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4/1/2021 OP-ED: Our blind and visually-impaired students deserve funding and continuation of services
One of the biggest changes to our lives brought on by COVID-19 has been the necessity of using virtual services.  Zoom is a word everyone now knows and similar services have been integral to our schooling, work and social interactions.  Practically every Rhode Islander has relied upon staring at a screen in order to stay connected and functional over the past year.

Now imagine going through these challenging times without being able to see the screen.
Our blind and visually-impaired students have had to deal with this over the past year.  To many of their parents and caretakers, this is only possible through the direct help of the students’ Teachers for the Visually Impaired and Orientation and Mobility Specialists.  But these students and parents are extremely worried now as the services for these dedicated and life-building workers from the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College are being put out to bid.

The Sherlock Center provides services to the majority of Rhode Island’s blind and visually-impaired students. More often than not, students, teachers and specialists have been together since the child has entered the school system.  The trust, understanding and personal knowledge that these teachers have is invaluable to the maturation and growth of these students.  But due to state purchasing requirements being enforced by the RI Department of Education (RIDE), the Sherlock Center is no longer approved to provide these services and many of their teachers have received lay-off notices.

RIDE has told concerned parents that no services would be cut off, yet the parents are telling us a far different story. These students and parents have all suffered so much confusion and uncertainty during the pandemic already and they do not deserve any more anxiety regarding their child’s education. Communication between the two parties has been extremely lacking, with most parents becoming aware of the change after reading media reports. To make matters worse, the board of Rhode Island Vision Education and Services Program, which is supposed to ensure the needs of our blind and visually-impaired students are met, has failed to provide an annual report to the General Assembly, which is mandated by law. 

In order to rectify this situation, our blind and visually-impaired students deserve a permanent line item in the state budget.  The state previously funded these services, but over the years, the state’s share has been phased out and the costs have been shifted to local education agencies.  A permanent funding stream would not only provide the necessary funding to keep these services operational, but it would also prevent situations like this by removing onerous state bidding requirements for the Sherlock Center to continue operation.

Stopping these services, removing the known and trusted teachers and specialists, and replacing them with unknown private contractors will cause irreparable harm to our blind and visually-impaired students. This model has worked for countless individuals over decades and its disruption is causing undue stress for these students and families. Frankly, they deserve better and we will both be advocating for a dedicated and permanent state funding stream for our blind and visually-impaired students during the budget process.

Rep. Julie A. Casimiro, a Democrat, represents District 31 in North Kingstown and Exeter.  Rep. Thomas E. Noret, a Democrat, represents District 25 in Coventry and West Warwick.​

For more information, contact:
Andrew Caruolo, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903