Braille Monitor                                                                                April 1986

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Education Reforms Proposed in State Legislation: A Report on A Initiative

by James Gashel

Recently I attended a meeting during a seminar held at the National Center for the Blind. The subject of education came up, and someone asked: "How can we respond when people want suggestions for improving state laws relating to the education of the handicapped?" I was asked to give an answer. So, I did. A bill now pending before the Maryland General Assembly may actually spark a new legislative effort nationwide. The bill (prepared by the National Federation of the Blind) seeks important and needed improvements in Maryland's laws for the education of all handicapped children, particularly blind children.

While I have never made an exhaustive study of other state laws on this subject, I imagine that the existing Maryland laws are pretty much what one would find anywhere in the country. There is a lot of generality and much discretion left to the educators. We have found that this discretion is not being exercised in the interests of blind children.

So, several changes are proposed. First, our bill calls for standards to be established by the state requiring that all legally blind students of school age be offered competent instruction in alternative communications skills. Braille reading and writing are the specific alternative skills identified in the bill. The requirement for state standards is designed to give each student the opportunity to learn to communicate effectively using Braille. To enact such legislation would be an historic step forward on behalf of blind children and for the cause of Braille, as well.

The second feature of the Maryland bill is designed to give parents and blind youngsters themselves a greater role in determining the specific special education services that will be provided to a child and under what conditions.

The federal law (Public Law 94-142, the "Education For All Handicapped Children Act") requires significant parent involvement in the development of the Individual Education Program (IEP) for each child. Federal guidelines go even further by suggesting that the parents of a child are "equal participants" in planning for a child along with educational personnel. But in Maryland we found that parents were being disregarded in many instances or their involvement was limited to a pro forma conference, only meeting a minimum requirement for involvement. So to address that problem, the bill proposes a strengthened role for parents and their youngsters, where appropriate.

Safeguards, too, are built in which give the parents the right to be represented at planning meetings by anyone who might be of assistance in advocating for the needs of a child during the development of a special education program. Other safeguards include certain notice requirements and provisions relating to the maintenance, review, and exclusion of any information pertaining to a child's special education program. In general these features are designed to carry out the federal mandates which provide procedural safeguards to parents and children under Public Law 94-142.

This package of education legislation proposed to be enacted in Maryland has certainly captured the attention of many in the state General Assembly. The provisions relating to Braille instruction for blind children are particularly popular, since reading and writing are fundamental skills which any educational program ought to provide. It is a shocking commentary on existing programs for the education of blind children to think that in 1986 the bilnd are forced to go to the lawmakers to require the educators to teach Braille. But that's how it is. Reprinted as part of this article is the fact sheet we have used to describe the education legislation now pending in Maryland and the need for it to be enacted. It is certainly the beginning of a good solution to remedy gross inadequacies that have existed for years in the education of blind children.

We should now begin to examine the education laws of other states and see if a similar initiative is needed. Then, where we find that it is, we should act. This is what the National Federation of the Blind is all about.

Fact Sheet Education of Blind and Handicapped Children in Maryland

BRAILLE INSTRUCTION FOR BLIND CHILDREN

Literacy, the ability to communicate effectively by reading and writing, is as important to blind children as it is to other children. Braille is to blind persons as print is to sighted persons.

It is the only method of communication that gives the blind person the same advantages which print gives the sighted reader. For example, grammar, punctuation, and spelling are only learned well if a blind child can read Braille. It is not possible for a blind person, without the knowledge of Braille, to write or read material needed for quick reference, such as phone numbers, manuals, and addresses. Verbal modes of communication (tapes, disks, talking machines, or talking computers) can no more replace Braille than radio or television can replace print.

Sadly, the problem of increasing illiteracy among the general student population has also become a problem among blind children. The teaching of Braille has been de-emphasized throughout the nation, and Maryland is no exception. A misguided reliance upon technology and a false belief in the superiority of print have led to the situation in Maryland where legally blind children with some remaining vision have been denied the opportunity to learn Braille, even when they can only read print very slowly and with great difficulty. This has especially devastating effects for the child who will lose more vision later in life when Braille will be more difficult to learn and the instruction more difficult to obtain. Even totally blind children have not escaped this damaging de-emphasis on Braille instruction, often graduating from school with inferior reading and writing speed and skill. The law needs to be changed to highlight Braille and make it clear that it is the policy of the state of Maryland that blind children have the right to an opportunity to become literate. Parents and educators must know that Braille is a viable option and that blind children have a right to instruction in its use.

By presenting Braille as an option to all blind children, including the legally blind child with some remaining vision, the state of Maryland will be fulfilling a basic responsibility for the literacy and education of these children. It is important that a tone be set which encourages blind children to maximize their potential and recognize Braille as the effective and desirable reading method that it is.

ADMISSION, REVIEW, AND DISMISSAL COMMITTEE MEETINGS:
PARENT ATTENDANCE AND RIGHTS; AND INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION PROGRAMS (IEP'S)

Public Law 94-142 is landmark legislation which guarantees the right of handicapped cihldren to a free and appropriate education. To implement federal law, the state of Maryland passed the Special Programs for Exceptional Children Act. But the provisions of this law are deficient in many areas.

The proposed legislation seeks to improve upon our state's implementation of Federal Requirements. Maryland law on the education of the handicapped is very deficient in addressing the Individual Education Program and and specifically the parents' role in this process.

The federal law intends for parents to be equal participants in this process of planning an educational program for their handicapped children. However, because this intent is not clear in Maryland law, procedures have developed which place parents in the lesser roles of observer or advisor.

Parents frequently attend Individualized Education Program meetings unaware of who will be present and participating and ignorant of their right to bring someone with them. All of these are rights which they have under federal law but have not been made available to them in Maryland. These and other provisions in this proposal are important aspects of the parents' right to act as equal participants in their children's educational planning.

Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland urge your support for this proposal. Children are the most important resource of our state. Therefore, the state must make every effort to make sure that every child in Maryland receives quality education. Parent involvement is crucial. As parents' rights to act as advocates increase, quality of education available to blind children will also increase.

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