by Gabe Cazares
From the Editor: Gabe is a government affairs specialist for the National Federation of the Blind. This article is written in response to legislation supported by the American Foundation for the Blind which would make changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The National Federation of the Blind has serious reservations about claims made that its passage would strengthen the provision of Braille and other services to blind people. Here is what Gabe has to say:
The Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act, (H.R. 3535) for the 114th session of Congress, is a bill that purports to “strengthen the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),” and “improve results for the more than 100,000 children and youth with vision loss, including those who also have additional disabilities,” according to the American Foundation for the Blind.
First introduced during the 113th session, the Cogswell-Macy Act, according to its authors, will “expand the resources” currently available to blind students, parents of blind children, and educators, a claim that is difficult to imagine after a careful examination of this legislation.
As a leader in Braille education, the National Federation of the Blind is committed to supporting efforts to strengthen existing or crafting new policies that provide for instruction in Braille. Specifically, section 614(d) (3) (B) (iii) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA,) commonly referred to as the “Braille presumption” which currently reads: "in the case of a child who is blind or visually impaired, [the Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team must] provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille unless the IEP Team determines, after an evaluation of the child's reading and writing skills, needs, and appropriate reading and writing media (including an evaluation of the child's future needs for instruction in Braille or the use of Braille), that instruction in Braille or the use of Braille is not appropriate for the child."
As a result, the first item on our agenda was inspecting the proposed changes AFB and its co-authors had crafted. The results were surprising and disappointing. Rather than strengthen the already sturdy language provided by the existing Braille presumption, the proposed text would weaken it by shifting the focus of administrators and educators, who are the individuals tasked with the responsibility of implementing these policy changes, from Braille, to a host of other options. AFB’s proposed language reads as follows:
SEC. 204. CONSIDERATION OF SPECIAL FACTORS.
Section 614(d) (3)(B)(iii) (20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(3)(B)(iii)) is amended by striking the semicolon and inserting the following: “and provide instruction meeting the child’s unique learning needs, including instruction which may be needed by students without disabilities or with other disabilities but which must be specifically designed, modified, or delivered to meet the unique learning needs of students with visual disabilities. Such instruction includes assistive technology proficiency (inclusive of low vision devices); self-sufficiency and interaction (including orientation and mobility, self-determination, sensory efficiency, socialization, recreation and fitness, and independent living skills); and age-appropriate career education;”
According to the 2014 annual report of the American Printing House for the Blind, there were 60,393 blind students enrolled in elementary and high schools throughout the United States. However, of those, only 5,147 were identified as using Braille as their primary reading medium; that is only 8.5% of blind elementary and high school students across the country in 2014.
Confronted with these alarming numbers, it is difficult to understand why the American Foundation for the Blind is seeking to divert the focus of the Braille Presumption to include other alternatives. It is also difficult to understand the fact that their proposed legislation makes an extra effort to highlight low-vision devices, as well as diverting attention from Braille use and instruction with the inclusion of other areas of the ”Expanded Core Curriculum.” Instruction in the alternative skills of blindness is an integral tool in ensuring that every blind student may live the life she wants. The NFB has consistently led the field in this area through our many student-oriented programs which help blind youth develop blindness skills for independence, including the NFB BELL Academy for young students, our STEM programs for blind youth, and the independent living summer programs provided by our NFB training centers.
Ensuring that dual-media students receive all the services they need is also a priority, which is why the National Federation of the Blind has been a leader in calling for and assisting in the development of an independent, research-based reading media assessment, the National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA). The NRMA remains the only research-based, standardized assessment tool designed to identify the proper reading medium (or media) of students. The Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University states that the NRMA will, “reduce the possibility that a student's academic success is hindered by incorrect reading and writing medium.”In an open letter dated October 21, 2015, Mark Richert from the American Foundation for the Blind told our state presidents that “As someone who has been a life-long Braille reader, I can tell you on a personal note that I would never tolerate any attempt to weaken the existing Braille requirements.” However, the undeniable effects of AFB’s proposed language, as currently written, are hard to ignore. The Braille presumption will be weakened if this language were to be incorporated, and as a result, the National Federation of the Blind cannot support this legislation.