Braille Monitor                                                         July 2007

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A Primer on Using the Free Matter Rule

by James D. McCarthy

From the Editor: Most blind people know generally that the U.S. Postal Service includes, among its thousands of regulations, provisions for mailing the specialized materials used by blind people. It is called the “Free Matter for the Blind privilege,” and it is very useful, protecting us from paying more than the rest of the public to receive and send the bulky materials in alternative formats that we need. The rules are quite specific and must be followed exactly if we are not to abuse the privilege. In the following article Jim McCarthy, NFB government program specialist, reviews and explains the regulations. This is what he says:

James McCarthyIn March 2003 the United States Postal Service (USPS) last revised the rule governing the mailing of items using Free Matter for the Blind and Other Physically Handicapped Persons, as the rule is formally called. Failing to comply with requirements of the Free Matter rule can lead to much unnecessary time, expense, and frustration for blind people. Therefore this article will explain the requirements and describes how to avoid violating the rule.

Two primary questions are addressed by the Free Matter rule. The first is who can send or receive Free Matter mail. The second is what types of mail may and may not be sent as Free Matter. The USPS certainly has legitimate interests both in banning those unqualified to send and receive Free Matter mail from doing so and in assuring that items that do not meet Free Matter standards are not mailed free. However, we individuals and organizations rightfully eligible to use the Free Matter mail provision must ardently defend our right to do so, consistent with the rules. This is best achieved with a complete and thorough understanding of what is and is not required.

The relevant section of the Domestic Mail Manual (the document that contains rules governing conditions of mail within the United States) states that matter can be mailed without postage “if mailed by or for the use of blind or other persons who cannot read or use conventionally printed materials due to a physical handicap." Despite the phrase "mailed by or for the use of,” a person who is not qualified to use the provision cannot send mail, even to a blind person. The relevant section also states, "Letters prepared in any form by sighted individuals, to be sent to a blind or other physically handicapped person, or empty shipping materials for mailing matter described in this section, may not be sent free and must bear the full applicable postage." This prohibition is not intended to prevent nonprofit organizations of and for the blind from preparing mail even when done by sighted persons, but is instead intended to prevent a sighted person from corresponding with a blind person and failing to provide sufficient postage for the mail sent.

Most NFB members already are or easily can be qualified to send and receive Free Matter mail. Proof of certification by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) program makes a person eligible to send and receive Free Matter mail. Verification that a person is legally blind: (with visual acuity of "20/200 or less in the better eye with correcting lenses, or with the widest diameter of visual field subtending an angular distance no greater than 20 degrees”) qualifies a person to use the Free Matter provision.

There may be others with "a visual disability, with correction and regardless of optical measurement, that prevents the reading of standard printed material," who must have this verified by "competent authority," which includes physicians, social workers, or rehabilitation teachers. Finally, individuals eligible to send and receive Free Matter mail must be residents of the United States and territories or citizens of the United States living abroad.

Organizations of and for the blind may send Free Matter mailings "for the use of blind" people. Some who receive the mailing will not be blind. However, by being mailed to a facility where most people who will receive it are blind, the mailing is clearly aimed at the blind and therefore considered "for the use of blind" people. The same mailing could be sent to a blindness rehabilitation center. Sending the same mailing to a nursing home is probably defensible, but the less likely it is that the recipients are blind, the more likely the USPS will prohibit the mailing, claiming it is not "for the use of" blind people.

The rules are quite particular about which items qualify to be mailed under the Free Matter provision, and the postal service reserves the right to inspect this mail at any time. Reading matter must be in Braille, in print that is 14-point type or larger, or on tape or record to fit this provision. Readers should assume that these rules will be strictly enforced when mail is inspected. Readers should note that compact and floppy disks are not listed among covered items that may be mailed Free Matter. Also, if the material includes handwriting rather than type or if any typing is less than 14-point, including the address label, the postal service has justification to reject the mailing for violating the Free Matter rule. I know of an instance where an affiliate included a form generated by its convention hotel printed in less than 14-point type, which led to rejection of the mailing. Finally, mail that complies with Free Matter requirements can be rejected if it is sealed, thereby hindering its inspection, but I have also heard of post offices advising Free Matter mailers to seal mail. I would therefore suggest that, to the extent it is possible, you securely close mailings without sealing them. There may also be instances when a postmaster wants you to seal mail, but you should understand that the next postmaster could reasonably change the rules.

Mail that contains any advertising is strictly prohibited from being sent as Free Matter. This is the broadest single prohibition and the one most likely to be cited when affiliate mail is rejected.

Advertising is defined in the rules as,
"(1) All material of which a valuable consideration is paid, accepted, or promised, that calls attention to something to get people to buy it, sell it, seek it, or support it.
(2) Reading matter or other material of which an advertising rate is charged.
(3) Articles, items, and notices in the form of reading matter inserted by custom or understanding that textual matter is to be inserted for the advertiser or the advertiser's products in which a display advertisement appears.
(4) An organization's advertisement of its own services or issues, or any other business of the publisher, whether in display advertising or reading matter."

When rejecting an organization’s mail as advertising, USPS officials are most likely to cite items 1 and 4 as the violated provisions. Item 1 speaks of material where a "valuable consideration is paid, accepted, or promised that calls attention to something to get people to buy it, sell it, seek it, or support it." Some may worry that special media publications for the blind could be found to violate the prohibition because of notices that offer blindness-related products for sale. However, these individuals do not pay to ensure their announcements will be published.

Item 4 bans "an organization's advertisement of its own services or issues, or any other business of the publisher, whether in display advertising or reading matter." This is a rather elastic definition seemingly capable of stretching infinitely far to ensnare the mailings of organizations of the blind. However, when we sought guidance from the USPS, they stated that mailings listing costs for attendance at conventions and printed materials lists are not advertising because there is no profit motive and prices do not exceed associated costs. In addition we were informed that materials produced or modified to assist blind people could be mailed free.

This article should help chapters and affiliates avoid the hassles that result from violating the Free Matter for the Blind and Other Physically Handicapped Persons rule. Follow the guidance provided here and you should have less conflict with the postal service. Nevertheless, postal rules are interpreted locally, so you may face occasional challenges to your mailings. When that happens in spite of your best attempts to avoid it, you should call upon the NFB national office for help in resolving the issues.

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