, so I do not have a ton of experience with working with the state unit for visual impairment while attending public school, however my case was re-opened in time for me to receive disability accommodations in my college classes.
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Short-term programs and special events
Many state units host short-term programs and special events for people who receive services as well as community members, with a growing number of online events that anyone can register for. Examples of topics that I’ve attended or spoken at events for include:
- Preparing for college with vision loss
- Healthcare management, i.e managing diabetes with low vision/blindness
- Classes on mainstream technology and assistive technology
- Job training and digital upskilling events
- College immersion programs
- Learning to use mobile and web applications
- Social events for adults, children, and families
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Assistance from the state Protection and Advocacy organization
Each state has their own Protection and Advocacy organization that provides legal assistance and resources for people with disabilities facing discrimination or barriers to receiving services, including issues with education, housing, employment, and accessing state agencies. Each state has a different name for their agency, and as a Virginia resident I used the Disability Law Center of Virginia to assist with resolving a discrimination issue with their pro bono legal services. Protection and Advocacy representatives can also attend IEP meetings and assist with other types of cases free of charge.
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Other services available from state departments for visual impairment
- Scholarships and financial assistance for higher education/trade school programs
- Employment opportunities within industries for the blind programs
- Accessible libraries for receiving information in large print, Braille, audio, or other formats
- Referrals for low vision professionals and specialists