Fact Sheet: Braille
Literacy and the Individuals with Disabilities
BACKGROUND: The National Literacy Act of 1991 defines "literacy" as "an individual's ability to read, write, and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society to achieve one's goals and develop one's knowledge and potential." This definition points up the critical importance of emphasizing high-quality literacy training programs for all Americans. For blind Americans, especially school-age youth, the need is no less critical. Yet surprisingly few students who are blind or visually impaired receive instruction in Braille as a part of their elementary and secondary education programs.
Blind students are generally defined as those who see less than 10 percent of what is seen by someone with normal eyesight. During the 1995-1996 school year there were approximately 53,654 such individuals enrolled at the elementary and secondary levels in the U. S. Only 4,657 of these students read Braille. The vast majority use print materials, even in situations in which reading with sight is an unrewarding, never-ending daily struggle. Educators often resist teaching Braille until students are unable to see printed matter with the most intense magnification. As a result, Braille has become not the method of choice but the method of last resort.
EXISTING LAW: The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) contains federal standards for special education and related services to be provided to children with disabilities throughout the U.S. The most important standard is that each such child is entitled to a "free, appropriate public education." Education agencies, both state and local, receive federal funding to assist in meeting this mandate. When special education services are provided to a child, there must be an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to describe the needs of the child for special instruction, the services to be provided, and the goals to be achieved.
The components of an "appropriate education" are not strictly defined in IDEA. As a result it is easy and tempting for school personnel to determine a child's needs largely on the basis of the school's capacity (or lack of capacity) to provide special instruction or services. This being the case, blind students who may have even a limited ability to read print are guided toward receiving instruction in that form instead of using Braille. Procedural safeguards, including the right to challenge decisions through administrative and court appeals, exist under IDEA, but such proceedings are time-consuming and costly in financial and educational resources.
PROPOSED LEGISLATION: Congress should amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to include provisions for strengthening programs of Braille literacy instruction. A proposal to achieve this objective has been included in H.R. 5, the "I.D.E.A. Improvement Act of 1997." The provision on Braille literacy, which was also passed by the House of Representatives during the last session of Congress, is a straightforward requirement to have Braille instruction and services included in the IEP of any child who is blind unless all of the IEP team members agree that Braille is not necessary for the child.
The proposal for federal legislation on Braille literacy is necessary to support laws with a similar purpose which twenty-eight states have now enacted. These laws require individualized assessment of a blind student's need for Braille. The federal legislation has been designed to promote Braille services for blind students in order to have a consistent state/federal policy in this area.
NEED FOR LEGISLATION: It is the policy of our nation, as stated in the National Education Goals, that by the year 2000 "Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship." In order for blind adults to achieve this goal, literacy instruction must be strengthened for children. The direction of current trends and educational programming shows that this goal will not be achieved without deliberate corrective action. According to official child count figures supplied annually by state and local education agencies, 34 percent of the blind students at the elementary and secondary levels are "non-readers," and the percentage of non-readers increases every year. The number who read Braille is correspondingly declining.
The experience gathered in many states over several years shows that a legislative response is needed to reverse this trend of growing illiteracy among blind school-age youth. By enacting a strong Braille literacy provision when programs under IDEA are reauthorized this year, Congress can provide the leadership to ensure that blind students graduate from our nation's schools literate and armed with the necessary skills to be first-class citizens of our society.