Future Reflections                                                                                      Summer/Fall, 2002

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Lack of Brailled Textbooks Leaves Blind Students In Bind

by Sandy Coleman

Reprinted from the May 13, 2002, Boston Globe.

Editor’s note: Sometimes reporters get stories dead-on, sometimes they get it mostly right, sometimes it’s a toss-up, and other times they miss the boat. In this article, Ms. Coleman gets part of the story—the description of the problem—dead-on. However, she misses the boat entirely in her last paragraph when she states, in reference to the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act (IMAA), that “Still, advocates hope the legislation will provide some relief.”

It’s not “some relief” that the IMAA will provide—as any of the IMAA backers will tell you—it’s the infra-structure of a long-term, cost-effective solution. However, if you read this story in tandem with the preceding article, “Textbooks on Time: Update on the IMAA,” I think a complete, accurate picture begins to emerge. So, here is the Boston Globe’s report about the problem of timely textbooks for blind students:

Close your eyes and envision a complex math problem. Now, solve it, imagining the formulas and graphs—without a book. That’s what Newton North High student Tasha Chemel, who is blind, had to do for three months in her junior math class because the Braille version of her textbook didn’t arrive until after the school year began. The 16-year-old, who has been blind since birth, has to have all her textbooks converted to Braille. Most years, she doesn’t get them on time.

“One year, someone forgot to order the ones I needed ... Last year, my history book took forever to come. In the interim I had to listen to it on tape, which doesn’t work very well,” said Chemel.  “It’s been a pain.”

Advocates for the blind say such delays deny blind or visually impaired students equal access to education. They are pushing for legislation recently introduced in Congress that would require states to make sure that such students get their books on time. Publishers would have to produce electronic copies of textbooks and furnish them to a national access center for distribution to schools nationwide.

Eileen Curran, director of educational services for the National Braille Press in Boston, compares the measure to laws that require schools to build handicapped ramps. “The only thing preventing a child in a wheelchair from getting a full education is being able to enter a school ... The only piece that is lacking in [visually impaired students’] education is the access to their materials.”

Converting printed textbooks into Braille is so elaborate that it takes about three months. It means textbooks have to be ordered far in advance of the school year, but officials often have to wait until budgets are approved in the summer to order books. And sometimes teachers haven’t made their selections or change their minds at the last minute.

In Massachusetts, regular textbooks are converted at the National Braille Press. A transcriber must first turn the printed material into an electronic format, usually by scanning the pages. However, scanners often make errors, said Curran. Advocates and publishers estimate that there are 90,000 blind or visually impaired students in the country. In Massachusetts, there are about 2,000, 200 of whom are Braille readers. The numbers may be small, but the problem is not, said Peter Leofanti, assistant principal and Chemel’s math teacher at Newton North. “The big deal is the state tells us that [blind and visually impaired students] have to be educated in a mainstream situation,” he said. “I agree with that. But they require a lot of support, and anything that makes this easier and facilitates it should be considered.”

Sometimes, when Brailled books don’t arrive on time, teachers such as Anne Spitz do the Braille themselves on home machines. That’s what she did last year when parts of a reading series didn’t arrive in time for her third-grade students. “Parents of sighted children would be appalled if their children were sitting in class without materials,” said Spitz, who teaches visually impaired students at Bridgewater Elementary School. “At a time when high standards and literacy are being pushed, no student can afford to fall behind,” she said.

Currently, only 26 states require publishers to provide electronic copies of textbooks for visually impaired and blind students. Massachusetts is not one of them. The big problem for publishers has been that electronic file format requirements vary from state to state, making it time-consuming to produce books in the appropriate format, said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the school division of the American Association of Publishers.

“The system has not worked well for the blind kids. It takes sometimes six months or longer into the school year to get their books,” he said. “The new legislation would require publishers to create only one type of file, saving time and money,” he added.

The Instructional Materials Accessibility Act is currently awaiting committee hearings in Congress. It was introduced last month by the National Federation of the Blind, along with Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and Representative Thomas Petri, a Wisconsin Republican. The American Association of Publishers worked two years with advocacy groups and educators to draft legislation that all sides could support.

However, it will take up to three years to set up an electronic access center, and cost $1 million to run annually. Another $5 million will be needed initially to train staff and provide technical assistance to schools. Moreover, only books published after the legislation is enacted would be available electronically. Still, advocates hope the legislation will provide some relief.

At one point this year, when Chemel’s book hadn’t arrived, Leofanti improvised, squeezing goo out of a tube to create graphs that Chemel could feel and study. “We had to do a lot of things orally, and I had to repeat and repeat,” he said. “She’s been a very resilient and resourceful kid. She took it philosophically. She said, ‘we’ll do the best we can with what we have’.”

But Chemel is angry, particularly as she heads toward college where the workload will be increased and she may be facing similar book problems. “I should have books as accessible as anyone else,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to waste my time chasing down materials. I want to focus on academics.”

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