opinion Newport Rhode Island

We the members of the National Federation of the Blind of Rhode Island wish to express our concerns regarding the recently proposed changes to the services received by blind children in our state. The Rhode Island Vision Education Service Program (RIVESP) was signed into law 15 years ago, ensuring the provision of quality services for blind students. Most school districts only have a handful of blind or visually impaired students which makes it impractical to hire teachers and orientation and mobility specialists as full time employees.   The statute outlining the creation of the program stipulated that in addition to providing partial funding, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) would maintain an advisory board whose purpose was to provide feedback on the state of services and advise RIDE on the best interests of the children and families served by RIVESP.

RIDE spent almost 10 years holding up their end of the bargain—hosting regular meetings of the RIVESP advisory board, with agendas and minutes posted publicly as dictated by our state’s open government policy. Around the time the state budget’s contribution to RIVESP began to decrease, original board members were no longer being invited to these routine meetings.

Just last month, RIDE announced its plan to solicit bids for the state’s vision services via a Master Price Agreement. Despite the board’s revival in the summer of 2020, Members were not consulted by RIDE. Furthermore, board meetings were no longer posted publicly.

RIDE claims their move toward a “mixed service model” will be a better solution for blind students and their families, despite having failed to provide any opportunity for public comment.

Worst of all, the highly credentialed and experienced educators of RIVESP have been issued layoff notices. While the Sherlock Center is welcome to submit a bid, it is unclear how they can be expected to do so with no qualified staff.

We are disheartened by RIDE’s decision to abandon the program in such a furtive way, and we are appalled by their lack of care for the rights of blind students in our state to a free appropriate public education. These teachers and specialists have been serving our students successfully for years; they live, work, and contribute to our communities. These teachers and specialists are highly educated and are certified in their fields but have been dismissed in favor of outsourcing these critical services which will once again result in fragmented service delivery.

We urge legislators to include a permanent line item in the state budget that provides for high quality, centralized education services for blind students. We demand that RIDE be held accountable for its negligence in handling RIVESP since 2015, and for its blatant disregard for the interests of these students and families. We hope that the commissioner’s call for funding in the State budget is genuine and that legislators along with RIDE work with parents and the RIIVESP Advisory Board to resolve this issue swiftly as not to disrupt services.

Nothing about us without us! The teaching of blindness skills plays a pivotal role in ensuring that blind students are afforded the same opportunities as their sighted peers, both in and out of the classroom. Without this foundational instruction, our STUDENTS will not have the chance to successfully achieve their personal, professional, and educational goals.

Submitted by Grace Pires on behalf of the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind of Rhode Island.  Founded in 1940, the National Federation of the Blind is the premier civil rights organization of the nation’s blind, with affiliates in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico.

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