Vision Therapy to Address Learning Disabilities? One L.A. School Official Says ‘Scam’

by David Kolin

In what one school official called a “scam,” Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) continues to spend $100,000 on contract optometrists to treat learning-disabled children with eye exercises in the hope of improving their literacy skills, despite research that has found such interventions to be ineffective.

Vision therapy is paid for out of LAUSD’s special education division, but not through the Visually Impaired Program. LAUSD officials determine eligibility for vision therapy through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and vision therapy assessments. If a student meets both criteria, they are provided with vision therapy to remedy their learning difficulties.

Ophthalmologists question the effectiveness of the program. “There is absolutely no evidence it’s helpful at all,” said Sheryl Handler, co-author of a 2011 joint technical report on vision therapy and reading disabilities that found vision therapy to be an ineffective treatment for learning disabilities.

A handful of other published papers, including an assessment by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, claim there is no valid proof that vision therapy benefits learning-disabled students.

According to James Astle, LAUSD assistive technology assessor, the district spends about $100,000 each year to continue the program. Since the district passed a $6.2 billion budget in June, it is easy for an unsubstantiated program like vision therapy to be overlooked.

After years of processing vision therapy requests for LAUSD, Astle believes the program is a “scam,” created for monetary gains using a program that he believes doesn’t hurt, but doesn’t help either.

“It’s very difficult to prove that it doesn’t do anything,” Astle said in an interview. “There are commercial and financial motivations behind it.”

Astle said he believes optometrists pursue vision therapy because it is cheap and simple to deliver.

“Seriously, it costs them nothing,” Astle said. “There are certain benefits to it. I just don’t think they’re the benefits that parents are expecting or that the optometrists are claiming, that it will help with reading and learning disabilities.”

John Tassinari, associate professor at the Optometric Center of Los Angeles, said optometrists are not trying to treat reading disorders directly through vision therapy. They are trying to help children by removing any underlying vision problems that could be contributing to reading difficulties.

“We treat disorders of how the eyes move, track, coordinate, focus,” Tassinari said. “Then we treat higher level visual processing skills like visual memory, visualization, spacial relations.”

Optometrist Gary Etting likens the importance of vision therapy for disabled youth to driver’s education.

“Just like when you learn to drive a car and you were thinking about every aspect – keeping your hands on the wheel, not talking to anybody and looking at all the mirrors – to the point you’re at now where everything is automatic,” Etting said. “We have to make the visual abilities at the same level, so the child does not have to consciously have to think about what they’re doing with their eyes but rather has the ability to process it.”

Handler contends that vision problems are caused by the reading disabilities, not vice versa.

“Problems with reading fluency are not based on problems with ‘eye tracking,’” Handler wrote in an e-mail to The Imprint. “Children with dyslexia often lose their place while reading and skip words and lines because they struggle to decode a letter or word combination, lack comprehension, or have difficulties with memory or attention. The ‘reading tracking abnormality’ is the result, not the cause of the reading problem.”

Although studies supporting vision therapy have been published, Handler and others argue that they are not scientifically valid because sample sizes were too small or the studies were not appropriately controlled. Research on visionhelp.com, a website run by a group of optometrists, including Etting, uses as few as six patients to support their conclusions.

“With a larger controlled study, you don’t necessarily get the same results,” Handler said. “When you cut the data into tiny findings, you skew the data. That’s a false way of doing things.”

Instead, Handler believes that the reading problems stem from inadequacies in our education system.

“Teachers in teacher training are not being taught in reading and reading instruction,” Handler said. “It has not been properly incorporated in teacher colleges, so they cannot teach children right…so they look for other reasons kids have problems [learning to read].”

Handler contends that the discrepancy in reading ability occurs because some students learn how to read prior to their first years of schooling. However, other students have not had the same preparation, already creating a rift between various levels of reading.

Astle also argues that some of the evaluations done by optometrists are outside their area of expertise and should be performed by other specialists instead.

“They’re giving perceptual [tests] that really should be done by a school psychologist,” Astle said. “These optometrists check functional vision. That’s another controversy. Why would you give educational, psychological development tests? Why would they be done by optometrists?”

David Kolin is a freelance reporter

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